Following up on my posts on the power of forgiveness (links below): Timothy Keller (Founding Pastor, Redeemer Presbyterian Church (New York City)), The Fading Of Forgiveness: Tracing the Disappearance of the Thing We Need Most:
Offended by Forgiveness
After the 2014 deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York City, a new movement for racial justice emerged, especially embodied by a new loose network called Black Lives Matter. “This ain’t your grandfather’s civil rights movement,” said rapper Tef Poe. This one, he said, would be much angrier. At an October protest in Ferguson, street activists heckled and turned their backs on the president of the NAACP. Unlike the older civil rights protesters, journalists on the ground in Ferguson reported that the activists were “hurling insults and curses” at police.
After relatives of the nine African Americans killed in Charleston, South Carolina, publicly said to the shooter, Dylann Roof, “I forgive you,” a Washington Post opinion piece by Stacey Patton responded with the headline “Black America Should Stop Forgiving White Racists.” ...
Today, after the renewal of the racial justice movement in the wake of George Floyd’s death, the emphasis on guilt and justice is ever more on the rise and the concept of forgiveness seems, especially to the younger generation, increasingly problematic. What are the influences that are making forgiveness problematic in our culture?
Our Therapeutic Culture
The first factor is the therapeutic culture. As Philip Rieff and Charles Taylor have both shown, our culture has taken a strongly inward turn. While all other cultures have stressed the importance of community and the need to forge a personal identity that negotiates and aligns with the common good, modernity stresses looking inward to forge one’s own identity based on our desires, and then moving outward to demand that society honour our individual identity and interests. ...
In contrast, the Bible orients us toward “Christian life embodied in eschatological community.” The church is to be a foretaste of the future world of love and perfect community under the lordship of Jesus. Our sin inclines us to behaviour that regularly weakens and breaks relationships, but through the Spirit we are given the ability to realize—partially, never fully in this life—something of the beauty and joy of those future relationships through practices and disciplines of forgiveness and reconciliation now.
In October of 2006 a gunman took hostages in a one-room Amish schoolhouse at Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. He shot ten children ages seven to thirteen, five of whom died, and then he committed suicide. Within hours members of the Amish community visited both the killer’s immediate family and his parents, each time expressing sympathy for their loss. The Amish uniformly expressed forgiveness of the murderer and his family. The forgiveness and love shown toward the shooter and his family amazed many. Numerous voices called Americans to emulate the Amish and become more forgiving.
Four years later a group of scholars wrote about the incident. One of their main conclusions was that our secular culture is not likely to produce people who can handle suffering the way the Amish did. They argued that the Amish ability to forgive was based on two things. First, at the heart of their faith was a man dying for his enemies. Through communal practices this self-sacrificing figure was seen, sung, believed, rehearsed, and celebrated constantly. For Jesus to give his life and forgive his tormentors was an act of enormous love and spiritual strength, and so within their worldview orientation, the Amish saw forgiveness as the greatest gift and virtue. In American culture, in which church attendance is declining, this view of Christ is slipping more and more out of daily view.
Religion Without Grace
The second influence impoverishing the modern practice of forgiveness is a rising shame and honour culture that some have called a new secular religion. ...
No Future Without Forgiveness
Our culture is losing the resources for forgiveness and reconciliation. Many would say this a good thing, that forgiveness is a form of psychologically unhealthy self-loathing, and that it is also a way that oppressors maintain their power over victims. Nevertheless, we have from three people—people representing groups who were egregiously oppressed in the twentieth century—ringing, insistent calls to forgive. Those three people are Hannah Arendt, Martin Luther King Jr., and Desmond Tutu. ...
Martin Luther King wrote, “He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power of love. . . .We can never say, ‘I will forgive you, but I won’t have anything further to do with you.’ Forgiveness means reconciliation, and coming together again.” Each of these thinkers offers compelling reasons that to be a healthy society—one in which broken relationships can be regenerated—we must learn and value forgiveness.
The most obvious contribution that the church could make is to recover its own theology and practice of forgiveness and become a true counterculture that can serve as a witness to the world. Arendt goes so far as to say that “the Discoverer of the role of forgiveness in the realm of human affairs was Jesus of Nazareth. The fact that he made this discovery in a religious context and articulated it in religious language is no reason to take it any less seriously in a strictly secular sense.” Arendt is right that secular people can use forgiveness to great benefit, but Christian faith provides many more resources for it. It is our responsibility to renew the biblical teaching on forgiveness and to show the world the unique resources both Christian belief and Christian community give us for it. ...
The Christian Counterculture
As I have already noted, the main way Christians can be a resource to the broader culture is by restoring the church to being a well-known community of forgiveness and reconciliation. It may be in the practices of forgiveness that we can best see the truth of Bonhoeffer’s statement: “Our community with one another [in Christ] consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us. Christian brotherhood is a spiritual and not a human reality. In this it differs from all other communities.”
Christians in community are to never give up on one another, never give up on a relationship, never “write off” another believer and have nothing to do with them. We must never tire of forgiving (and/or repenting!) and seeking to repair our relationships. Matthew 5:23–26 tells us we should go to someone if we know they have something against us. Matthew 18:15–20 says we should approach someone if we know that we have something against them. In short, if any relationship has cooled off or has weakened in any way—it is always your move. It doesn’t matter who started it. God always holds you responsible to reach out to repair a tattered relationship. A Christian is responsible to begin the process of reconciliation, regardless of how the distance or the alienation began. ...
We must never give up on each other or on the supernatural potential of Christian community. Jesus has brought “incompatibles” together. No wonder we often fight! We must strive to hold ourselves accountable to practice forgiveness and reconciliation. Our mutual love for one another is how the world will see who Jesus is.
For more on faith and forgiveness:
- Ted Lasso, Law School Deaning, And The Power Of Forgiveness (Aug. 2, 2020)
- July 4th, Hamilton, And The Power Of Forgiveness (July 4, 2020)
- Forgiveness And Mercy: Our Most God-Like Power (Jan. 5, 2020)
- Forgiveness: Law, Faith, Christmas, And Hamilton (Dec. 8, 2019)
- From Moses To Hamilton: A Dean’s Journey (Aug. 31, 2017)
- C.S. Lewis & Lin-Manuel Miranda: How I Found My Faith In Mere Christianity And Deepened It In Hamilton (July 24, 2017)
- Hamilton And Law School Deaning (July 7, 2017)
- Forgiveness In Charleston (And Beyond) (June 21, 2015)
- Forgiveness (Oct. 25, 2013)