Restoring Forgiving Power

[1] Traditionally, theology and religious thought has thought of love and justice as the poles between which human interaction must move. Justice punishes or repays, love heals. The relatively recent phrase “restorative justice” attempts something different, which is to think about the ways in which justice might restore. I would like to explore the old polarity a bit more, however, and consider whether when we talk about restorative justice, we are instead talking about justice that is infused with a certain kind of power which exposes the limits of justice itself. I want to suggest this by talking about the act of forgiving, which of all things, should be the most restorative and refreshing of acts. It often is not, however, and I think that is because it is set in a too-narrow framework of the polarities of justice and love, rather than in the broader context of a power within which justice and love are sometime moments.

[2] We cannot escape thinking about forgiveness, repentance, justice and love, whether we are religious or secular. Much of the passion arises from a consciousness of the magnitude and scope of the world’s brutality–the Holocaust, the Khmer Rouge, Bosnia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and, for Americans, the fall of the Twin Towers which fell as I watched from an office window wondering about my visiting father a few blocks from the site. Equally ubiquitous is the panoply of smaller-scale damage we inflict on each other on an almost daily basis, from the criminal to the simply rude, inconsiderate or even accidental events of every life. Hillary Rodham Clinton once said that “you can’t stay married for more than fifteen minutes without learning about forgiveness.” We do learn, but what do we learn (and many of us don’t stay married)?

[3] Many contemporary thinkers believe that many of us learned the wrong lessons about forgiveness. They hold that the so-called unconditional forgiveness regnant in Protestant theology earlier in the last century, is wrong and destructive. Thus, the contemporary contest about forgiveness and repentance can be formulated in this way: On one side are those for whom forgiveness is a self-justifying and often commanded act of love. Those few constructive thinkers who continue to argue for this alternative are generally influenced heavily by Lutheran and Calvinist traditions. On the other side, by far more numerous, are those for whom the value of forgiveness is not self-evident but depends on its conformity with justice.

[4] Neither of these alternatives satisfies. I believe that forgiveness should be examined as a process of power, in which justice and love are sometimes conflicting moments. The power of forgiveness is, however, obstructed if forgiveness is placed within frameworks of justice or love. Confining forgiveness to justice militates against both forgiveness and, paradoxically, justice (which is why restorative justice requires an element beyond justice), whereas conceiving forgiveness solely as an act of love is destructive of justice, power, and love itself.

[5] Why introduce a third alternative to contemporary theories of forgiveness?: Because, in spite of their differences, both alternatives share common assumptions which prevent them from realizing the full power of forgiveness. Nearly everyone agrees that forgiveness is a lengthy process which finally seeks restoration of a broken relationship, whether interpersonal, social, or religious. The purpose of forgiveness is reunion. Both positions also assume an indissoluble fusion between forgiveness and self-sacrificial love. This means that emphasis is laid exclusively on the benefits of forgiveness to the offender. With the exception of a few scholars (Beverly Flanigan and Lewis Smedes among them), the possibility that forgiveness might strengthen the forgiver is ignored. Finally, virtually everyone assumes that forgiveness and repentance are called forth only in instances of moral violation (and not, for example, accidents, for which we routinely apologize and expect apology).

[6] Those who argue for justice as the standard of forgiveness lodge their objections only at the first point, that forgiveness is or leads to reunion. They note that reunion under any conditions is not adequate; only reconciliation that is just according to a legal paradigm is desired. Forgiveness is not self-justifying. According to some, without full restoration of justice, forgiveness is a vice, that to forgive without just recompense expresses a culpable (or more softly put, an unfortunate) lack of self-respect. This means that repentance, apology, or material justice in some form must precede forgiveness.

[7] I think it is safe to say that most people agree with this position. Witness the ritual of apology enforced upon public figures in order that they purchase their forgiveness from us. Justin Timberlake wore sackcloth and ashes to the Grammys, though we needed two apologies. Janet Jackson had to stay home. Now, demanding some satisfaction, from apology to jail time, for the “bad act” is not a silly position. The battered spouse who forgives constantly and stays is more likely than not beaten again-and again. If forgiveness is demanded as a first step in righting injustice, the apparent reunion is not reconciliation at all, but an invitation to repeat the injustice. Any theology of forgiveness must protect against continuing victimization and injustice; a theology that claims that forgiveness is an act of self-sacrificial love encourages the perpetuation of heartless domination by discouraging its sufferers from pressing claims of justice.

[8] But to make justice a condition of forgiveness is simply incoherent. Despite its considerable advantages, it aims at too limited a goal with too restrictive an understanding of justice, and thereby renders even its own limited goal more difficult to reach. The claims that forgiveness is subsequent to and consistent with justice are difficult to sustain. To begin with, whatever else forgiveness forgives, it necessarily forgoes and forgives a just claim which it might otherwise make. Restitutive/restorative and penal elements intrinsic to legal conceptions of justice are exactly what is foregone in forgiveness; if they are not foregone, there is no forgiveness but merely the repayment of a debt.

[9] If we insist that justice be prior to forgiveness, we assume that restoration or punishment can restore a violated moral equality and create the conditions for reacceptance of an injurer into moral community. However, if justice could fully restore the past relation that was damaged, forgiveness would be superfluous. We are all aware that justice cannot fully repair the breach, except in the simplest and most trivial cases of injury. Legal justice is essentially retrospective in orientation. It attempts to make reparations for a completed act. The evidence is overwhelming that justice fails in this endeavor. The injury that does not induce forgiveness tends to elicit retaliation. This is why Aeschylus’ Eumenides bounds the justice of retaliation with the conventional demands of the city.

[10] But even if conventional justice is satisfied, the past continues to dominate. At the conclusion of Dead Man Walking, the body of the executed Matthew Poncelot appears beside apparitions of his two victims. Justice has not erased the original offense, as the parents of the murdered boy recognize. Matthew’s execution satisfied nothing and no one, any more than endless piles of victims will satisfy Serbian memories of Kosovo. Whatever punishment is exacted, the original offense remains, the penalty for which is in principle infinite. Finding and punishing Osama bin Laden may accomplish many things, but it will not make the families of the dead feel better for long, any more than knowing that the hijackers of the planes also perished.

[11] Western justice is partly aesthetic; it attempts to reestablish a lost symmetry, as Aristotle exemplifies. But the original violation has an excess as a violation that is beyond any injury; the fact of the violation itself exceeds justice’s ability to reestablish symmetry and equality. Retaliation is, therefore, often more strident than the original offense, because retaliation seeks to do what cannot be done, to compensate not only for the injury but for its excess as a wrong. No matter how ruthless and severe our criminal penalties become, there will always be accusations of being “soft on crime,” whereas there never seem to be accusations of being too hard on crime. Penal justice lacks a “natural” or “rational” stopping-point; the stain of the original offense, the initial destruction of symmetry, remains. Martin Luther King was right: capital punishment is a sign of an unforgiving society, not necessarily an unjust one.

[12] It is true that even in criminal law, mitigating circumstances such as repentance are taken into account. But purely as just compensation for injury and wrong, repentance is irrelevant. Only if we are concerned for the offender (or an overloaded system) can repentance can affect punishment. Mitigation is not a feature of justice, but indicates the presence of forgiveness in the judicial process. Mitigation indicates that the demand of justice to restore what was lost has finally been abandoned. Were it not, Hannah Arendt would be correct that the single injury would continue to imprison both the injured and the injurer in a past that cannot be overcome.

[13] Justice cannot restore what is lost because it cannot compensate for the act of injury itself. The insistence that justice must restore is no small contributor to ubiquitous claims of injustice and the perpetuation of violence and retaliation. If justice is the criterion for forgiveness, there can be no forgiveness; having been denied and violated, justice is too thirsty and no person, no nation is exempt from the claims of bloody and escalating justice. It is not that these claims are always unjust; rather, it is that justice unbound can be terrible and itself binds and tyrannizes the (purely) just and the unjust alike.

[14] If we think of forgiveness as a process of power, however, we can escape from the domination of the past. The purpose of supererogatory forgiveness is the powerful creation of a new future. To receive forgiveness, therefore, is to be released.

[15] Power opens a real future that justice cannot. Forgiveness is, as Hannah Arendt once said, “the only action that acts in an unexpected way….[I]t is the only reaction which does not merely re-act but acts anew.” Only perfected forgiveness overcomes the past in the present for the sake of a truly new future. Forgiveness creates a relation that is new, a relation that may in fact be stronger, deeper, better than the old. Completed forgiveness and repentance open dimensions of power and depth.

[16] How? Luther and John Calvin took the radical position that forgiveness precedes repentance. The act that transcends external justice by forgiving its claims is the condition for a new, more powerful and enduring justice that is both external and inward. Moreover, because forgiveness opens the past without inducing despair over it, forgiving power elicits a stronger, more enduring justice.

[17] Luther’s position derives from his unique understanding of the grace which makes one just. In its technical sense, grace is not, as it was for the tradition, the gift of love shed abroad in the heart. Instead, grace is simply God’s decision to justify the sinner. Grace does not oppose sin directly, indeed it has nothing to do with the empirical being of the graced, forgiven person. Grace is God’s self-cancellation of God’s own just wrath at our betrayal of creation; it erases the demand to restore what is lost. Righteousness in grace has to do with “the mercy of God,” not the believer’s actual justness. “One whom God receives in grace,” Luther says, “God completely receives, and one whom God favors, God completely favors,” because “these two, wrath and grace,…since they are outside us…are poured out upon the whole” person. God’s decision is a declaration of our final destiny, meaningfulness, and justness in spite of ourselves.

[18] Were this the whole of Luther’s theology of justification, accusations of “cheap grace” would be correct. But the divine decision of grace intends the advancement of worldly justice, not its eradication. God complements forensic forgiveness with “daily forgiveness,” which applies the forgiveness already won. This is why God reveals that one stands under the umbrella of grace. Complete, unmerited forgiveness does not directly change the unjust soul, but it is the condition for new earthly power, so that “A person neither pleases, nor has grace, except for the purpose of the gift which labors…to cleanse from sin.” Faith, whatever its measure, is confidence in grace, trust in God’s assurance that we live meaningfully. This faith produces actual justification.

[19] Calvin ties this structure directly to the problem of forgiveness and repentance. He maintains that repentance is an effect of faith, which is an effect of grace. Repentance is possible because one is aware of being ultimately forgiven; it is necessary because one remains a sinner. Faith’s repentance reforms the heart, making the believer inwardly more just, so that the forgiven one is increasingly thankful and loving to neighbor and God. The transcendent power of God’s forensic justification conditions, and has as its purpose, the immanent powers of reform, repentance, and a new justice.

[20] Graceful forgiveness makes repentance and new commitment to justice and love possible by overcoming the two problems of self-righteousness and despair, which Luther contends are insuperable in any schema that makes ultimate meaningfulness depend on our present justness. Self-righteousness in the literal sense of making oneself righteous manifests itself in the well-known ways of convincing ourselves that our conduct was not that bad, that we in fact did the moral thing or that we were not obliged to act, that we were provoked, that the injured one was really at fault, that on balance our lives are good. This repressive rationalization is particularly dangerous, because especially plausible, in morally defensible acts. The real damage done becomes somehow unreal, submerged in denial of its existence or covered by appealing to the moral order that was, on balance, served. The invocation of justified damage easily becomes the equivalent of no damage, an excuse to ignore the real pain of the injured.

[21] There is another self-righteous possibility. We try to recover from the guilt of the past by committing ourselves fervently to the moral, blotting out guilt by a superfluity of good. But this technique militates against any real act of love. If one seeks forgiveness by means of compensatory “good works,” then one neither escapes the past nor instantiates a new justness because what one does is less for the neighbor than for one’s own peace of heart. The neighbor may indeed benefit, but largely because one uses the neighbor as a means to assure oneself of one’s own meaning and goodness. We are precluded from seeing the neighbor’s real need; our own neediness is too great.

[22] Moreover, so long as the quest for righteousness is not repression of damage, it also is not release from the past. So long as guilt drives the moral engine, one remains bound to one’s original guilt. The spirit who recognizes that, despite one’s best efforts, the original injury and wrong remain, is thrown back onto the rock of despair, the second difficulty with all attempts to gain forgiveness by repentance. Whatever exertions one performs to remove it, the injury or wrong replies, “I remain.” Despair is the way of serious memory and refusal of rationalization. It is, in this way, true. Nor is this the result only of moral violation-the sense of never having been good enough, dedicated enough, caring enough, drive many a sensitive conscience to despair.

[23] Self-righteousness and despair are dominating, weakening and past-controlled; the assurance of forgiveness, however, communicates power that overcomes the tyranny of the past. How? Grace assures release from the past from the perspective of the God who is injured in every injury. But while we are ultimately assured of our release from the perspective of another, faith is a gift of labor that releases us from our past for love of neighbor and God.

[24] This release has several components. To begin with, attempts to balance the scales between one’s righteousness and unrighteousness are transformed. There is no reason to deny sin; the incentive to cover it in order to convince oneself of one’s moral worth, or to try to cleanse the heart of guilt by washing it in a torrent of morality, is eradicated in the degree to which faith knows that the person stands under grace. Injuries can be acknowledged in their full weight because they no longer determine one’s ultimate meaningfulness. We find it easier to acknowledge guilt before those we know seek the best for us and correspondingly, it is easier to acknowledge the wounds we inflicted, even to ourselves. This depends in no small measure on our confidence that, whatever we confess, forgiveness is already given. The certainty of the promise of forgiveness allows us to remember rather than conceal.

[25] The process is paradoxical: the past that forgiveness obliterates from the perspective of the forgiver is reintroduced by the forgiven. Moreover, the past is reintroduced by the penitent because it has been removed by the other. Repentance, the reduction of inner and external sin, is the labor that forgiveness calls forth. Repentance can remember just because forgiveness is a form of forgetfulness. Assurance that the past is not determinative of the future from the perspective of the forgiver does not mean that it does not continue to imprison the self: the inner compulsions and foibles, as well as the injuries caused, remain part of the forgiven self. Thus, repentance is a work of memory that seeks the reformation of the forgiven self, so that, finally, the self too, can forget the past because she or he has begun to be a new creature. Forgiveness initiates power for a new creation.

[26] In the ideal process of forgiveness and repentance, this means that the quest for justice arises largely from the penitent. To the extent that it does not, the process of forgiveness and repentance is awry. When the process is effective, however, the repentant heart calls for justice, not because justice restores what is lost (only forgiveness can do that) but because it can give a more powerful future to the injured, the self, and others.

[27] Thus, repentance initially grips the past as strongly as despair, but with this difference: whereas despair ceaselessly remembers, repentance has already been released by another, and therefore seeks conformity with that release. As the labor of repentance progresses, the bare events of the past may remain, but their meaning is decisively altered, no longer imprisoning the forgiven or their relations with others. Repentance longs to approach what forgiveness has already done; by reform, repentance laboriously seeks the time when the past can at last be forgotten rather than being repressed or allowed to dominate and cancel the future.

[28] But what of the forgiver? Is the abused obligated to forgive her abuser? The families of the victims of September 11 to forgive their loved ones’ killers? I those who have wronged me? Why? So that each may do so again? No, there is no duty to forgive. But there are times in all of our lives when it is clear that to be forgiving leaves not just the forgiven better off but the forgiver as well. We must ask in each case where the question of forgiveness is presented, What power will be produced? Who will be helped?

[29] Forgiveness is not an end in itself; in fact, the plural character of power means that legitimate forgiveness must demonstrate a benefit for the forgiver. Indeed, much of the benefit of forgiveness is to be found in its benefits to the forgiver. It is a mistake to assume that the claim to justice is foregone merely, or even primarily, for the sake of an offender. The mistake seems to have a theological source. When God reconciles the world to God’s self, we assume that that is entirely for the sake of the world. But why not ask whether the act of reconciliation might also fructify the divine life and add to divine power as well as to the power of the world that is reconciled?

[30] Moreover, although God is reconciled to the world, classical traditions hold that there are some within the world with whom God may not be reconciled. This means, for our purposes, that although an ideal instance of forgiveness includes reconciliation between injurer and injured, there may still be forgiveness even without reconciliation with a particular other, and that reconciliation itself has a variety of degrees. One who is injured may be able to forgive, reconciling much of the world to oneself, without reestablishing a specific relation to the injurer. This is possible because the claim to justice can be transcended in degrees and stages. Thus, although forgiveness and justice conflict, both can coexist within the same processes of power; the past can be both remembered and forgotten in varying degrees. For the forgiver, the injury can become less central to one’s life and future; as healing progresses, the violation may be thought of occasionally, or perhaps not at all, forgotten.

[31] That is the result of a lengthy process that should not be posited as a duty from outside. The question of forgiveness is one of advisability, not duty or command. Moreover, it is a process that cannot be rushed, so that even its advisability varies. But it is true that those who are constitutionally unable to forgive are often destructive to those around them, and, more often than those who tend to be forgiving, pass their days in lonely isolation. This is only somewhat less true of unforgiving nations. The dangers of being unforgiving can be as great as those of being unrepentant. The future is lost in both cases. Righteous anger is often destructive, not to the unrighteous, but to the righteous, eating away at those who have been violated and poisoning their relation with the social world.

[32] These benefits of forgiveness are neither unimportant nor narcissistic. Even those who have experienced extreme damage and violation often say that they want to forgive. There is usually no question of reconciliation with a violator, but the question of reconciling the world to oneself remains. Forgiveness is a process of power not only for the forgiven but also for the forgiver. It escapes from the tyranny of the past in order to promote a real and powerful future for self and world. Beverly Flanigan introduces Forgiving the Unforgivable by noting, “I am told by all who have [completed the journey] that the final destination is worth the trip.” Those whom I know who have experienced one class of violation that Flanigan calls “unforgivable” confirm this, and almost all have experienced the same release by forgiveness in small ways.

[33] The confinement of forgiveness within either justice or love traps us within the past either through an excess of memory or repression’s refusal to remember. Both alternatives sacrifice a new future; selfless love also sacrifices the wounded on its altar. If, however, the criterion of forgiveness is the more embracing concept of power, we are enabled to glimpse a future, realized by memory of the past in order to forget, to release us from its distorted impacts both for forgiver and forgiven, whose repentance is made possible by forgiveness. Forgiveness is both the first and last step in this process. The process of forgiveness releases us from the weakness and domination of “that hoary old time.” Both labors, forgiveness and repentance, are worth the trip.