Making Room for Community (2)

This is the second in a series of consecutive posts under the same general title.

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Forgiving, Forgetting, and Amnesty


One way never to forget is always to repeat. What is compulsively repeated again and again, over and over one way or another come what may, is never forgotten. It eternally recurs.

As Jean-Louis Chrétien notes in The Unforgettable and the Unhoped For (Fordham University Press, 2002), it is only what can never be remembered that is truly unforgettable. What is truly never to be forgotten is never to be remembered either. Whatever can be remembered can also be forgotten. Moreover, sooner or later what can be forgotten will be forgotten. If something can be actively remembered, then it is something the keeping in mind of which requires effort. Any effort eventually must tire and flag, including the effort that is required actively to hold something in memory. When that effort does eventually falter, what one until then had been successfully struggling to remember is, despite all one’s efforts, forgotten.

Given such an understanding of what constitutes the genuinely unforgettable, the call of “never forget” applied to some traumatic event such as the Holocaust is always redundant. Trauma cannot be held in memory, not because it is so easy to forget, but because it can never be put there, in memory, in the first place, such that it ever could be forgotten. It will not let itself be forgotten. Instead, the harder we try to forget it, the more compulsively it just keeps on repeating itself over and over and over again in one form or another, as Freud saw and called to our explicit attention a century ago, and as many (including myself) have repeated over and over again after him since then.


There is another way never to forget, however—a way besides compulsively repeating. As paradoxical as it may sound to say so, that other way never to forget is ever to forgive, which at the political-juridical level means to grant amnesty.

To grant amnesty is to let bygones be bygones, as an old cliché has it. To reply with another cliché: That is easy to say, but not so easy to do. It takes resolution—in more than one sense. First, the granting of amnesty takes “resolution” in the sense that it requires being formally announced and committed to.

The resolution of amnesty in that first sense itself requires formally acknowledging the offense for which amnesty is being granted: an amnesty granted for nothing in particular is no amnesty granted for anything at all. One does not let bygones be bygones by pretending nothing ever happened. In fact, pretending that nothing ever really happened is a formula for nursing resentment, rather than granting forgiveness: I may present a friendly face to your face, but really just be waiting for an opportunity to put the proverbial knife in your back when your face is turned. Truly to let a conflict that occurred yesterday go by today requires not only that the conflict be acknowledged, but also that it be honored. That is, truly to grant amnesty or forgiveness requires that the fact of discord not be denied, but recorded and marked, “memorialized.”


At one point in Stasis: Civil War as a Political Paradigm, a short book published just this year both in its Italian original and in an English translation by Nicholas Heron (Stanford University Press, 2015), but which contains revised versions of two lectures first given in 2001, Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben discusses a definitive historical case of the granting of amnesty. Relying on the work of French scholar Nicole Loraux, Agamben writes of how, in Greece in 403 BCE, “following the civil war in Athens which concluded with the defeat of the oligarchy of the Thirty, the victorious democrats, led by Archinus, solemnly pledged ‘not in any instance to remember the past events’ (Ath. Const. 39.6), that is, not to prosecute crimes committed during the civil war.” This, Agamben goes on to say, is “the invention of amnesty.”

According to Agamben, the relevant portion of the Athenian “amnestic oath is usually translated with ‘do not remember’ or even ‘do not be resentful, do not have bad memories (Loraux translates it as je ne rappellerai pas les malheures, I will not recall the misfortunes).” Agamben says that the Greek adjective at issue “thus means ‘rancorous, resentful’ and refers to someone who harbours bad memories.” However, he immediately adds that “it is doubtful” that the Greek verb from which the adjective at issue comes should be taken simply to mean not to cling to one’s unpleasant or painful memories of being harmed. He suggests instead that it “means less ‘to have bad memories’ than ‘to do harm with memory, to make bad use of memories,” then adds: “The Athenian amnestia is not simply a forgetting of a repression of the past; it is an exhortation not to make bad use of memory.”

The issue of amnesty, so framed, is not whether those who grant amnesty retain painful memories of past harms, as though by granting amnesty they have somehow wiped such memories, and the pain that goes with them, away. Rather, it is an issue of the use to be made of those memories: Those granting amnesty are vowing not to use their memories of past harms against the amnestied, that is, against those who perpetrated the harm.

What I take Agamben to be saying is that a vow not to use memories of some harm someone has done me against the individual who did that harm is indeed a vow not to “harbor” (to use the American rather than the British spelling) whatever “bad” memories I may have of what that individual did. It is precisely the vow, to put the same point just a bit differently by using another of Agamben’s own terms, not to nurture any resentment toward that offender, but instead truly to “let bygones be bygones.”   The bad memories involved here, however, are not “bad” in the sense of being unpleasant or painful to the one who has those memories, as memories of a toothache might well be said to be “bad memories.” Rather, they are bad in intention: They intend, at least at the level of wishes, harm to the one who did harm to the one who has the memories.

Whereas resentment is the harboring of such wishes or intentions to harm back those who have done harm, the granting of amnesty or forgiveness is the decision, which when resolved has the status of a vow or promise, not to harbor any such harmful wishes or intentions, but instead to let them go. “To let bygones be bygones” is just that “letting go” of the past, not some erasure of painful memories.

Indeed, in order for the vow or promise of amnesty to be honored, so must the pain of that for involvement in which the amnesty is granted. Thus, in the case of the ancient Athenian granting of amnesty in 403 BCE, Agamben first writes that the Greek amnesty entailed neither “simply” forgetting nor repressing the civil war that had just occurred, as which could be taken to mean that it did involve such forgetting or repressing, just not only that, but also more as well. But against such misunderstanding, Agamben as it were explains himself by adding immediately that, in fact, civil war cannot be forgotten or repressed, and is instead unforgettable. He writes that stasis or civil war “is not something that can ever be forgotten or repressed,” but is, rather, “the unforgettable that must always remain possible in the city, yet which nonetheless must not be remembered through trials and resentments,” that is, through deeds or intentions to use the memories of the harm to punish the perpetrators. The painful memories which are an aftershock of the wound for the inflicting of which amnesty is granted serve, in fact, as reminders of the ever present possibility of further wounding, a possibility which must be acknowledged and to which the city must remain open, if it truly to return to itself as a reunited city.

Such an understanding of civil war as a trauma from which the city can never free itself, but which must always be kept open as a possibility in any genuine community reconciliation, is very different from how civil war—and trauma as such, for that matter—is typically understood today. What civil war was for the ancient Athenians, writes Agamben, continuing the same passage cited above, was “[j]ust the opposite [. . .] of what civil war seems to be for the moderns: namely, something that one must seek to render impossible at every cost, yet that must always be remembered through trials and legal persecutions” (thereby perpetuating the very divisions and conflicts that broke out in civil war in the fist place: politics as the continued pursuit of civil war by other means—a point to which I will eventually return below).

The politics of resentment never forgets precisely because it keeps on compulsively repeating the very thing it is “seek[ing] to render impossible,” that is, seeking to guarantee will “never happen again,” as it is often put. It seeks to close the wound and keep it closed forever. In contrast, the politics of amnesty never forgets because knowing that the possibility of “it” happening again always remains, and that the wound must always, in that sense, be kept open.


Making a vow is one thing, keeping that vow is another. That is the another way in which the granting of amnesty takes resolution. In the sense already explored, the vow must be “resolved” in the sense that it must actually be announced or proclaimed. That is, in one fashion or another it must be performatively uttered. That can take place publicly, as it does when marriage vows are exchanges in a wedding ceremony, for example. Or it can take the private form in which one makes some vow “to oneself,” as a smoker fed up with his habit might vow to himself never to smoke again, without telling anyone else he has done so, or an aspiring musician might silently vow to herself to practice for six hours daily. As those two examples clearly suggest, however, keeping such a resolution takes far greater resolution than just making it. Common experience with “New Year’s resolutions” abundantly confirms that. In truth, the proof of a decision is in the honoring.

Just so must forgiveness, once decided upon and offered, then be maintained. It takes ongoing effort not to lapse back into resentment. In a well-known passage of the Christian Gospel of Matthew (Matt. 18:21-22), Peter comes to Jesus and asks how often he should forgive another member of the church who sins against him, wondering aloud if he should do so “as many as seven times.” Jesus replies that rather he should forgive, at least in one common rendition, “seventy times seven times.”

Surely, the point of that saying is not that one should count the number of times the other person gives offense, and only strike back if that number eventually exceeds 490. Nor does one have to take Jesus’ response to mean solely that one should not put a limit to the number of times one is willing to forgive multiple offenses committed by the same person. That can reasonably be taken to be part of what Jesus means, to be sure. However, there is at least one other possible interpretation, which includes that first one but is more expansive, keeping more open. Jesus’s response can also be taken as pointing to the need to keep one’s forgiveness, once extended, going—to maintain one’s offer once made, keeping it open moment by moment. By either reading, at any rate, forgiveness is not a matter to be counted.

Truly forgiving someone for some offense, even for a single harmful act never repeated, is not just a momentary act. It is a decision that, once made, must then be carried out and kept operative. A vow or promise is not just over and done with once made, requiring nothing further from the one making it after that. Once made, the vow or promise must then be kept. If it is not, the one who once made the vow or promise has committed an offense that itself calls for forgiveness.


At least on the basis of the definitive ancient Athenian amnesty Agamben discusses, the reason for the granting of amnesty was nothing such as trying to be good winners or to look magnanimous in the eyes of the vanquished. Nor was it a matter of trying to follow any such moral precepts as doing to others as you would have them to do unto you. Not that there is anything wrong with such notions of right—or, for that matter, with wanting to appear magnanimous or to be a good winner. It is just that none of that is what is really at stake in the Athenian amnesty. Rather, as Agamben himself emphasizes, it is the very life of the polis itself. At issue was the very establishment—or reestablishment, to be precise, since it had been riven in two by the civil war—of the polis or “city” itself. The issue was to renew and preserve the very “civilization” of the civis, we might say, to use the Latin from which our English word city comes.

Thus, the victorious party to the civil war in Athens in 403 BCE granted amnesty to their defeated opponents in order to preserve Athens itself as a true city, civis, or polis: a true “civic community.” Failure to grant such amnesty would in effect have perpetuated the civil war in another form, as I have already remarked above. Not to grant amnesty would have threatened the very continuation of Athens as such a city. Their overriding motivation was to preserve the city as such.

In the very same way, by their own testimony the victims of the recent shootings at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina, who extended forgiveness to the shooter without even being asked, did so in order to preserve “Mother Emanuel” as the very church, the very “faith community,” that it was. That was central to their motivation.

Thus, in both cases, that of the ancient city of Athens and that of the contemporary church in Charleston, the motivation of those granting forgiveness was grounded at the level of the community as such. In each case, it was a matter of preserving the community itself, as the very community it was. Forgiveness was not granted just for the sake of those being forgiven. Nor was it granted just for the sake of those extending forgiveness. It was done for everybody’s sake.


By chance, on the very day (October 19, 2015) I put up my immediately preceding post, the first in this series on “Making Room for Community,” a follow-up article about the Charleston shootings, which had occurred four months earlier, appeared on the front page of the New York Times. The article bore the headline of “Open Doors and Lingering Pain At Church Where 9 Were Killed,” and appeared under the byline of Robert Fausset. It opened this way:

CHARLESTON, S.C.—The Rev. Dr. Norvel Goff Sr. was standing on a Wednesday evening in the room where the massacre occurred an Emanuel A.M.E. Church, readying himself to lead Bible study.

A police officer was at the door. But for those who arrived, even the strangers, there were no pat-downs, no metal detectors. They were all as welcome as Dylann Roof had been when he arrived on a Wednesday night in June, concealing his pistol and his intentions.

If the visitors had come looking for a grand statement on racial reconciliation, the open door was it. . . .

Indeed it was. It was also a grand statement on how Emanuel A.M.E. Church had managed to remain a true church, despite the shootings. Mother Emanuel Church did not react to those shootings by closing up, battening down, and doing whatever else she could to secure herself against any such a horrible thing ever happening again. She resisted the temptation to try to protect herself by shutting out the strangers who came to her doors, a temptation the yielding to which would have been at the price of ceasing truly to be a church, that is, a community of faith, in the fullest sense. Yielding to that temptation would have turned Mother Emanuel instead into a community of distrust, fear, and suspicion, not faith. By closing her doors, Mother Emanuel Church would have closed her doors not only on strangers, but also on herself.

By keeping them open, she kept the faith.

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This series of posts will be continued.

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