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Forgiveness demands real change on the part of two people

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Yesterday it was reported that Rupert Murdoch had offered to donate a million pounds to charity on behalf of the murdered teenager Milly Dowler. And this coming Saturday night we begin the special prayers we say before Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. One word connects these two events. The word “sorry.” That’s the word Rupert Murdoch used when he met Milly Dowler’s family. And we call our prayers selichot, meaningsaying sorry to God, as we prepare to say sorry to those we’ve offended.

But there are two different ways of saying sorry. Last year an American classics professor, David Konstan, published a fascinating book called Before Forgiveness. In it he argued that though reconciliation is as old as humanity, repentance and forgiveness are not.

In the classical world of ancient Greece and Rome, if you wanted to placate someone you had harmed, you had to argue it wasn’t really your fault. Please sir, it wasn’t me. And if it was me, I didn’t really mean it. And if I did mean it, I couldn’t really help it. That, plus some rituals of self abasement, might just appease the other person’s anger. That’s saying sorry as a gesture of regret.

Judaism and Christianity, says Konstan, brought something new into the world: the idea of repentance and forgiveness. Forgiveness is not about denying responsibility, it’s about accepting it. Yes, I did it. Yes, it was my fault. And I now see that I was wrong. That’s saying sorry not as a gesture of regret but of remorse. Remorse cuts deeper than regret. And it seeks not just appeasement but forgiveness.

Forgiveness demands real change on the part of two people. The perpetrator needs the courage to acknowledge his or her wrong. And the victim needs the courage to let go of animosity and revenge. It’s the supreme test of human freedom, and it’s one of the greatest gifts Judaism and Christianity brought to the moral imagination of humankind.

Think of what could happen in some of the most intractable conflicts of the world if both sides could acknowledge the pain they’ve caused one another; if they could accept responsibility instead of saying, it was your fault; if they could truly face and forgive one another. Improbable, yes. But impossible? No.

To say sorry to those we’ve harmed and to forgive those who’ve harmed us is the most difficult moral challenge in the world. But they alone have the power to heal the wounds of the past and build a better future together.