Here’s the fifth episode of Art and Soul, my anime and religion/ethics audio column! This one covers a phenomenon that I’ve seen in so many anime–the phrase “I will never forgive you!” How does that square with Christian ethics, which demands forgiveness even when it’s very hard, even of enemies? Is that really an evil phrase? Tune in to find out. (A transcript follows after the cutaway.)
- –OP: “Gunbuster Theme” by Kouhei Tanaka
- –ED: “Never” by Seira (OP for Kaiba; I’ve included the whole song because the words are unusually appropriate for this column.)
- –Bible reading from the New International Version.
Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. —Matthew 18:21-22
I remember, very early in my anime fandom, being struck by how often characters would often proclaim baldly–“I will never forgive you!” It is often voiced as a threat: “If you do x, I will never forgive you.” Or often it is simply a statement of fact. I’d estimate at least 60% of all the anime I’ve watched has contained this phrase, which I suspect (though I don’t know for sure) is being translated relatively literally from the Japanese.
Think about the literal meaning of those words in English for a second, though. They’re very serious. They mean that there is no possibility of reconciliation whatsoever, that a grudge will be held against that person for the rest of their lives, and possibly eternity. Is that the full force of what that phrase really means? Is it so easy in Japanese to lose someone’s good graces and commit an “unforgivable” act?
I suspect, actually, it doesn’t quite mean what a face value reading suggests. From what I can tell, it really seems more like “I will never EXCUSE you or what you did.” Or, “I will not simply let go of this as if it never happened, or as if it were simply OK.” There’s a terrible, terrible modern saying that “to understand is to forgive all,” and I suspect it is this meaning of “forgiveness” that the Japanese dialogue is countering. (Despite the fact that many anime indulge in that saying all the time, when it shows villains whose actions are magically made more sympathetic because of a tough childhood.) If that is the case, then the phrase really isn’t so bad after all. In fact, it can be good. Real forgiveness, real reconciliation, has to begin with a full acknowledgment of how serious and damaging the wrongful act was. Some things really are inexcusable, unforgivable by nature, and deserve rank condemnation. You cannot comprehend or even be genuinely forgiven until you realize what it is that you’re being forgiven for.
Jesus says just this in the parable that follows Peter’s question. It’s the parable of the unmerciful servant. He tells this simple, evocative story:
Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.
The servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’
The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.
His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’
But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt.
When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened.
Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’
In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. —Matthew 18:23-34
In this parable, the unmerciful servant basically had no appreciation of how much he had been forgiven. To have no appreciation in this case is to have a lack of love, and an unmerciful attitude that spread to his relationships with others. We see this all the time, of course, in all human cultures, because forgiveness for wrongs done is unnatural. Peter thought he was being exceedingly generous when he proposed 7 times for forgiveness–the law only required three times, after all. The point in this parable is that if one claims to be part of the Kingdom of God, part of Jesus’ people, you got in because you were forgiven for an enormous debt and at great cost–the life of Jesus himself. To not realize that is to in essence deny it, because if you did, you would be very different. “He who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he does not see,” as John put it (1 John 4:20).
Thus, Jesus ends the parable with a sober warning:
This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart. —Matthew 18:35
In anime, as in life, there is often a cycle of retribution. One person hits another; the other hits back. When Jesus suggested turning the other cheek, this was wildly different from anything anybody had ever heard, or done, even in the Old Testament. When anime says, then, “I will never forgive you,” it is reflecting the normal state of affairs for human beings. And there is enough true-to-life experience behind that to understand why. Real disputes and offenses cannot be resolved by a wave of a hand or a mere token of the words “I forgive you.” Think about how in South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission brought the torturers, murderers, and jailers of apartheid forward to confess, face to face, their crimes. They needed to acknowledge that what they had done was wrong and horrible, in front of the families and friends of the people they had done it to. Then, and only then, was the often surprising response from the hurt–“I forgive you”–actually meaningful. Only when this coming to acknolwedge that yes, in ordinary terms, what they had done was indeed _unforgivable_ could real forgiveness happen. I happen to believe that the power to forgive those crimes does not, cannot come from human beings alone. But it is that power which, perhaps more than anything else, prevented South Africa from all-out civil war, something many commentators felt was inevitable. Because that is the alternative. A world without real forgiveness and reconciliation is a world of war and destruction.
The Lord’s Prayer that Jesus taught asks God “to forgive our debts as we forgive our debtors.” It was that important, that Christians recite this basic plank of ethics every time they pray this prayer. It’s probably there because even Christians have to be reminded of this over and over again, because “I will never forgive you” comes more naturally to human lips. The Good News is that great forgiveness is available, to everyone; it is there for the taking, if only the eyes to see it are there. Jesus also said once, “The one who is forgiven much, loves much.” To realize that one is forgiven is to be able also to love, greatly, a love not limited to those we happen to like but a love that is able to say–even when it’s really, really hard–“I do forgive you.”