Forgiveness, Guilt and Remorse
10 July 2007
A couple of days ago I led a session on forgiveness for a group of about 20 young adults in IofC's Life Matters course. About an hour of interactive input was followed by another hour in smaller groups to consider the questions: 'Are there people I need to apologise to – either individually or collectively? And: 'Are there people or peoples whom I need to forgive?'
This collective aspect is often forgotten in our highly individualistic age, but it is a hot topic here in Australia where the Howard Government has consistently refused to apologise for the past treatment of Aboriginals – in particular the policy of removing indigenous children from their families and raising them in institutions where they became the 'stolen generations'. Now the issue has arisen again over a report of widespread sexual abuse of children in Aboriginal communities in Northern Territory. Again the Government's heavy-handed response to this terrible situation shows no glimmer of recognition that White Australians have in no small way helped create this problem through policies which destroyed traditional cultures, tore families apart and where many of the Stolen Generation were abused by their guardians.
This was not the only thing we talked about. One thing which people found helpful was the difference between guilt and remorse. Guilt is a feeling – and often conditioned by the way we imagine other people are judging us. As children, our parents and teacher make us feel guilty. Later we still feel guilty because we have internalised those parental voices. Ultimately, guilt is about 'me' – and the way that I feel bad about what I have done. Remorse, on the other hand, is about recognising the pain of the person we have hurt. Its roots lie in our sense that every person is sacred and worthy of our respect.
It strikes me as I write, that the whole issue of collective responsibility for the past gets into trouble when it is framed in terms of guilt. Much more productive would be to think in terms of remorse. Looking at the suffering of Aboriginal people today it is not hard to feel compassion and have a strong sense of regret about past (and some present) actions and policies.