Is forgiveness just? Is it supernatural?

Sometimes, people say that Christianity makes some weird and implausible dogmatic claims, but that everyone can agree that it made some decisive contributions to morality.  The idea is that you don’t have to accept specifically Christian doctrines (the Incarnation, the Trinity, etc) to accept what was once thought of as specifically Christian morality (love your enemies, forgive offenses, turn the other cheek, etc).  I’m not so sure.  Let’s take the example of forgiveness.  People who think this is a virtue for export may not realize how radical it is.

To be fair to both Christians and pagans, we must not alter the Lord’s command to forgive offenses in such a way as to make it “reasonable”.  Reasonable it is not, at least by natural standards.  Forgiveness doesn’t just mean to avoid vigilantism and let the police do their job.  It doesn’t just mean not retaliating disproportionately.  Pagans knew all about that.  Forgiveness means not even holding a grudge, not wishing ill.  It certainly doesn’t mean excusing offenses, imagining that the offender didn’t really know what he was doing or couldn’t really control himself.  When Aeneas spared Helen because it wasn’t her or Paris but the gods who brought down Troy, this was not Christian forgiveness.  The latter faces the evil will in all its monstrosity and still forgives.

Forgiveness is not just.  Justice doesn’t mean equal benevolence to all, like the rain falling on good and evil alike.  Justice means giving each person what he deserves.  A tooth for a tooth is justice.  Nor does justice limit itself to praising or condemning acts; it must praise or condemn their actors as well.  Everyone agrees that we should be grateful to those who do us a good turn.  In the same way, natural justice demands that we hold a grudge against those who wrong us.  Treating them the same as those who’ve never harmed us whouldn’t be fair.

Desire that wrongdoers be punished isn’t always selfish.  Not only our self-love, but our love of justice demands vengeance.  We often find it harder to forgive those who harm others rather than ourselves, because in this case the craving for justice stands in all its naked purity, with no mixture of self-interest.  Love of justice is a good thing.  An insensibility to wrongs is not Christian forgiveness.  A dog “forgives” like this, and it’s no virtue.  God–subsistent Justice Himself–shares our love of justice, so much so that He could not simply forget humanity’s transgressions without betraying His own nature, but rather sent His Son to become man and make expiation.

Christian forgiveness in its fulness is, I think, not a natural virtue at all.  It takes supernatural knowledge to see its goodness.  It’s only just to forgive the wicked because Jesus Christ has taken the world’s sins upon himself.  Though sinners, we are members of Christ; he takes our sin and shares his righteousness.  That may be hard to believe–or even understand–but if it’s not true, then vindictiveness is better than forgiveness.

Nonresistance to aggression (“turning the other cheek”) is the same, I think.  Naturally, this is no virtue at all, but rather a contemptible vice.  It only becomes a virtue in light of Jesus’ own nonresistence unto death, Jesus whose example we follow and whose image we more perfectly bear in the act of deliberate nonresistance.

There’s a counterargument to all this.  Even nonbelievers can appreciate the beauty of the Christian way, of forgiveness and passivity.  How can this be if they lack the supernatural knowledge that would justify this way of life?  Perhaps there’s a natural justification for Christian morality that they see and I ignored?  I think there are two cases here.  First, there are those who seem to appreciate Christian morality but actually misunderstand it.  For example, those who don’t believe in sin or personal responsibility may think they like the idea of forgiving, when they really like the idea of excusing.  These will praise Christian saints while thinking God the Father a monster for demanding payment in blood for original sin.  Second, there are those who truly grasp and appreciate the aesthetic of a Christian life.  I suspect that the Holy Spirit is at work in these, and I hope he will finish the work he has begun.

7 Responses

  1. I think Zhuang-zi understood a lot about super-human levels of forgiveness four centuries before Christ.

    Jesus had to emphasize forgiveness to the Jews because their culture emphasized violent, hyper-ethno-centric chauvinism.

    This does not mean that forgiveness is of central importance to everyone’s spiritual development. People who are biased toward revenge and chauvinism need to learn forgiveness. People who are biased toward sloth need to learn industrious action. Etc.

  2. Hello zhai2nan2,

    To be clear, I don’t mean that Christianity is supernatural in that it requires grace for men to be capable of it, but that it requires revealed truths to see it as a good thing.

    That is an interesting contextual point, that forgiveness is particularly out of place in Judaism. I’m not sure if I agree or disagree; I’ll have to think about it.

  3. So, you are claiming that the obligation to forgive extends to the unrepentant?

  4. My impression is that our obligation to forgive includes the unrepentant, since for us “forgiving” just means a benevolent attitude. God’s obligations to Himself are a different matter, since forgiveness by God usually is thought to include not just a benevolent attitude but also the act of redeeming and restoring the sinner; God will not do the latter without the sinner’s cooperation. Do you know of a place where this issue has been addressed specifically?

  5. No, but I don’t think we disagree, now that I see what you are saying. I would have said that we are obliged to love the unrepentant—where love means “will and/or pursue the rightly ordered interests of and potentially at personal cost.” Forgive I take to mean dropping or mitigating a just claim against. I think it is actually evil (in most circumstances) to drop a just claim against an unrepentant person; whereas, it is often a good thing to drop or mitigate a just claim against a repentant person. Evil because worldly punishments can awaken us to our culpability and lead us away from doing wrong. It has worked that way for me on occasion. Good because worldly mercy can remind us of supernatural mercy.

  6. ‘that forgiveness is particularly out of place in Judaism. I’m not sure if I agree or disagree’

    If it would sway you to my side, I could provide some juicy bits of Old Testament ickiness. “Blessed is he who dashes the little ones against the rocks,” and so on.

  7. Hi zhai2nan2,

    Your task will be a bit more difficult than this. You must show that those sorts of things are found less often in other cultures.

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