Consider now the ability of a race of people who have been persecuted, abused, to forgive their antagonists. African Americans who were stolen from their homeland did not seek direct revenge from their oppressors when the Confederacy lost the American Civil War in 1865. Not on a mass, militaristic or political scale. They did not march back to the South after emancipation to enslave their former masters.

Nor did the Jews when Hitler’s death camps were annexed by the allied forces, take arms against German and other antipatico Eastern European civilians and lock them in a cage of their own design! There were trials for violations of international law, Israeli Nazi hunters; and likewise, there have been cases of African American racial militancy, the Black Panthers and such. But in none of these cases is there an exact reactionary response, a mirror of revenge.

The recent film, Django Unchained written by the American film director, Quentin Tarantino found itself soaking in a puddle of controversy for its gratuitous violence and frequent use of a certain derogatory term.

The film gives us a sense of ‘what if’. What if a slave in the antebellum South could be set free to seek direct revenge on their oppressors; to turn the whip on them! What if African Americans could go back in time and unleash their cultural anger on their tormentors. Of course, the slaves of American history never did such a thing, but Django Unchained brings this historical ‘what if’ to the mind of the movie-going masses. The vindictive daydream of a beleaguered humanity. An extremist re-imagining of Eugene O’Neil’s Emperor Jones, perhaps. 

In 2009, Tarantino did a film called Inglorious Basterds in which Jewish GIs wreak havoc in Nazi-occupied France. His follow-up film will tie Django Unchained and Inglerious Batards together as a trilogy that shall be known by the title, Killer Crow. Even his Kill Bill series featured a battered woman, seeking bloody revenge for every action of abuse caused to the gender, ever: a militant feminism in the medium of cinematic camp, recalling Japanese ninja films. For this, Quientin Tarantino may be known for his heavy use of role reversal in his cinematic drama, what Aristotle calls ‘peripeteia‘.

Jacques Derrida wrote a treatise in 2001, three years before his death. It was titled On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness. The essay, which shines the phenomenon of forgiveness under an existentialist light, draws from instances of international law, beginning with the Nuremberg Trials. The philosopher stresses

that according to its own internal logic, genuine forgiving must involve the impossible: that is, the forgiving of an ‘unforgivable’ transgression – eg. a ‘mortal sin’…There is hence a sense in which forgiving must be ‘mad’ and ‘unconscious’ and it must also remain outside of, or heterogenous to, political and juridical rationality.

This certainly recognizes that unlike the fictional worlds of Quentin Tarantino’s films, we never get to exact revenge on a certain culture for the hurt they have caused us, and the damage to our generations. According to Derrida, we must forgive, we must find a political or judicial way to ‘make nice’. We are foolishly forced to accept forgiveness as a solution even when it does very little to provide one that will heal our cultural wounds. This is an awkward, if meaningless human ceremony. 

The Torah stresses “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (Exodus 21:24). The New Testament however, presents a contrarian set of values: to “turn the other cheek” when wronged, as Jesus preaches during the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:38). Derrida believed that within the atheism of the nonbeliever is found the true faith, once said during a lecture in South Africa later in his life:

…as soon as you mix the concept of forgiveness with all the connected concepts which are at work in this current process, that is reconciliation, repentance and so on and so forth, you obscurely Christianize the process; you introduce confusion and obscurity in something that has to be as clear as possible.