Forgiveness: A Brief on its Assumptions

Wilfred M. McClay exclaims that forgiveness implies a moral world. There’s too much sloppy back-slapping (self back-slapping at times) about forgiveness.

What say you?

Forgiveness can’t be understood apart from the assumption that we inhabit a universe in which moral responsibility matters, moral choices have real consequences, and justice and guilt have a salient role.

Forgiveness in its deepest sense is something different from “letting go of anger” so that we can individually experience wholeness and healing. It involves an extraordinary suspension of the normal workings of justice: of the normal penalties for crimes, and the normal costs for moral failings. By definition, it is something that can be done only rarely without undermining the basis on which it rests and without creating an entirely different set of moral expectations. The famous admonition from Tuesdays with Morrie that we should “Forgive everybody everything” is perhaps appealing as a psychological instruction, but it is appalling as a general dictum. It resembles the child’s dream that every day should be Christmas.

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  • DRT

    Ha! A story, my oldest son is quite a thinker, at 3 years old he came to me and said, “Dad, I wish every day was Christmas”, then came back the next day after having thought it through and said “Dad, if every day was Christmas then there would be no Christmas at all!” I was shocked.

  • Not sure I fully get where McClay is coming from here…

    Ezra records that the leaders led the way in unfaithfulness. This is not an excuse, though it is part of our history. It’s not the way things should be, but it’s the way things could be if, and when, we begin believing we have a right to things which are not ours: be it land, wives, feelings, or otherwise: the truth is, we are no longer our own: we gave up that right and all others – but it was not all for naught – we gave up our rights in order to receive an inheritance greater than everything! However, we are a forgetful, fearful people, notoriously quick to incur debt (and leaders are not exempt: think Israel, Enron, me, you – is there anyone who really doesn’t fit in this category?)

    All this to say, we must be a people living in the habit of forgiving others as we’ve been forgiven, unconditionally* or we will surely become a people indebted to much more dangerous things than people.

    We are only as free as our hands are open: if we are a community holding on to debts or debtors, we are unable to receive/utilize with open hands the freedoms and liberties which are already ours in Christ Jesus.

    For example, we can not effectively or consistently give water to our brother with one hand while clenching the throat of our sister with the other.

    This is also a throwback to the politics of Yeshua: neither nonviolent or passive, he was consistently and deeply creative in his practice of forgiveness (while never needing to be the recipient).

    *The definition of interpersonal forgiveness has been marred beyond belief. Offering forgiveness is independent of how one feels, because it does not imply that all will feel better, or even good; offering forgiveness does not mean we’re “letting anyone off the hook”, it is the act of releasing another person to GOD; offering forgiveness does not mean that all the offending parties’ consequences vanish or that interpersonal life will all the sudden be restored to it’s former state.

    Rather, it is an acknowledgment of trust in GOD that he can deal with people better than we can. Forgiveness is a great reversal whereby we come to the truth that if we have not released the other to GOD’s discretionary judgment, we ourselves are in need of the very same thing (!*) Again, I say, if we are, figuratively speaking, consumed with ‘holding back’ our brother or sister, are we not also being held back with him or her?

    We are thus prevented from moving forward because we are, in every sense of the word, unforgiving.

    So. I believe I disagree with McClay because I truly believe we must be in the habit of forgiving everyone of everything.

  • “And whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him, that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses” (Mark 11:25, my emphasis).

    Sounds very much like forgiving everybody everything. I don’t think that does away with moral responsibility or consequences for moral choices.

  • Adam

    I think Miraslov Volf’s ‘Free of Charge’ is a better reference for forgiveness.

    Volf states that every act of forgiveness is an act of blame. Injustices break relationships. Forgiveness names the injustice (instead of ignoring it) and seeks reconciliation in the face of that broken relationship.

    The hard part about forgiving is the actual pursuit of a restored relationship. Restoring the relationship makes us vulnerable again to being hurt and we simply don’t want that.

  • Yes: What Adam said in (4.). More, of course, could be added:

    Such as: the abuse of the word, “Sorry.” That is the companion to back-slapping: “sorry” becomes an easy way to gently absolve one’s self and get off-the-hook for responsibility for offending the other.

    Sorry to have run on…

  • T

    I like his initial point (that forgiveness assumes a moral universe), but I don’t like where he goes with it. Forgiveness is not some exception to the moral universe that if practiced too often in our world would make the world somehow less moral. Forgiveness, done rightly and for the right reasons, is always a virtue.

  • John W Frye

    You can read Wilfred M. McClay’s entire article if you click on his name. It is quite fascinating. His article is much more expansive, though Scot chose the heart of it to post on Jesus Creed.

  • MatthewS

    Debbie Morris wrote “Forgiving the Dead Man Walking”. She speaks on a DVD session of “What’s So Amazing About Grace?”

    She helped the prosecution bring justice to the “dead man walking”, Robert Lee Willie. She said something that really struck me: Even if the state could have put Willie to death in the chair five times over, it still would not heal her. Justice does not have the power to heal the wounds caused by the offender. It would not be possible to exact enough justice or even revenge on Willie to bring healing to his victims.

    In the same session, Yancey speaks to forgiving an individual drunk driver (for killing a young girl) but not tolerating drunk driving.

  • Bob Smallman

    A couple of thoughts. As crazy as it might sound, I have sometimes urged people to slow down in their attempts to forgive — because I didn’t think they were ready. There’s a huge difference between forgiving and excusing — and many people in their rush to “do the right thing” and forgive are really just excusing bad behavior. God forgives in an instant, but people forgive over a period of time (for serious offenses).

    Seond, I can only forgive an offense against me. If someone shoots somebody else across town, I can’t forgive him because he hasn’t hurt me (in any direct way). In my opinion the idea that we simply forgive everyone of everything is nice but meaningless.

  • I think it’s vital to understand that “Forgiveness” is a verb. And specifically, a verb with instantaneous effects: The word, in Greek, aphete – is immediate. It’s a releasing. A letting go. You once were holding on to something, and now you’re not – in that moment.

    This would be cruel if Forgiveness were tied to our emotions and somehow excluded consequences. But true forgiveness is a releasing unto GOD – it’s independent of our feelings, in that sense. It’s a command to let go.

  • Pat Pope

    I think discussion about the actual offense is in order. Too often people want to say they’re sorry and appeal to better relations going forward without ever specifically discussing the issue(s). In my opinion, when that isn’t done, what keeps the offense from reoccurring? Without conversation, I think forgiveness does dissolve into sloppy back-slapping with offenders thinking all is right once they’ve apologized without an acknowledgement of the actual offense. To that end, I think people just want to get the unpleasantness over with as quick as possible.

  • Andy W.

    Last night on PBS (at least here in the Boston Market) they kicked off a 2 part series on forgiveness. I have yet to watch this, but I did record this to watch at a later time. It looks very interesting…has anyone seen this? Here’s a youtube advertisement:

  • Scott, this is a hugely important discussion for the issue of reconciliation in the post-communist context where I live.
    I must confess that, although very interesting in substance, I am not very impressed with the convoluted style of McClay, nor with his apparently unconscious captivity to a very Western forensic paradigm. Reducing relationality to issues of guilt (or worse, what he disparagingly calls ‘the cult of victimization’) and of forgiveness (be that of oneself or of others) is, I think, simplistic and reductionistic.
    I would like to suggest that this view, rooted mostly in the Jewish understanding of law and sin, needs to be complemented with a more Eastern (Orthodox) emphasis on an ‘ontology of love’ (if I am to use the phrase of Dumitru Staniloae).
    This reminds me of a brilliant observation made by Michael Green in his excellent book Evangelism in the Early Church. He was explaining there that while the Gospel moved in Jewish circles, a context nurtured by respect for the law of Moses, framing the story in terms of sin, guilt, sacrifice/atonement and forgiveness was the natural thing to do.
    It seems to me that this is precisely McClay’s perspective. And there is nothing wrong with that, as long as one does not pretend, as McClay appears to do, that this is the whole story.
    However, when the Gospel moved in Hellenistic circles, where issues of morality were not so clearly defined, both Paul and John started framing the Gospel is terms of bondage to principalities and powers and in terms of liberation from under them, that allows for a restoration of relationships between the Creator and his creation, including humans, as well as between humans themselves. It is this view that informs to a large extent the Orthodox approach.
    The same Gospel, but two quite different sets of emphases and related terminologies.
    McClay’s approach, it seems to me, overlooks completely this perspective, and many Western Christians appear to do the same, especially those in the more conservative Catholic or Reformed traditions.
    This same group seems incapable to understand and relate adequately to the current postmodern generation (which looks more like the Hellenistic culture of the first centuries than the previous generations, that were the product of modernity). This happens, I think, because they try to reach them with a ‘language’ they don’t speak. By contrast, the job seems to be done much more effectively by those more postmodernity-friendly among us.
    It is not a surprise to me then when I see that, in spite of their vast ecclesial differences, the Orthodox and the emergents have much more in common with each others than with the Catholic and Reformed group mentioned above.
    Coming back to the issue of forgiveness, I fully agree with Adam’s comment above (#4) that Miroslav Volf’s approach of this concept and of the practice it encourages in his book Free of Charge makes much more sense, at least in my Eastern post-communist context, and is much more holistic that McClay’s suspicious and judgmental approach.
    I will end with a small side observation. I cannot understand how could one talk about guilt and victimization, even scape-goating, without mentioning Rene Girard. I suspect though, that the author is equally suspicious of Girard, because he challenges in a very daring (and successful way, I would say) the one-sided perspective represented by McClay.
    Thanks a lot for bringing this to our attention.

  • paul johnston

    Forgiving everyone all things IS the way of the cross. Forgiveness is not so much an intellectual assent, as it is the final and best response to an endured suffering. Real forgiveness is the on going outward sign of the resurrection. Forgiveness/life triumphs over Sin/death.

  • paul johnston

    For the record, I see no rational case for forgiveness to preclude judgment.