Forgiveness and Theological Doubletalk

Biometric-EarPod-Rumor-Was-a-Fake-Author-Comes-Clean-440854-2After expressions of forgiveness from the families of “The Beautiful Nine,” a few articles have been written that counter the dominant media narratives focusing on the beauty of the unconditional forgiveness offered Dylann Roof contrasted with the hatred and terror wrought on the community.  As I mentioned earlier, I laud the family members for opening themselves to such extraordinary grace, particularly during a moment when the temptation to lash out with hatred and vengeance must have been barely resistible.

Still, even though my own rage towards the perpetrator has dissipated in the space of a few days, I remain deeply troubled by the way Christian thinkers, especially, are using these families as moral exemplars—admonishing others to do the same before any process of mutual truth telling  or even the slightest gesture of repentance on behalf of the perpetrator. Meanwhile, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, a Muslim, who, along with his brother, was responsible for planting pressure cooker bombs at strategic locations along a Boston Marathon route, has come to the end of his trial and offered an eloquent expression of remorse for his crimes.

Some of the victims and their families also expressed forgiveness in Tsarnaev’s case.  But the media mentioned such cases in passing, focusing instead on victims’s doubt regarding his sincerity and their pointed expressions of outrage. Yet, the lauding of the grace of forgiveness, in the case of Charleston now expanded to the “black church” in general, continues to be the overriding narrative, even as bodies are being lowered into the ground. The investigation is not finished.  No trial date appears on the calendar.

The disparity raises a number of troubling questions, which I will leave to the reader to ponder: Is forgiveness only laudable when granted by those who have been on the receiving end of violence and terror for centuries?  Is the celebration of forgiveness in Charleston a collective sigh of relief that the terror meted out on black people by white supremacy may not be returned  with the same capriciousness? Is unconditional forgiveness reserved for Christian terrorists like Dylann Roof, a Lutheran, while appropriately withheld from Muslim terrorists even after expressions of contrition? Do black lives matter? Are they precious enough to avoid re-traumatizing black communities with calls for forgiveness while they grieve? 

A black minister was overheard during one of last Sunday’s services in Charleston saying, “It’s about time we started acting like church folk and start forgiving.” Outside the church some murmured, “Forgiveness has to be earned.”

This subject continues to dog me because those of us charged with the care of souls bear a grave responsibility to be clear about what our words mean, lest our pious platitudes re-traumatize the least powerful in our care while affording the powerful easy comfort. Anyone  who knows me soon realizes I have little patience for doubletalk. Religious doubletalk kills.

So let’s wade in some murky waters in the hope of finding clarity. At one end of the spectrum we have Russell Moore who argues that Christians should offer unconditional forgiveness, without regard to repentance, trusting in God and the state to mete out punishment.  At the other end of the spectrum is Roxane Gay, whose op ed piece as an African American woman echoes the pointed sentiment of Mary Blewitt, another black woman, who lost family to the Rwandan genocide, “Forgiveness without justice is nothing more than delayed atrocity.” Gay casts a skeptical eye on Christian forgiveness in general, making it abundantly clear that, when it comes to oppression against black people, she is done with forgiveness.

As much as I want to launch into the political implications of their various positions, let me begin at the beginning, with what I mean by the word “forgiveness.”  (As a Chicago ethicist quipped, “When in doubt, stipulate!”)  In its plainest sense, forgiveness means to release someone from the debt they owe. Even though forgiveness has been spiritualized to the point that it currently has everything to do with purifying the soul of the forgiver apart from any concern for  the penitent, this is a rather late interpretation that finds no warrant in Jewish and Christian scriptures. (These days, it’s all about me.)  The Greek word often translated forgiveness is aphiemi, to send away, remit, release (from an obligation) which implies something far more robust than simply forgetting or releasing anger.

Some will recall Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18.21-35 where a master has forbearance on a slave who begs him not to punish him for the debt that he owes. The slave, rather than paying it forward, refuses to be merciful to another slave who also pleads for forbearance. When the master finds out, he tosses the unmerciful slave in prison and has him tortured on account of his debts. This story follows Jesus’s admonition to Peter to forgive “seventy times seven” or an infinite number of times. It resonates in Matthew’s version of the Our Father, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Forgiveness in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures is transactional, not merely psychological. But the Bible does speak of standing “ready to forgive,” which is a posture of generosity, a fundamental orientiation toward everyone including the enemy.

Christians do well to remember the Jewish context in which Jesus operated. My rabbi friends tell me that in Judaism, forgiveness is never severed from repentance, just as they are not severed in the parable above despite its use to justify unconditional forgiveness.* Only those wronged have the power to forgive. Even God cannot forgive a debt that is owed to another person. The debtor must settle accounts with the injured party first and then ask for God’s forgiveness. The injured party, on the other hand, is obliged to forgive the penitent, the one who turns from wrongdoing, lest the sin accrue to the unforgiving party. The injured is under no moral obligation to forgive the unrepentant injurer.

Yet everyone is encouraged to stand ready to forgive, a disposition cultivated by praying to God that God will be merciful to the debtor.  This posture was exemplified in Luke’s passion narrative (Luke 23.34) where Jesus says, while being crucified, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” The martyrdom of Stephen (Acts 7.54-60) has him recite a version of this prayer. In neither case does the tortured turn to the torturer and say, “I forgive you.” It would have been meaningless without repentance, except perhaps as a case study in Stockholm Syndrome.

This distinction between the obligation to forgive unconditionally and the invitation to stand ready to forgive is particularly important when caring for those who experience repeated trauma: battered women, abused children, black folk, all the oppressed. It is confusing, if not cruel, for clergy who so often speak of repentance before God to demand simultaneously  that oppressed people be forgiving unconditionally only to backtrack and spiritualize so concrete, powerful, and liberating a word as “forgive” when the oppressed object.  

If we mean what has already been said quite eloquently Psalms 4.4, “tremble and do not sin,” and echoed in the letter to the Ephesians, 4.6, perhaps we would do better to speak of the danger of bitterness when the time is right. We can justifiably encourage everyone not to do violence and lash out in anger, to cultivate compassion, to pray to God to purge all self-destructive hatred, to ask God to have mercy on someone.  Leave forgiveness within its proper transactional framework.

This brings me to the inherent danger I find in Moore’s reasoning, which leads him to dance around forgiveness and justice in a way that ultimately collapses. Were forgiveness reserved to the realm of transaction, it had been unnecessary to walk the tightrope of arguing that the state’s duty is to mete out justice because it died for no one’s sins.  What does that even mean?  This he says to a people who have been shouting from the rooftops, the highways and byways in recent days “Agents of the state have been profiling us, penalizing us, incarcerating us, even slaughtering us!”

It is no wonder, then, that black folk like Gay (and me!) are saying, enough with the forgiveness talk. We are going to see to it that justice is done because the state is not doing its job. It’s doing a job on us. Even if you believe that conditions have improved, those of us of a certain age carry the memory of white terrorists being acquitted by all white juries and judges  who were quite often fellow members of the Ku Klux Klan. And while some of us still believe in so  quaint an idea as divine judgment, we find it no substitute for having a fighting chance in this life.

As far as forgiveness offered to those who commit heinous acts, I have suggested before that when one’s back is against the wall, signaling a readiness to forgive to the unrepentant soul, even aborting  the process of reconciliation by casting the debt away may be the appropriate choice when faced with the alternative of actualizing one’s rage. But I would, at best, call such actions (pace Luther and Calvin!) what Catholic moral theologians such as Thomas Aquinas have called “acts of supererogation”—that is, actions which are laudable but not required. They are above and beyond the call of duty, beyond justice for the sake of pleasing God. And they may indeed help onlookers adopt the posture of standing ready to forgive, having mercy on the worst offenders, or even just putting down the computer and smart phone and smelling the flowers instead of ruminating about every detail of the offense. But it is up to each individual conscience to make of such acts what she will, not the clergy to make a moral imperative of supererogation—or worse, to use forgiveness as yet another bludgeon for the oppressed.


*Interfaith conversations deserve to be had between Christians, Jews, and Muslims about  the nature forgiveness, especially during this teachable moment.  Just as there is disagreement within religions I suspect there is even greater disagreement between the peoples of the book.

©2015 D. Maurice Charles.  All rights reserved.

(Here is Abby Lincoln singing Duke Ellington’s classic “Come Sunday,” which debuted in Carnegie hall in 1943 during the height of Jim Crow and World War II.  It has been on my mind of late.)


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About D. Maurice Charles

Maurice is an Episcopal priest and historian of Christianity who reflects on religion and violence, having received his M.Div. and Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. Most of his ministry has focused on higher education, having previously served as Associate Dean for Religious Life at Stanford University. In 2015 he was appointed Chaplain of the Colleges and Assistant Professor of Religious Studies (by courtesy) at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, NY. Maurice contributes to this blog with his Chicago friends in the hope that personal reflection and heartfelt discussion lead to building beloved community.