The Two Edges of Forgiveness: Difficult Thoughts Offered with Difficulty

In a scene from the 2014 film Calvary, the protagonist priest, Fr. James, sits sullen at the town pub after having returned from visiting in prison a locally infamous young rapist and serial killerand former pupil. Inspector Stanton hears mention of the meeting and at once earnest and accusing presses for the reason of Fr. James’ visit. To this day Freddie Joyce has refused to divulge the location of his last victim’s body, leaving an open wound for the people of County Sligo. ‘Prisoners deserve spiritual guidance as much as anyone else. Maybe more so,’ Fr. James defends, stoic. Offended, Stanton replies bitterly, ‘Is that right? So they can find God and then say God has absolved them of all their sins and what they did didn’t really matter anyways ’cause now they’re saved?’ 

Divine forgiveness is a two-edged proposition. And this I mean two ways. At the same time that it cuts the bondage of our own wrongs, it severs us from our power to hold the wrongs of others against them. If it is Gød’s to forgive, and no one else’s prerogative, it is Gød’s to forgive our enemy’s and not our prerogative; if we consent to a program of divine forgiveness, we relinquish the right not to forgive. We see this pictured in Matthew 18’s parable of the unmerciful servant as well as the entirely conditional promise of forgiveness that Jesus infers from his lesson on prayer: ‘For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.’ Paul too issues an emphatic, double command to the Colossians: ‘Forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.’ While this work of forgiveness is not always easy, I think there is an irresistible logic to its economy: as we are forgiven, we must forgive. Otherwise, we are as foolish as the servant who is forgiven a debt of billions only to thrash someone who hasn’t paid back the fiver we spotted him, and we just as deservedly forfeit our debt cancellation.

There is a perhaps more troubling corollary to this idea, however. If we admit that Gød can forgive us without the forgiveness of the one we’ve wrongedthat is, that Gød can forgive on behalf of the wronged onewe surely admit that Gød can do this for any penitent, even Freddie Joyce, even Kim Jong-un. Don’t we? And does this mean, like so rightly offends Stanton, that ‘what they did didn’t really matter anyways ’cause now they’re saved?’ Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas protests similarly: ‘No one, not even God, can substitute himself for the victim. The world in which pardon is all-powerful becomes inhuman’ (Difficult Freedom, 20). Isn’t divine forgiveness ultimately a usurpation of a victim’s just prerogative to forgive or not, if only to be the first to forgive, to forgive in the process of one’s own healing from the injustices perpetrated? I might enjoy the notion that I do not need to wait upon the slow, sometimes ne’er-coming forgiveness of humans, but I am disquieted at the notion that victims of sexual abuse can only hope to participate in a secondary, post-facto act of forgiveness, to know that their victimizer is freedom ‘from the bondage of sin’ even as they remain in bondage to anger, hate and the psychological or physical scars so carved. If it’s justice, it’s a questionable justice.

The answer, it seems to me, is not an easy one to swallow. Where the two edges come to a point is again precisely in parable of the unmerciful servant, where one’s being forgiven is inextricably tied to one’s forgiving. The Christian conviction is that every injustice is (also) a wrong committed against Gød. The psalmist says this perhaps hyperbolically when he writes, ‘Against you and you alone have I sinned,’ even though the sin spoken of is adultery and murder against Uriah, not to mention power abuse against Bathsheba, to say nothing of the sins thus effected against Uriah’s family, the soldiers made complicit in the murder, etc. Yet at minimum, according to this conviction, Gød would uniquely be numbered among those wronged by every sin, thus bearing a prerogative to forgive or not for Gødself every case of injustice. If being wronged by someone amounts to having a card we can play against her, Gød is the only ‘one’ with a full hand. Thus, no one can play a card without Gød having a card to play against that same person. Hence another basic Christian conviction is that ‘all have sinned’ and stand condemnedif not by Gød Most Merciful than by history witnessing against us. Within this frame, cast as a debtor, each is at least in some respect ineligible to collect on the debts owed her, for if she holds to account then she will be held to account; or, better, if the victim does not bridge a relationship with the perpetrator, his relationship with Gød will be unbridged. If one plays in the economy of wrongs-keeping, one will lose by the very rules one seeks for advantage, rules that hold people at a distance according to transgressions against, and if one forfeits for the economy of wrongs-forgiving, one will enjoy the absence of these distances.

Does this mean that what oppressors do doesn’t really matter if they receive divine pardon? By no means. First, because Gød’s forgiveness is not inexpensive. It requires of course the forgiveness of others, but it also requires new rules in the economy of forgivenessthat is, of restored relationshipswhich includes attempts at restitution: ‘If you remember that your brother or sister has something against you . . . first be reconciled. . . . Come to terms quickly with your accuser’ (Mt 5:23-25). Being forgiven does not absolve of responsibility. Secondly, relatedly, those injustices that separate a victim and perpetrator are still a crucial, if tragic, part of the victim’s own redemption. Forgiveness between Gød and the perpetrator does not dissolve the (broken) relationship between the perpetrator and victim; yes, the victim may lose the priority to forgive, but that relationship still remains to be worked out between the human parties. That remains the prerogative and responsibility of both, and the victim retains a prerogative not to forgive, with the caveat that taxing others for their injustices comes at an emotional, psychological and spiritual cost. In such a way, I’d want to suggest, divine forgiveness supervening onto human injustices does not diminish those crimes but perhaps lifts up an aspect, a corner of them, for a greater redemption, including redemption of the victim, who might suffer long the blood-poison of anger and the bondage of resentment without having the offensive possibility of forgiveness raised for him.

All that said, I do not believe that Stanton is wrong in the offense he takes or the anger that rises against Fr. James at this notion. The scene continues that the junior priest, Fr. Leary, intervenes ineptly,’ ‘Calm down; you don’t know what you’re talking about,’ and earns himself a violent meeting with a nearby table. The idea that there’s a complex theology behind all of this doesn’t help. If Gød forgives, then someone can rape and murder children and be forgiven by Gød on the spot. We might praise Gød for that. We might curse Gød for thator curse those who preach as much. But if we embrace Christ’s forgiveness for ourselves, in the Christian program of divine forgiveness, it cuts both ways, and we do not get to choose one edge and be spared the other.


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