I recently ran across a fascinating article by Dr. Samuel Wells, dean of Duke University Chapel, entitled “Forgiveness and the Justice of God,” on the relationship between justice and forgiveness that is right up our law/gospel alley. Although our ruminations can, at times, seem like abstract speculation, forgiveness is the concrete act where these ideas take flesh. Of course, following Derrida, we have to admit that “pure forgiveness” is impossible, but, then again, so is rising from the dead Here are some excerpts:
One feature of American life that has always fascinated me is the degree to which the Supreme Court has become the focal point of its culture. Most Americans seem to believe that the best place to discover right and wrong, to identify good and bad, and to resolve ambiguity, is through legal judgment.
The risk is that the attention given to getting the rules right can distract from the fact that a healthy society is always primarily about relationships and only secondarily about rules. It is only when both of these dimensions are working harmoniously that we might say that we have reached a point that could be called justice. . .
So this is what the story of Naboth’s vineyard is comprehensively showing us. Justice unravels when we lose sight of who we are in relation to God, and, once justice has had a great fall, it’s a tall order to put it back together again.
There really is only one thing that can make things better. There really is only one thing that can make any difference in a situation where you can’t bring Naboth back. There really is only one thing that can prevent an act of merciless force and the crushing of an innocent life turn into a spiral of retribution, a vendetta of vindictiveness and a cascade of vigilante revenge.
And that single thing is forgiveness. . .
Forgiveness says, “You can hurt me, but you can’t take away my allegiance to Christ. You can be cruel to me, but you can’t make me become like you. You can crush me, but you can’t put yourself outside the mercy of God.”
Why do we forgive? Because we don’t want to turn into creatures of bitterness locked up in the past, and we don’t want to be given over to a hatred that lets those who’ve hurt us continue to dominate our lives.
Why do we forgive? Because unlike Simon we know we’re sinners too and we can’t withhold from others the forgiveness we so desperately need for ourselves. That’s why in the Lord’s Prayer we say “Forgive us … as we forgive those …”
Why do we forgive? Because we know that every form of justice, all the systems for setting things straight, have failed.
Why do we forgive? Because Jesus is dying for us to forgive. Jesus is dying for us to stop our shame and secrecy and beg for forgiveness. Jesus is dying for us to end our enmity and hard-heartedness and offer the hand of mercy.
Why do we forgive? Because forgiveness is the justice of God. . .