In his essay “The Use and Abuse of History,” Friedrich Nietzsche claims that the “contented cow” is called such because it does not remember the past and it lives each moment without regrets. When you ask the cow why it is happy, the cow cannot answer because it immediately forgets the question. Nietzsche concludes that the power to forget, not the power to remember, is the necessary condition for happiness.
Oblivion seems bliss, indeed. Imagine if we remembered all the failures and humiliations that we experienced, the sins we have committed, and the atrocities done to us. Imagine re-living again and again the pain of loss, separation, betrayal, and frustrations. Our world would collapse beneath the weight of remembered guilt, shame, and regret.
So, was Nietzsche right? I don’t think so. After all, we are not cows. As human beings, we are endowed with memory, the capacity to remember. Forgetting has its merits, as long as we do not promote it to a necessary virtue.
We Filipinos are often described as a forgiving people. The fact that those who were once considered the nation’s enemies are singing “Happy days are here again” is often seen as proof that Filipinos easily forgive.
But let us look again. Have we forgiven those corrupt politicians and their cronies who enriched themselves by plundering the nation’s coffers? Have we forgiven the government leaders who have created a reversal of values that has muddled our appreciation of right and wrong? I believe we have not. We simply forgot what they have done. Forgetting, by some perverse cultural twist, appears to be the Filipino’s substitute for forgiving. We forgive by forgetting.
Understanding is the prelude to forgiveness. How can we understand the meaning, impact, and consequences of an evil deed if we refuse to remember it? If the act of forgiveness is to benefit both the aggressor and the aggrieved, it must allow both to learn from the offense. How can we as a people profit from our past mistakes if we live as though such mistakes have never existed?The last thing we need to confront the pain of the past is collective amnesia.
Besides, it is foolish to think that if we just move on and forget the pain our enemies had inflicted on us, they will realize the horrible effects of their actions, and repent.Most likely, they will also forget what they have done, and continue treating us like a doormat.
How then should we understand the message of Jesus in our Gospel reading today? Jesus says: “To you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:27-28). Does this command imply that we just forgive and forget what our enemies have done to hurt us?
I take this difficult command of Jesus the way St. Paul understands it. He writes:”Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ So,if your enemy is hungry, feed him, if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. For, in so doing,you shall heap coals of fire on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:19-21).
“Burning coals on one’s head” is a symbolic way of describing the wrath of God. By forgiving our enemies, we put them in a difficult position of deciding whether they would repent for what they have done and reform their lives, or continue with their wrongdoing.If they choose the latter, the forgiveness we bestowed on them becomes, not a liberating or healing force, but God’s terrible vengeance ready to fall on their head. The more they reject the call to repentance, the greater the punishment they deserve. And this will come sooner than they expect.