excerpt from my Sent folder: forgiveness

(Reply to an email from a friend who engaged with my recent posts on this subject)

Thanks so much for this excellent and gracious pushback! It helps me to think more clearly.

Let me start with this: “Truth-telling, in various senses, is a precondition for forgiveness.” I can’t be sure without more specificity, but I am inclined to say that, in Christian and biblical terms, that is not an accurate statement.

Now, to be sure, there is a sense in which truth-telling is coterminous with forgiveness. When someone says to me “I forgive you,” that is a kind of performative utterance which also states, implicitly but inescapably, that I have done something that requires forgiveness. (It is of course possible for someone to announce that she has forgiven another person when in fact that other person has done her no wrong, in which case there would be no truth-telling involved, but we’ll set that aside for now.)

But the truth-telling need not precede the forgiveness. When Jesus asked his Father to forgive those who were killing him, he did not first confront them with a list of their offenses and demand a response. When he tells us that we must forgive our offending brother seventy times seven times, he does not add an instruction about truth-telling exercises. He just says to forgive.

But then he also adds, in other places, instructions for achieving reconciliation, as does Paul. So when you put those passages together, here’s the picture that I think you get: Reconciliation is a process that begins with forgiveness and proceeds to truth-telling.

Am I wrong?

Two other points:

First, I don’t think I’m conflating personal and corporate forgiveness. In the kinds of situations I’m envisioning, people like me are asked to acknowledge our complicity in systemic racism. I am not asked to confess to and be absolved of the systemic racism itself — which is appropriate, because there’s no meaningful way in which I could do that — but to my complicity in it. So it remains a personal exchange.

Second, you were exactly right to point to my slippage in invoking the life appropriate to the ekklesia in this non-ecclesial context. I need to be more clear about my views there, which are: Christian colleges and institutions are not the church and should not try to do the things that churches do, for instance, administer the sacraments or promulgate doctrine. Their character and authority are always in a sense derivative of the prior authority of Scripture and/or some body of believers. However, insofar as they claim to be Christian in character they are obliged to behave, insofar as they are able, in ways consistent with the commandments Jesus Christ and his apostles give to the Church.To take an extreme example, it would be absurd to say, “Yes, in our churches we are supposed to forgive one another as God in Christ has forgiven us, but in non-ecclesial contexts we are free to bear grudges forever.”

People often say things like, “Well, you can’t expect him to forgive her after what she did to him.” And in many situations I don’t expect it. Forgiveness is hard, and gets exponentially harder in proportion to the seriousness of the offenses. Sometimes I see people forgiving others and think “If I were in their shoes I don’t think I could do that.” Sometimes people might take decades to get to the point of forgiving someone, if they get there at all.

And you know what would make that process infinitely easier? If the offenders were to come to those they offended and say, “I hurt you. Will you please forgive me? Can I do anything to make it up to you?” That is, in an ideal situation the process of reconciliation will be initiated by the offender asking forgiveness, not the offended offering it. But as far as I can tell, even when that kind of confessing and penitent initiation is not forthcoming, Christians are commanded to forgive. I don’t expect them to, especially when they have been badly hurt, but I don’t see how to avoid admitting that the commandment is what it is.

Of course, the circuit of forgiveness, as it were, cannot be completed unless that forgiveness is both offered and accepted. In a really important sense Hell is the refusal to be forgiven. Lewis’s The Great Divorce is piercing on this topic.

I go on and on about all this because I think it’s really easy for us to carve out exceptions — to say that the rules are different in ecclesial and non-ecclesial contexts, that the rules are different in corporate as opposed to personal contexts, that the rules are different when people have been really badly hurt — and that’s how you end up in a situation in which nobody forgives anybody.

UPDATE: My correspondent here is my friend Nathan Cartagena, whose pushback on my posts has been both charitable and firm. Here are some points from a subsequent message of his that I want to take on board — or rather: read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest:

  • Is reconciliation “a process that begins with forgiveness and proceeds to truth-telling”? Perhaps not always. Yes, Jesus does this as he hangs on the cross; on the other hand, this does not seem to be the practice of the Hebrew prophets.
  • Forgiveness gets entangled with several other actions, including restoration as well as reconciliation. “Paul didn’t tell the Corinthians to forgive the guy sleeping with his mother-in law. Perhaps he assumed they knew to. But he does say to excommunicate him; and eventually Paul commands the Corinthians to restore him. Seems the restoring involves righting individual and communal injustices.” (Yep.)
  • When Paul rebuked Peter (Galatians 2:11) was forgiveness involved? (An interesting question! Paul told Peter he was wrong, but one can be wrong without sinning. We should certainly say that Peter needed to accept correction, but it’s not clear from the text that he needed to be forgiven.)
  • When we’re looking at Jesus’s own behavior, to what extent do we need to consider his unique triple role as prophet, priest, and king. Do things look different to those of us who are none of those things?
  • Ditto with Paul, who is an apostle. Does he by virtue of that divinely-appointed role handle things differently than we should?
  • Perhaps we should consider forgiveness as an act and a process. (Yes indeed. When Jesus tells his followers to forgive those who sin against them “seventy times seven” times, it’s not at all clear that every time they do so it’s in response to some new sin. Perhaps we have to get up every morning and forgive those who have sinned against us all over again. And if so, we shouldn’t complain if those we have offended must pursue a long process of forgiving us.)
  • In terms of the larger social issues, in this country the debates are perhaps unhelpfully focused on two groups, black and white Americans, leaving everyone else out of the discussion.

I will reflect prayerfully on all of these points. Thanks, Nathan!