Thursday, 12 October 2006

Theology for beginners (19): Forgiveness

Summary: The freedom of the Christian life is above all the freedom of forgiveness: living in the forgiveness of God, we are set free to forgive the debts of others.

We have spoken of the freedom of the Christian community. And we must now focus on the most distinctive and most fundamental form of this freedom: the freedom of forgiveness.

Right from the start, the Christian life is constituted by the gift of forgiveness. At the beginning of the Christian life, the bath of baptism dramatically enacts the free and unconditional gift of forgiveness by which God receives human beings into the fellowship of his own triune life. In baptism, the past is washed away. All our guilt and shame is removed – it is drowned and left behind in the water. In this way, the power of the past is broken, so that a person emerges from the water into new life, into a life wholly open to the future of God’s coming kingdom.

Forgiveness is not, however, merely the start of the Christian life. Each day and at every moment, we continue to live by the power of forgiveness. Each day, the Christian community repeats the same prayer: “Forgive us our debts!” Each day, we continue to need and to ask for God’s forgiveness. Thus although we are baptised only once, throughout the whole Christian life we continue to share in the eucharistic meal – the meal of forgiveness. Just as we share together in the bread and wine, so we are reminded that God’s forgiving grace is our food and drink, our nourishment, our very life. To eat and drink forgiveness, to be sustained by forgiveness – this is the meaning of the Christian life.

And so our prayer each day is: “Forgive us our debts!” Forgiveness is the opposite of being treated as we deserve to be treated. It is the opposite of restitutive justice. It is the opposite of “karma,” of reaping what has been sowed. It is the opposite of every kind of moral legalism. So too, it is the opposite of making amends for the past. It is the opposite of conditions, negotiation, exchange.

Forgiveness is not restitution – it is unconditional pardon. It is cancellation of debt. Forgiveness therefore involves both a recognition of the debt that is owed, and an irreversible decision that the debt will be cancelled. It is thus not a matter of simply forgetting the past – it is a powerful annulment of the past, an act in which the chains of the past are broken. Through forgiveness, the past itself is thus transformed into something new, just as the future is suddenly opened in a new way. Liberated from the power of the past, I am now set in motion towards a future rich with hope and possibility. This, then, is the unique freedom of the Christian life: to stand forgiven before God, and thus truly to be free in relation to my own past and to the future of God’s kingdom.

But our daily prayer is not only “forgive us our debts.” In fact, our prayer is: “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive those who are in debt to us.” This prayer means: “Set me free from the past, just as I release others from the chains of their past. Cancel my debts today, just as today I release others from the debts they owe me. Do not demand restitution for guilt from me, just as I refuse to demand restitution from others. Set me free from the need to make amends, just as I excuse others from this need. Forgive me unconditionally, just as I forgive without negotiation or condition.”

To pray this way is to pray for something radical, something that shatters all our assumptions and expectations about the basic patterns of ordinary social life. In our world, you don’t get anything for nothing. If you want something, you must pay for it; you must make some kind of exchange. But forgiveness overturns the entire economy of exchange – in forgiveness, I give you something for nothing, without requiring payment or exchange, without demanding anything in return. In the economy of exchange, you are bound to me by various contracts and conditions – but in the economy of forgiveness, you are set free from all bondage to me, unconditionally liberated from all indebtedness to me.

Forgiveness is thus something shocking, something astonishing and unexpected. It lies outside the basic patterns and assumptions that underpin our entire culture. It is wholly undetermined and contingent. It is an event that can never be anticipated in advance. It is an irruption of the ordinary. Until we have been shocked and astonished – yes, frightened! – by the power of forgiveness, we have not yet even begun to understand what is involved here.

Forgiveness is shocking because it is a miracle. In and of myself, I lack the capacity to forgive – but as I receive the forgiving love of God in Jesus, I am empowered by the Spirit to become an agent of that same forgiveness. Because I have been forgiven, I can and must forgive. When I forgive a person who has wronged me, that person is truly forgiven – she is liberated from the chains of the past and set free to participate in the life of God’s coming kingdom. So too, when this person forgives me, I am truly forgiven – I am liberated from the past and welcomed into the life of the kingdom. Through the power of the Spirit, human society in all its forms can thus begin to glimpse and to participate in the life of the kingdom through this astounding miracle of reciprocal forgiveness.

To forgive, therefore, is not only a personal act – it is also a social and political act, an act pregnant with the promise of a new future for our world. In international relations and in domestic penal policy, it overturns the politics of vengeance. In social relationships, it overturns the demand for retribution and compensation – the violent demand to be “given one’s due” at any cost. Indeed, in the first century the early Christians interpreted Jesus’ entire ministry as a liberating act of debt-cancellation: in Jesus, the Year of Jubilee had arrived, a time in which all debts were written off, so that the poor could be released from their financial servitude. This, too, is what forgiveness means today. This is what we are asking for when we pray: “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors!” The prayer for forgiveness is thus a revolutionary act, a radical contradiction of the whole economy that underlies the accepted patterns of thought and behaviour which drive our culture.

Indeed, the petition for forgiveness is identical with the petition for the coming of God’s kingdom: “Your kingdom come, your will be done; … and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors!” To live by forgiveness is already to participate in the life of God’s coming kingdom. To practise forgiveness in all our day-to-day social interactions is already to show the power and the life of God’s kingdom.

For the kingdom of God – the kingdom that Jesus announced, the kingdom that is now approaching all history like a fast train from the future – is a kingdom of forgiveness, a kingdom whose fundamental economy is one of unconditional, liberating love. To live in the power of this liberating love is the meaning of Christian freedom.

Further reading

  • Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics I/2 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1956), pp. 430-50.
  • Govier, Trudy. Forgiveness and Revenge (London: Routledge, 2002).
  • McFadyen, Alistair and Marcel Sarot (eds.). Forgiveness and Truth (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2001).
  • Milbank, John. Being Reconciled: Ontology and Pardon (London: Routledge, 2003), pp. 44-60.
  • Müller-Fahrenholz, Geiko. God’s Spirit: Transforming a World in Crisis (New York: Continuum, 1995), pp. 124-41.
  • Shults, F. LeRon and Steven J. Sandage. The Faces of Forgiveness (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003).
  • Tanner, Kathryn. The Economy of Grace (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005).
  • Volf, Miroslav. Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005).

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