Still more forgiveness

So ask yourself now: Can you forgive her
If she begs you to?
Ask yourself: Can you even deliver
What she demands of you?
Or do you want revenge?
But that’s childish, so childish!
(But that’s childish, so childish!)
–“Can You Forgive Her?” from Very, by the Pet Shop Boys

My friends have been helping me out with ideas about what I should write more about, or what I should write next. I’ll see if I get to all your good ideas and pertinent points today, but if I don’t I’ll try to get to you tomorrow.

I left off with the question of when, how, whether, and why we forgive others. Some of these elements deal with forgiveness in fairly general terms: prudence, good will, and honesty supply particular reasons for forgiving. Other rationales derive from theological understandings of sin and forgiveness. David Weinberger has already called me on this. If anyone takes exception to this theologian sounding more, well, theological, I can’t exactly apologize but I do at least appreciate your having borne with me so long. If you’re patient with some theologizing, too, I can get further tonight.

Human wisdom teaches us that it just makes sense to forgive people most of the time. We all need forgiveness, more than we care to admit, so if we encourage as wide a practice of forgiveness as we can, we contribute to social relations where the forgiveness that we need will more llikely be offered to us. Our good-heartedness stirs upa forgiving spirit; we don’t want to hold offenses against our friends, or even against strangers. (Strangers make a harder case, but I would argue that most people of goodwill would prefer to forgive, even if suspicion and self-protection win out in specific cases.) Honesty precludes our arrogating to ourselves a freedom from error that would warrant our sitting in judgment of others. Forgiveness, in general, makes the world a better place. My correspondent Chaz suggested that “Forgiveness is voluntarily relinquishing your right to take revenge”—that gets at one way of envisioning a world freed from the entangling nets of retribution that endanger so many people who long for peace.

To these I would add the particularly theological factor that the God whom Judaism and Christianity worship instructs all people to practice forgiveness–at least in part to reflect God’s own forgiving character. When Exodus reports that when Moses received the Torah and was granted a vision of God’s “hinder parts,” Moses hears God identified as “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.” If that be God’s character, then those who revere this God and endeavor to make God’s ways evident in their lives presumably ought to fill their lives with mercy, grace, patience, love, and forgiveness.

But as my students will quickly quote back at me, “It’s more complicated than that.” Two large objections dwarf any others: the first, that some acts so grotesquely defy human and divine goodness, they so rapidly extend to the extremities of evil, that one just can’t forgive them (nor can one placidly assert that God will forgive these horrors, lest one make God an unfeeling monster. Presumably, Exodus points toward such evils when it continues that God “by no means clear[s] the guilty, but visit[s] the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation..” If that seems unfair to the second, third and fourth generations, it at least indicates that God doesn’t take evil lightly.

Yes. And we should note that God reaffirms an extreme response to evil in the New Testament—if mere “wailing and gnashing of teeth” (the Gospel of Matthew’s favorite description of God’s plan for evildoers) isn’t severe enough, reread the Revelation to John. The God of the New Testament is not a cuddly stuffed-toy God, to be opposed to a mean, cruel Old Testament God. Both in New Testament and Old, in Hebrew and Greek, the writers describe God in one breath as loving the whole of everything, and as showing indiscriminate mercy—and in the next breath as resolutely opposed to evil, and as punishing transgressors with frightful chastisements.

In both Judaic and Christian theology, both points sound necessary notes. If God doesn’t regard evil differently from good, we can’t offer any cogent reason to pursue good rather than evil. On the other hand, “forgiveness” that doesn’t apply to them, whoever “them” may be, puts God in the position of budgeting out a limited sort of forgiveness.

Theologians need to work in the difficult terrain that affirms both God’s mercy and God’s justice, God’s willingness to offer humanity extra credit on the final exam, and God’s unwavering readiness to flunk someone who scored 0.001 below the threshhold for passing (end-of-term metaphor there). I once talked with a priest who assured me that he believed in forgiveness, but not in judgment; I was left at a loss to explain what the point of forgiveness might be if I wasn’t going to held accountable for my life. God cares about what we do with our capacities, and God promises not to allow an honest account of our shortcomings to eclipse God’s love for us (the Letter of James expresses this principle as “mercy triumphs over judgment”).

I do not presume to know God’s disposition toward particular sinners. So much, however, seems clear: We ought not cavalierly reckon that anyone (whether as fundamentally decent as “we” or as morally deficient as “they”) will be covered by a blanket amnesty—that disregards both the self-reflective honesty I proposed earlier in the week and theological warnings from the God of the Judaic and Christian traditions. By the same token, we ought not dare to decide on God’s behalf that any particular sinners fall outside God’s capacity to forgive. Prophets and teachers have reminded their audiences, time and again, that God alone determines who will encounter divine mercy—and that depends not on personal merit (that we can amass and calculate), but solely on grace. Solely, only, exclusively, that’s all.

By extension, we too ought not decide in advance what category of people may not be forgiven. Our determination that such-and-such a group of people have crossed the line of forgiveability tends to cut off the possibilities of discovering extraordinary grace and love in the forgiver’s heart (and by no means ought we make such judgments in our capacity as spokespeople for God: “Who has directed the spirit of the Lord, or as his counselor has instructed him?”). God extends forgiving grace beyond our capacity to parse it, as Jonah discovered. Both divine and human wisdom indicate that we’re not equipped to pass that kind of judgment.

Not that we fall into equivocal stammering. We must form some kinds of judgment so we can order our lives. We need patiently and humbly to situate our provisional judgments relative to our limitations, our own sins.

That leads to the second objection I hoped to address tonight. It’s getting late, so I’m not sure how much I can cover, but I’ll give it a try. David opens the way to this objection by observing that I make no mention of “restitution”:

The one thing missing from AKMA’s article is the idea of restitution. . . . My religion, Judaism, as I understand it (i.e., not at all) puts particular stress on making whole what one has ruptured through one’s bad behavior. Yes, you resolve not to do it again, and yes, you don’t let that behavior rend the fabric of the relationship. But you also run out to the store immediately and buy Margaret some more damn pepper.

Make that pepper and chocolate (not for simultaneous consumption, of course).

Part of the problem with talking about “restitution” as that term functions in contemporary US society lies in our cultural proclivity to slap a dollar tag on everything. We then enter into a tussle over how much restitution befits the offense in question, and we rend the fabric to which David adverts even more seriously. The restitution that should serve to help us mend, under these circumstances, institutionalizes the estrangement that set two people at odds. (Parenthetically, he said redundantly since the digression already appears within parentheses, I suspect that the catch here lies how tightly or loosely the community that defines “resititution” is linked; most of the constituents of US civil society show hardly any sense of community with one another or with the kinds of agency that would be determining any restitution.)

That’s obviously not what David had in mind, and I certainly don’t think it’s where a Judaic sense of accountability leads. The more [sic] As I said, I avoided the topic because I wanted to avoid invoking the cultural pattern of restitution-as–time-to-cash-in. I tried to point in the direction David suggested by emphasizing the reorientation of one’s life–but he’s right to ask tha tI state more specifically that one who asks forgiveness should in general enact her or his genuine desire for reconciliation. I can’t simply demand your forgiveness of me, but I can show by my behavior–by reaching out toward restitution–that I am endeavoring to live more harmoniously with you.

David’s right to note a divergence here between “Jewish” and “Christian” sensibilities, but it goes deeper than that too. Many Christians feel a strong attraction to an ethic that emphasizes putting beliefs into action, walking the walk, whereas another large body of Christians recoil in horror from what they regard as works-righteousness, the notion that you can earn God’s favor by doing the right stuff. (Both sorts of Christians have set themselves over against Jews, though with different spins).

To wrap up for tonight, then, I’d suggest that presumption poisons the possibility of forgiveness, whether the presumption that my sins arenb’t such a big deal so of course you (or God) will forgive them, or (on the other hand) the presumption that no one can forgive the injury that I have suffered, and that of course God will side with me. If we want to live in a world characterized by generosity and forgiveness, if we believe in a God of forgiveness, then we can’t afford presumption. In an odd way, presumption constitutes an antithesis of forgiveness. . . .

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