Most of us, regardless of conviction, would say that we could use more forgiveness in our lives, not less. The world sometimes feels like it’s divided into those we wish we could forgive and those that we wish would forgive us – at least if our recurring dreams are to be trusted…
So why does forgiveness encounter so much resistance, both internally and externally? Exhibit A: The Huffington Post’s article “5 Myths about Forgiveness in the Bible,” in which Maria Mayo makes the outrageous claim that traditional Christian teaching on forgiveness is neither morally advisable nor grounded in the New Testament. Forget two millennia of scholarship and the experience/testimony of countless believers – 1. Jesus did not teach unconditional forgiveness, 2. Jesus did not forgive the woman caught in adultery and 3. Jesus did not forgive his attackers from the cross. And a couple more in that, um, vain.
It’s about as audacious, eccentric, and let’s-face-it arrogant a set of assertions as one could find. One might even go so far as to call it perverse.
The sad truth is that, as unfounded as Mayo’s interpretations may be, many folks will take them seriously. And not just because the HuffPo tells them to – no, because, like you and me, they want to. (That the Huffington Post would allow her to throw out such claims without referring to even one source for back-up is flat-out irresponsible). Surely you’ve met someone who can’t stand the idea of needing to be forgiven, for whom forgiveness implies the sort of guilt about “who we are” that traumatizes so many people (when, ironically, forgiveness isn’t part of the picture…). Others, such as Christopher Hitchens, object to it based on notions of fairness, that you can’t just let people off the hook! It’s unethical after all.
Then there’s the objection to forgiveness being something that is essentially Christian, which tends to take the form of assertions about either all religions being equally forgiving or Christianity not being such. Of course, getting territorially “hung up” on labels when it comes to forgiveness is usually another way to avoid dealing with it. So while you can’t entirely blame people for begrudging Christians who don’t deliver on the big game they talk, it is deeply saddening that something as beautiful and crucial as forgiveness would get caught in the cultural crossfire.
The larger truth here is that human beings – of all religious persuasions – prefer holding grudges. We opt for litigation. We love to talk about “rights.” Just watch any episode of any reality TV show ever.
Regardless of why Mayo has taken aim, her arguments suggest that she hasn’t engaged very much with people who are wrestling with this issue pastorally. For example, the notion that Jesus wasn’t forgiving his attackers on the cross – that he was instead asking God to forgive them – throws out, in one fell swoop, the long and rich history of Trinitarian theology, not to mention the plainspoken reality that crying out with one’s last breath that someone else would be forgiven suggests that you yourself are not exactly opposed to the possibility. One might understandably ask what it was about Jesus that so upset people’s sensibilities – both Jewish and Roman - that they felt they needed to crucify him.
Or, when Mayo insists that Jesus considered “repentance” a pre-condition for the boundless, seventy-times-seven forgiveness, she not only disregards the bulk of the Pauline witness (Romans, for example), she ignores Jesus’ relationship with the very people he was speaking with: his disciples, all of whom would betray him… and like it or not, he would forgive – before they had the chance to come clean. And then there’s her take on the poor woman caught in adultery, which suggests a profound naivete about the power of withholding judgement. I could go on, easily.
Ultimately Ms. Mayo is guilty of the same nonsense of which she’s accusing traditional readings of the New Testament: taking the text out of context, and worse, reading one’s own theology into it. More charitably you might say that she uses whatever gray areas there may be in the synoptic portrayal of forgiveness and steers them exactly where you might expect a fellow heir of “original sin”/hubris to, namely, toward a blunting of God’s one-way love and an enlargement of human agency. There is no good news for those of us who might consider ourselves unworthy and incapable of forgiveness. Just one huge B-U-T.
In other words, Mayo articulates the default human antagonism toward forgiveness so faithfully that she affirms, in a roundabout way, the very thing she’s setting out to disprove: not only is unconditional forgiveness deeply anathema to the human condition, it never fails to get people up in arms. That she’s operating from a position of the ever popular adoptionism that views Christ as moral teacher and example, rather than, say, savior, goes without saying. Where precisely her schema leaves Christians is anyone’s guess, but suffice it to say, assurance is out the window. No thank you!
Ironically, a separate article this week, “We Can’t Forgive, We Can Only Pretend To,” comes closer to the truth as you and I actually live it. The writer, Mark Vernon, calls forgiveness an impossibility, going so far as to claim that it doesn’t exist. We would go with him half-way, calling it a miracle, stating that forgiveness, by its very nature, is divine. It comes to us from the outside, from above if you will, rather than being something that we summon from deep within. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Far from it… Someone should send him a copy of The Useful Sinner, or Les Miserables for that matter.
Certainly the imperative to forgive an enemy is an impossible command. But our inability to pull it off, not to mention our reflex for spotting the speck in our neighbor’s eye in lieu of the log in our own, is not a benign or neutral fact. No, it is something we need to be forgiven of. Anyone that claims otherwise is simply deluding themselves… or has never been married. Of course, this doesn’t mean they won’t be forgiven. Even the most audacious and absurd of us is not outside divine purview. Which is good news if ever there was any.