Forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration are things that Christians talk about all the time. These—and not the enforcement of rigorous moral codes or the punishment of evildoers–stand at the heart of the Christian message. (Moral norms and punitive justice are a part of the Christian intellectual framework, so we will need to talk more about them below. My point here is simply to remind us that the gospel is good news precisely because it opens up for us the possibility that our evil deeds can be forgiven and their effects on us and others can be healed.)
The emphasis that christians place on forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration often puts them at odds with prevailing trends in contemporary American culture. We live in an age of outrage. Sometimes it seems that every transgression of a social norm is trumpeted as an affront to the human species and a threat to civilization. And the only remedy that anyone seems to be able to come up with for such affronts to common decency is for the perpetrator to pay dearly for what he or she has done.
Moreover, American culture has always held justice to be one of its primary values. This value comes from the Roman thinkers who influenced the founders of the United States, but it is also deeply rooted in the sacred texts of Christianity.
So, should we give up on the ethic of forgiveness? Is reconciliation just a pipe-dream and restoration simply an excuse not to punish powerful evildoers? I think not. To the contrary, forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration are precisely what God offers to our culture in Christ, and they are precisely what God demands of His children if we are to be all that He has called us to be.
We as God’s people have some work to do if we are going to be credible witnesses on behalf of God’s forgiving, reconciling, and restoring work in Christ. In today’s entry, we will address whether the Christian message is unjust and/or unworkable in a world of pervasive evil. In next week’s entry, we will turn our attention to how forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration can be lived out in an age of outrage.
Is the Christian Message Unjust?
Let’s begin by addressing a fundamental question. Is it unjust for Christians to require people to forgive those who have wronged them? On the one hand, it is easy enough to respond to this question by pointing out that everyone does things that are wrong (Romans 3:23) and that no one should expect to be forgiven by God if he or she will not forgive others (Matthew 6:14-15; 18:21-35)) On the other hand, it is not hard to come up with scenarios in which forgiveness seems to be wholly inappropriate. Humans are quite skilled at perpetrating the most unspeakable crimes against one another, and forgiveness (to say nothing of reconciliation or restoration) would seem to accomplish nothing except the continuing victimization of the innocent and the enabling of future indiscretions on the part of the guilty.
There are no easy answers here. The command to forgive seems relatively inflexible (although we will need to talk about the relationship between forgiveness and repentance), and we do not have the right to soften such a command simply because we find it too hard to live by. (If you feel chided by this last sentence, please understand that I am right there with you. I have counseled people who have undergone the most horrific experiences, and I have not always been as strong on forgiveness as I should.) Nevertheless, there are a couple of observations that I think need to be made.
First, vengeance is not categorically ruled out; it is simply forbidden to humans (Romans 12:19).. There are a lot of reason why God does not allow humans to take vengeance into their own hands. One of the most important is that transformation, and not punishment, of evildoers is God’s primary objective (cf. 2 Peter 3:9). History has shown us that punishment of evil does not have the power to transform. It may change certain patterns of behavior in certain people, but it does not have the power to fundamentally re-orient the outlook of most people. Forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration, by contrast, do have that power. So, God will punish evil, but He prefers to redeem the evildoer.
Another reason that revenge is forbidden to humans is because we have a history of taking revenge upon the wrong people. Rather than finding the individual who hurt us and holding them accountable, we tend to do all sorts of unspeakable things to people who had nothing to do with our victimization. In so doing, we perpetuate the cycle of violence that has characterized human existence from its outset.
By contrast, our witness as Christians is to be one of peace (cf. Romans 12:18). We are not to feed the violence that so easily consumes us. We are to starve it to death.
There is a second observation that needs to be made with respect to the question of whether forgiveness is unjust. It is important to note that Jesus, Paul, Peter, and other biblical writers have numerous opportunities to apply the ethic of forgiveness to government, and yet, they generally refrain from doing so. Indeed, the Bible is clear that government exists, at least in part, to punish the evil deeds that people do (Romans 13:3-4; 1 Peter 2:13-14).
What does this mean for our present conversation? For one thing, it at least opens up the possibility that forgiveness, and even reconciliation, can be compatible with the punishment of evil. For another, not every sinful deed is punishable by governmental sanction, which suggests that some crimes are so serious that they demand a societal response, while others, for whatever reason, may not require public sanction.
Practical Objections to the Christian Message
The point that I am trying to make with these observations is that the pursuit of forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration do not necessarily impinge upon the pursuit of justice. Indeed, having a forgiveness orientation can save us from injustice by short-circuiting our tendency to indiscriminately punish people regardless of whether they are the ones who actually committed the offense or whether their offense is really worthy of sanction.
Still, there are some practical objections to the practice of forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration that we need to address. Placing these objections on the table will help us understand the reluctance that some people have to pursue forgiveness, but it will also help us craft processes and practices that are both more just and more effective.
One practical objection has to do with how the ethic of forgiveness coalesces with society’s obligation to address systemic evil. Even secular psychologists acknowledge that individuals benefit from forgiveness, but are society’s interest harmed when the victim of an all-too-common transgression forgives the person who hurt her or him? It is a fair question, but we also need to consider the positive impact that forgiveness can have on a society.
We have already referenced another issue related to the ethic of forgiveness—repentance. Whatever else we may say about the relationship between repentance and forgiveness, it is a lot easier to forgive someone who is sorry for what they have done. Moreover, Jesus is clear that when someone does repent, we have to forgive them. But how do we know when someone has truly repented? Americans are understandably skeptical when people claim to be sorry for the things that they have done. We have seen a lot of instances when people simply apologize because it is the politically correct thing to do. Moreover, some people intentionally manipulate the good will of others, and we Americans hate being taken advantage of in that way.
A third issue has to do with how we define forgiveness vis-à-vis our relationship with an offending party. If a divorced man forgives the wife who cheated on him, does that mean he has to remarry her? If a mother forgives the man who murdered her son, does that mean that she has to work for his release from prison? In other words, what level of reconciliation and/or restoration are required in order to fulfill the requirements of forgiveness, and are there times when reconciliation and/or restoration are unnecessary or undesirable?
As we think through these issues, we need to remember that they are not merely theoretical matters for ivory-tower academics to debate. They are painfully real, highly personal dilemmas faced by the people in our churches and our communities. We search the Scriptures for answers because love compels us to do so, and, in the process, we confront our own sinfulness and our own woundedness.
Thinking Through the Issues
So what about you? Reflect on the following questions as you prepare for next week’s post. Perhaps you could even share some of your reflections with the rest of us.
- Do you find it difficult to forgive people when they wrong you? What is stopping you from forgiving others? Are the obstacles to forgiveness logical or emotional in nature?
- Is it easier to forgive some things than it is others? If so, is that because our society has conditioned us to see certain transgressions as less serious, or is it because certain transgressions seem particularly hurtful to you individually?
- How do you think forgiveness should affect your behavior towards others? Do you always pursue reconciliation with those who hurt you, or do you find that it is sometimes better to walk away from the relationship rather than risk further hurt?
- In your opinion, what should restoration look like? How can someone who has done something really bad find restoration? Does it matter if that person was a leader in politics, education, ministry, business, or some other field?