Arguably the single most important concept in Christian theology is that of forgiveness. In fact, I am willing to suggest that without the uncompromising prioritisation of unconditional forgiveness, Christianity is only one more brutal expression of the kind of divisive religion that has plagued humanity since the beginning of our history.
Now anybody who knows me well enough ought to have seen that I do believe that Jesus is God’s answer to the problem of sin. But not for the reasons that Protestant theology usually offers. I certainly do believe that sin brings death and that humanity requires salvation. Any cursory look at the world as it is will reveal that much. However, I do not believe that the deathblow resulting from sin is dealt by the hand of God, nor that we require salvation from God’s fiery retribution. Sin, in my opinion, is a sort of terminal illness. Sin is not the transgression of a cosmic law, the penalty for which is death; it is the destructive (and usually self-destructive) ways that we deal with our pain (as defined by Rev Denny Moon). This means that God’s issue with sin is not the act of transgression itself, it is the fact that sin results in violent and dysfunctional relationships, unbefitting a society governed by love, which is how God would have society function (if we take Jesus’s teachings – and, indeed, the teachings of spiritual leaders from a range of cultural backgrounds – as God-sent). This Holy Week, I want to share one of the most beautiful insights into forgiveness I have read. It will challenge traditional Protestant interpretations (which I suspect many of you hold) of atonement and ought to make you look at the cross in an entirely different – and altogether more poignant – light. I owe these thoughts entirely to a post one of my theological mentors – Michael Hardin – made on Facebook on October 25 2013.
Hardin uses Luke 23:34, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing”, as a starting point for discussing forgiveness. At the moment of this most heinous of acts: the unjust murder of an innocent man, God’s own emissary no less, God’s response is to forgive it. And the basis of this forgiveness? “…they don’t know what they are doing”. As Michael Hardin puts it: “In his allusion to the nonconscious, it seems Jesus decoupled action and intention. There seems to be a recognition on the part of the Crucified that whatever it is that is done (the sinful act) cannot be attributed to the person as though a person “chooses” sin; rather what is recognized is that what we do stems from deeper parts of ourselves than even we realize.” In short, thousands of years before Freud, as René Girard notes, Jesus recognised the power of the unconscious mind in shaping our actions.
In the documentary Hellbound, which explores various perceptions of the idea of hell, another theologian I greatly respect, Brad Jersak, suggests that so long as people are conditioned by their cultures, as well as by their unique and painful personal histories, or even by their genetics, there can be no such thing as “free will”. And so no remotely ‘just’ God could judge human beings according to their actions so long as their choices were motivated by psychological and cultural factors completely outside of their control, and which they have only barely begun to comprehend, if at all.
Indeed, Michael Hardin notes that even our human legal systems require there to be a link between action and intention before we are able to find somebody guilty of a crime. In the eyes of the law, motive matters. A premeditated action is viewed in a very different light from a similar action resulting from negligence, say, or insanity. While the results of certain actions may be similar, those actions are not all equal before the law because they are augmented by different motives.
At the cross, as Hardin observes, “Jesus uncouples action and intention”. Jesus is able to forgive because he recognises that people “experience so much of life not as conscious autonomous beings, but as non-conscious relational beings”. This flies in the face of so much of our theology, where we insist that God requires our repentance before we can be forgiven. Protestant and Evangelical theology has tended to the belief that God’s forgiveness is contingent on our conscious choice to renounce sin and “repent”. But the cross says otherwise. Jesus acknowledges that our sinful choices are the result of powerful unconscious forces over which we have little – if any – control. The forgiveness Jesus offers his persecutors is not conditional on their acceptance of it, nor on their admission of guilt. They are completely unaware that they even need forgiveness, and they stand forgiven before God in spite of the fact that they are extremely unlikely to repent and change their ways. That is how God treats sinners. That means we need to radically rethink our theology of the cross.
The reason Jesus calls us to repentance and forgiveness is not because attaining holiness demands it; it is because Kingdom living – functional social dynamics – demands it. It is not a purity issue, it is a relational one. The primary problem with sin is not our actions, but the consequent brokenness in our relationships – with God, ourselves, and others. Dealing with sin, then, does not require God to restore innocence, but to restore relationships. This is dependent on the interplay between repentance and forgiveness.
Repentance, for God, is not the prerequisite for forgiveness. Instead, forgiveness opens up the psychological space for repentance to occur. So long as there is no forgiveness, the relationship remains irreparably broken and beyond redemption. For the relationship to be restored, both parties have to will it. Reconciliation requires both forgiveness and repentance. Forgiveness takes care of one side, and allows the other party the freedom to choose reconciliation too, without the fear of humiliation or retaliation. Forgiveness makes repentance a possibility. But repentance is necessary, too, for reconciliation to occur. There needs to be an honest acceptance of responsibility for the brokenness of the relationship and a commitment to working towards restoration through loving action.
And even if that one broken relationship is beyond reconciliation, an inability to forgive or repent by either party manifests in a bitterness and resentment that impact negatively on future relationships. Social cohesion – true unity – necessitates the willingness to forgive and to repent.
And so the forgiveness Jesus offers at the cross is not the pardoning of a crime against God on the basis that he will take the punishment for it. It is God’s voicing to us Hen’s recognition that our actions are not conscious choices, conditioned as they are by our cultures, our contexts, our experiences, our fears, our genetics, and that the despicable actions we perform might not be the ones we would choose if those constraints were removed. At the cross, Jesus plays God’s part in restoring the relationship: he forgives. This perfect act of love – forgiving even as we murder him – as the writer of 1 John 4 notes, “drives out fear” of God’s wrath, of punishment, and opens up the possibility of a new way of relating, motivated by love instead of fear.
And it has consequences for how Christians ought to respond to other people. We are far too quick to judge, to condemn, to hate. Jesus calls us to forgive others as we have been forgiven. What does that mean? To once more quote Michael Hardin: “If like God, we learn to dissociate sinful actions from intentionality, we may just discover the freedom we have in relation to others, knowing that the self that we know as our ‘self’ (our ego) is but the tip of the iceberg of our greater self (which is the sum of all our relationships and their influence on our life). So also the ‘self’ we know as the ‘other’ is but the tip of the iceberg of all their relationships and influences… Forgiving others, as God forgives us, is to recognize and act upon this uncoupling of intention and action so that when we are hurt by others we may say to ourselves (and to them) “I forgive you because I know that it is not you who is acting this way but that you are acting out of the bondage of all the confused and painful relationships in your life history.” Thus, we are called to forgive others as God has forgiven us, freely, graciously, and unconditionally. We stand in a posture of forgiveness in relation to all, before, prior to and apart from any acknowledgment of sin or repentance. The ‘other’ is forgiven, even as we are forgiven. This is the extraordinary freedom that allows repentance to come into being without coercion, with no fear of retaliation, but motivated entirely by love. It is not like a confession which we are forced to make. True repentance is never experienced as a command but only as a gift which is lived into true reconciliation.”
God’s vision in Jesus is far greater than simply exploiting a loophole in the cosmic justice system in order to cheat people into paradise. It is the reconciliation of all things to Henself. The Passion story is about something much more profound than blood-justice; it is God’s forgiveness of our patently unjust murder of Jesus so that for once and for all we can rid ourselves of the terror of God’s violent retaliation: If we can murder God incarnate and still be forgiven, then we can trust fully in God’s mercy. That opens the space for us to take responsibility for our own actions, just as Zaccheus payed back everything he had stolen fourfold (which Jesus interestingly labelled “salvation” (Luke 19:9)), and begin the journey of restoring the relationships that are broken, through loving actions, so that “The Kingdom of God” (the way Abba would rule) can be practically realised in the here and now, a heaven on earth. That is indeed “good news”.