The Other Worldiness of Forgiveness

Forgiveness is a central theme for Christianity, but in trying to talk about it at any length we seem to tie ourselves in knots. A few simple sentences can call out the character of forgiveness in abstract but when these heavenly ideals come into contact with highly emotionally charged earthly realities, the simplicities soon break down.

Christians would all seem to agree that the source of understanding forgiveness exists in the scriptural story which narrates our offences against God and one another, and the response of God. But when we begin to talk about the response of God, we again, find ourselves tied in knots. In theology the talk of forgiveness boils down to our talk of atonement, which means; what exactly did Jesus of Nazareth achieve in His life, death, resurrection and ascension?

There are lots of sources to read endlessly about the different atonement theories, but it enough to say that there are a mulititude of theories, all confident they can prove themselves in scripture. The most reasonable accounts of atonement are that what is achieved by Jesus of Nazareth catches together most if not all of the main atonement metaphors.

One of the main ways theorists of forgiveness has sought to justify forgiveness as a practise is to talk of its benefits. Benefits to the forgiven, who are freed from chains they could not untie themselves, Benefits to the community who can journey someone into re-integration after a crime, Benefits for the forgiver who can find a level of closure for their experience. These are often applaudable outcomes from the practice of forgiveness, but in our commodified culture, we can place the cart before the horse and use forgiveness to purchase one of these outcomes.

Philosopher Jacques Derrida in his essay On Forgiveness asks whether anything other than acts which seem utterly unforgivable are the events in which true forgiveness can exist?

“there is only forgiveness, if there is any, where there is the unforgivable. That is to say that forgiveness must announce itself as impossibility itself. It can only be possible in doing the impossible” – Derrida, On Forgiveness, p. 33

Anything outside of the utterly unforgivable is something more akin to reconciliation and exists often as a transaction in a relationship rather than a movement of complete grace. In our world we are very use to transaction, it is the unspoken expectation, the very fabric of our interactions to give and expect to receive. We offer an apology we expect to be reconciled. We serve someone, we expect to be thanked. These are high up on many cultural values and certainly they are practises that keep our relational worlds spinning. But true forgiveness exists in a situation where it must be extended as gift, and this is where we enter into what Christians have called grace.

In South Africa, the context we work, the infamous concept of ubuntu, is the sense in which my humanity/belonging/worth is assured by my ability to uphold your humanity/belonging/worth. We have learnt a great deal from this primary communitarian foundation established in south african culture but it also has worked itself out in ways which have puzzled us. For example, my british cultural expectation of politeness was ruffled when I tried to learn how to say ‘Thankyou” and ‘Your Welcome’ in the local language. My friend told me;

“Oh we don’t tend to say ‘Your Welcome’ or even sometimes ‘Thankyou’ because it infers that somehow the debt of repayment has been paid. We stay quiet in a mutual acknowledgement that the next time you are in need, I will serve or give to you.” (paraphrase)

Although the heart of ubuntu causes acts of generosity and belonging that are mind-blowing to most individualistic western educated peoples, there is also a system of transaction rather than grace when it plays out in real life.

I’ve often reflected on the growth of Christian character being the ability to give freely, asking, demanding, or expecting nothing in return. In truth, this idealised detachment can create the opposite, where the very virtue of being free from the need to demand to be reciprocated can cause our distancing from other. But a more mature expression of this freedom, is that rather than detachment, we draw back into proximity with others not to utilise them in a transaction but as a person free from the need to be transacted with, as a free agent of gift and grace.

Jesus’ Atonement, our source for understanding and participating in forgiveness, is knowable in part, yet a mystery in whole. Our relationships at these unforgivable moments have the opportunity to testify to that as we act in ways towards one another that defy the world’s system of transaction and portray a mystery which will only fully be unveiled in a eschatological future.

The overarching context of a Christian account of forgiveness is the God who lives in Trinitarian relations of peaceable, self-giving communion and thereby is willing to bear the cost of forgiveness in order to restore humanity to that communion in God’s eschatological kingdom. That is, in the face of human sin and evil, God’s love moves toward reconciliation by means of costly forgiveness. In response, human beings are called to become holy by embodying that forgiveness through specific habits and practices that seek to remember the past truthfully, to repair the brokenness, to heal divisions, and to reconcile and renew relationships. (p. xii)
– L. Gregory Jones (1995) Embodying Forgiveness


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