Tag Archives: forgiveness

Answering Allison: Pacifism and the Unforgiving Servant

As part of my research for the Anarchy in May series, I was lured in by the title of Dale Allison’s The Sermon on the Mount: Inspiring the Moral Imagination. Hoping to have my moral imagination inspired, I cracked the spine only to find that I still feel more invigorated by the old familiar text of Matthew 5 than by Allison’s exposition of its meaning. More than anything, his attempt to take to task the pacifist interpretation of the command to “resist not the evildoer” stirred the polemicist in me, unsurprisingly. In fact, quite contrary to the very limited homiletics training I had many years ago, I managed a list of five distinct problems with his critique that can be answered with relative ease.

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The fourth error in Allison’s argument, his exegesis of the parable of the unforgiving servant, is intended to augment the third, but for the sake of keeping my comments brief I will treat it here separately. Picking up in the omitted portion of the previous quote, “But what does one do if others are being insulted or injured? Although this is a crucial question to which Matthew returns no explicit answer, in the parable in 18:23-25 a king, out of mercy, releases a servant from debt. But when that servant mistreats another, the king intervenes with punishment. In this story the king lets himself suffer wrong; but when it is another who suffers, mercy gives way to justice. Could it be that a similar sort of distinction should be read into 5:38-42?” The answer is, unequivocally, no. Why? Because that implication isn’t even present in the parable. It has been devised by Allison as a possible exemption from the ethical strictures of the Sermon on the Mount and then superimposed onto an unrelated parable.

It is simple enough to discern the correct intent of Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving servant, primarily because Jesus explains it at the end. Allison’s mistake can be understood (and, yes, forgiven) when one considers that the idea of a king being personally forgiving and institutionally violent fits very nicely with his other justification for ignoring the “resist not the evildoer” command. Still, Allison makes a fatal flaw by identifying the king with a human agent when Jesus himself says that the king figures “the heavenly Father” who “will do [likewise] to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” The figure which represents the questioner, in this case Peter, is the unforgiving servant. If there is a figure whose behavior is an analog to Christians’ it is the servant and not the king–lest our egos run away with us.

More than just being a gross exegetical failure, Allison’s reading of the text as a tacit approval of institutional violence to correct injustice misses entirely the point which Jesus is making to Peter. When Peter asks how often to forgive, Jesus gives him an astronomical number and, just in case Peter thinks he’s exaggerating, he follows up with a parable explaining the consequences of not forgiving. Quite in line with Christian pacifism, God is the only agent authorized by the parable to decide when “mercy gives way to justice.” Human agents are expected to forgive because God has forgiven then and to expect the Father to remove that mercy if they are unwilling to emulate it. The suggestion that the parable might decide when Christians should be allowed to punish instead of forgive not only misunderstands the clear purpose of the story, it directly contradicts it. A more careless reading hardly seems possible.

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#400

Once upon a time, I believed reaching one hundred posts was a momentous occasion, one so memorable that I would want to do something, for myself, to mark it.  The commemoration has become a personal tradition, and so, on this my four hundredth post, I offer you once again my favorite ten quotes from the previous ninety-nine posts.

10) An interview on Talking Philosophy with Alain de Botton proved to be my most interesting interaction with any atheist thinkers in the past hundred posts.  His thoughts pointed to dangers in atheistic thinking and proposed, in deliberate critique of New Atheists, various senses in which religion was a good thing, even as an atheist.  From Leading Atheist on What’s Wrong with Atheism:

Attempting to prove the non-existence of god can be entertaining…Though this exercise has its satisfactions, the real issue is not whether god exists or not, but where one takes the argument to once one decides that he evidently doesn’t. The premise of my book is that it must be possible to remain a committed atheist and nevertheless to find religions sporadically useful, interesting and consoling – and be curious as to the possibilities of importing certain of their ideas and practices into the secular realm.

9) I am deeply enamored of the thought of Eugene Genovese, a fact which will probably become evident over the next few weeks.  In a criticism of southern support for American imperialism, I quoted Genovese, among others, to demonstrate the hypocrisy of Imperialism in the Imperialized South:

The history of the Old South is now often taught at leading universities, when it is taught at all, as a prolonged guilt-trip, not to say a prologue to the history of Nazi Germany…To speak positively about any part of this southern tradition is to invite charges of being a racist and an apologist for slavery and segregation. We are witnessing a cultural and political atrocity – an increasingly successful campaign by the media and an academic elite to strip young white southerners and arguably black southerners as well, of their heritage, and, therefore, their identity.

8) Of the critical series I have written in this cycle, the one I most enjoyed researching and producing was my exposition of complementarianism in response to Roger Olson.  The great quote, on the other hand, likely came from the Founding Father’s series.  In Illusions of Innocence, I applied Richard T. Hughes and Leonerd Allen’s thesis about primitivism in American Protestantism and applied it to American political primitivism.  To conclude, I quoted their evaluation of Roger Williams primitivist thought, a historically unsustainable but ideologically more appealing variety:

For Williams, the radical finitude of human existence, entailing inevitable failures in understanding and action, makes restoration of necessity an open-ended concept. The absolute, universal ideal existed for Williams without question. But the gap between the universal and the particular, between the absolute and the finite, was so great that it precluded any one-on-one identification of the particular with the universal…the best one could do was approximate the universal, an approximation that occurred only through a diligent search for truth.

7) Though most of the series on Christianity and Jain occurred earlier, the day after the three hundredth post, I added to the comparative study Christ, Jain, and Mutual Forgiveness.  Here is some wisdom from Mahavira on the subject:

If, during the retreat, among monks or nuns occurs a quarrel or dispute or dissension, the young monk should ask forgiveness of the superior, and the superior of the young monk. They should forgive and ask forgiveness, appease and be appeased, and converse without restraint.

6) Long overdue, I finally shared a selection of quotes in The Wisdom of the Pilgrim connecting my longstanding love of fourteenth century hesychasm with a more recent text:

[O]ne of the most lamentable things is the vanity of elementary knowledge which drives people to measure the Divine by a human yardstick.

5) For Easter–that is East Easter not West Easter–I shared a few notes from the Ecumenical Patriarch about the meaning of life in Christ made possible by his death and resurrection and the destructive attempts of people to secure life apart from him.  From Christos Anesti!:

There is no need for some nations to be destroyed in order for other nations to survive. Nor is there any need to destroy defenseless human lives so that other human beings may live in greater comfort. Christ offers life to all people, on earth as in heaven. He is risen, and all those who so desire life may follow Him on the way of Resurrection. By contrast, all those who bring about death, whether indirectly or directly, believing that in this way they are prolonging or enhancing their own life, condemn themselves to eternal death.

4) Buried deep in the recesses of a response to a Fox News article, Invade Iran (et al) for Christ!, is perhaps one of my favorite short quotes from any of the early church fathers.  Here is Justin Martyr’s response to persecution:

You can kill us, but you can’t hurt us.

3) Of all the wonderful cow stories–and I had options this time around–that have been shared here throughout the years, none had me more excited than finding an archival story about Grady, the cow who got stuck in a silo and captured the imagination of a nation.  On This Day in Cow History celebrated her generations old story, and its very happy ending:

What’s in store for Grady? “Well, I believe she’s earned peace and quiet the rest of her life,” Mach [her owner] said. “She’s had more excitement than most cows.”

2) My commentary on J. W. McGarvey’s sermons offered throughout the month of his birth was littered with excellent quotes.  McGarvey was, however, perhaps most poetic and profound when he recorded his thoughts On Prayer:

If God was a God who did not hear our prayers, or care anything about our prayers, He might as well be made of ice. He is a living God; a God who has friends, and loves His friends; and this is the reason that He will do something for them when they cry to Him. Don’t think of God as mere abstraction, or as a being who keeps Himself beyond the sky; but think of Him as one who lives with you, who is round about you, who lays His hand under your head when you lie down to rest. So in praying, pray with the confidence of little children…Pray in the morning; pray at the noontide; pray when you lie down to sleep…Pray often; pray earnestly; and in order that your prayer may amount to anything, be righteous men and women.

1) The Anarchy in May series is perhaps the most fun I have ever had here, and selecting a single quote from a month of my favorite thinkers is exceedingly difficult.  More than anything, this selection from Tolstoy on Moral Culpability, is appropriate because of Tolstoy’s preeminent place in the history of anarchism:

[W]e are responsible for our own misdeeds. And the misdeeds of our rulers become our own, if we, knowing that they are misdeeds, assist in carrying, them out. Those who suppose that they are bound to obey the government, and that the responsibility for the misdeeds they commit is transferred from them to their rulers, deceive themselves.

I can only hope that the next hundred posts flow as easily and are as much fun to write as the last hundred were.

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Christ, Jain, and Mutual Forgiveness

The previous conversation between Jain and Christian thought focused almost entirely on the negative aspects of Jain’s approach to the material world as it related to the transcendent and life’s ultimate destiny. As a counter balance, the question of forgiveness and particularly the universal stress on mutual forgiveness offers a delightful point of overlap between Christianity and Jain. The Jain focus on forgiveness is an extension of the goal of practitioners to be at harmony with other living beings. There is a semi-liturgical rite known as the Vandana Formula in which a member of the Jain laity approaches a monk and has the following interchange:

Layperson: I wish to reverence you, ascetic who suffers with equanimity, with
intense concentration.
Monk: So be it.
Layperson: You will have passed the day auspiciously with little disturbance.
Monk: Yes
Layperson: You make spiritual progress
Monk: And you also.
Layperson: I wish to ask pardon for transgressions.
Monk: I ask for it too.
Layperson: I must confess, ascetic who suffers with equanimity, for lack of
respect and day-to-day transgressions of the mind, speech, or body;
through anger, pride, deceit, or greed; false behavior and neglect of the
Teaching; and whatever offense I have committed I here confess, repudiate
and repent of it and set aside my past deeds.

This ritual ought to resonate strongly with Christians, particularly as it so nearly resembles the practice of some traditions with regard to confession. There is a clear sense of the inequality of the two people with regard to spiritual progress, and at the same time they meet on the level playing field of their mutual inadequacy. The laity ask for forgiveness and the monk responds “I ask for it too.” There is no illusion that one can come to the other for forgiveness, and yet there is spiritual power in the act of seeking it from one another.

The Vandana Formula is by no means peculiar in Jain. In the Kalpasutra, the teachings of Mahavira once again speak to this central place of mutual forbearance and forgiveness among practitioners of Jain. In this text, it arises in the context of a yearly retreat for monks and nuns. Knowing that such a congregation will ultimately give rise to conflict, Mahavira gave the ascetics the following advice:

If, during the retreat, among monks or nuns occurs a quarrel or dispute or dissension, the young monk should ask forgiveness of the superior, and the superior of the young monk. They should forgive and ask forgiveness, appease and be appeased, and converse without restraint.

It is almost too easy to find parallel concepts in Christianity. Jesus’ hyperbolic reply to Peter that we ought to forgive one another seventy times seven times springs immediately to mind, as does the command in the Sermon on the Mount to seek forgiveness before making a gift to God. More interesting than merely an emphasis on forgiveness, however, is the parallel idea that exists in both religions that mutual forgiveness is not ultimately about our ability to expiate one another’s sins. There is something else going on in each. For Jain, the forgiveness is an attempt to live at harmony with other living beings, to be released from the burden of the illusion of guilt and the corruption of anger. In Christianity, we forgive not because our forgiveness is somehow necessary in order to free one another from sin but because we serve a God who forgives. It is ultimately Christians’ own attempt at harmony, but not necessarily with one another (though that is a penultimate goal) but with a God who is overflowing with forgiveness.

The unfortunate truth, I suspect, is that both Jain and Christianity suffer from the same flaw: confession and mutual forgiveness are more readily found in their holy texts than in the lives of modern practitioners.

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David Lipscomb on Baptism

In the following excerpt, David Lipscomb is using the a difference in translation between the Common Version and the Revised Version of the Bible to throw light on the question of rebaptism in the Churches of Christ. On the one hand, there were those who believed that unless someone believed that his or her baptism was “for the remission of sin” that a rebaptism was necessary to be in communion with the Churches of Christ. Lipscomb considered this view misguided. He compared it later in the text to believing that a man who misunderstood when he crossed from Tennessee into Kentucky must not really be in Kentucky at all. The argument is that the decision to seek forgiveness in Christ is more central to salvation than a correct understanding of the moment in which that forgiveness is received.

While the question of rebaptism for “conversion” between denominations is not nearly as heated today as it was in Lipscomb’s day, the kind of misconceptions about baptism that fueled the rebaptist position are still alive and well in many churches. To that end, Lipscomb’s comments are no less crucial than ever for understanding the role of baptism in the plan of salvation. Lipscomb rightly places the emphasis on Christ rather than on baptism, a lesson that is always timely.

David Lipscomb, “The Revised Testament and Rebaptism,” (1913):

Baptism is said to be “for the remission of sins” in the Common Version. “John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. ” (Mark 1:4). Luke 3:3 gives the same. Peter told the people: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. ”

In the Revised Version, the expression, “Be baptized [or anything else man can do] for the remission of sins, ” is not found. In that version the participles, prepositions, and other secondary words have been more carefully translated, and the American Revised Version is regarded by those competent to judge, the best version or translation [p. 922] in the language. The Revised Version translates “for the remission of sins, ” in each of these cases, “unto the remission of sins. ” The difference in the meaning is, “for the remission of sins” suggests the idea that the baptism is to pay for remitting the sins as a man pays for a horse. It is giving value received; that we are entitled to if for the service rendered. The human heart is prone to run to this extreme. The proneness to run to this extreme has caused God to especially guard against permitting it in any of his dealings with man. Even Moses, the meekest of men, was uplifted with personal pride, took to himself the honor of giving blessings which belonged only to God and forfeited an entrance in the land of Canaan. (Ex. 17:1) In Deut. 9:4, God through Moses, gives the Jews the terrible warning that he does not give them the land of Canaan on account of their merits, but on account of the wickedness of those he drove out. It is such a sin to assume to merit the blessings God bestows that no encouragement to the position in doubtful translation should be given.

To be baptized into Christ, into the name of Christ, teaches plainly and truly that in entering into Christ we come to and enjoy the remission of sins: because of and by virtue of our entrance and union with Christ, we become children of God. This is the expressive declaration that we are saved by the blood of Christ, and not because we have been baptized for the remission of sins—a selfish end. To be baptized into Christ is an expressive declaration that baptism is the step, the last step a man takes in entering Christ. So when he is baptized, he is entitled to all the privileges of a child of God—to all the blessings that oneness with Christ, our Lord, brings. The only sense in which baptism is “for the remission of sins” is, it is the act appointed by God to test our faith, and the act that puts one into Christ, in whom we enjoy all the blessings and favors of the redeeming and purifying Son of God.

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Easter

Christ is risen!

Easter is always a bittersweet time for me. Just as, paradoxically, the beginning of Lent is always a happy occurrence so with Easter there is a tinge of sorrow. It marks the end of the great fast and my favorite time of year, liturgically. The various Christian bodies will go off to observe their separate traditions (or ignore tradition altogether) and the spiritual unanimity of the paschal season will be lost. This is particularly true now because it will be several years yet before the Eastern and Western Easter calendars align again like they have for the past two years.

The real bitterness, though, is in reflection on my own spiritual state at the end of the fast. Easter and its magnificence throws into sharp relief all my own short comings of the past six weeks. Every time I may have broken fast or neglected the spirit of the fast or even every time I didn’t anoint my head with oil. Recently, I had focused so much of my concern on persevering until the end, that I overlooked the startling craftiness of the devil. The real trial of fasting is not that we might grow weary of it but that we shouldn’t. In our weariness, we meet God. He has a heart for the broken, the weak, and the longing. The real snare that our enemy sets for us is arrogance, the confidence that we can persevere. We become so comfortable in our deprivation that we forget that our success depends on God or else we allow our resolve to slip into the background and begin to fill the void we have created by fasting with a substitute both for the object or behavior we are abstaining from and for the God who ought to be our satisfaction in its stead.

And yet wonderfully, mystically, beautifully therein lies the indomitable joy of Easter. It came anyway. It didn’t matter that I failed on so many levels. It didn’t matter that beneath all the apparent unity in our Christian observance there lingered seeds of discord. It didn’t matter that some didn’t fast and never fast. None of it mattered. None of our sins were ever enough to keep Christ in the grave. Before time and outside of time he knew just how pathetic I would be, but he still created me, still came for me, still died for me, and still rose then and today as a conqueror over the darkness that I am inadequate to overcome.

The veil has been torn, the stone has been rolled away, death has been swallowed up in victory, and Jesus Christ–praise to his name–is risen.

And the church said: amen.

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Forgiveness Sunday

Scripture:

Matthew 6:14-15

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

Genesis 45:4-15

So Joseph said to his brothers, “Come near to me, please.” And they came near. And he said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are yet five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, ‘Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt. Come down to me; do not tarry. You shall dwell in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children, and your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. There I will provide for you, for there are yet five years of famine to come, so that you and your household, and all that you have, do not come to poverty.’ And now your eyes see, and the eyes of my brother Benjamin see, that it is my mouth that speaks to you. You must tell my father of all my honor in Egypt, and of all that you have seen. Hurry and bring my father down here.” Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, and Benjamin wept upon his neck. And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them. After that his brothers talked with him.

History:

Alexander Schmemann, “Forgiveness Sunday”

Now, forgiveness stands at the very center of Christian faith and of Christian life because Christianity itself is, above all, the religion of forgiveness. God forgives us, and His forgiveness is in Christ, His Son, Whom He sends to us, so that by sharing in His humanity we may share in His love and be truly reconciled with God. Indeed, Christianity has no other content but love. And it is primarily the renewal of that love, a return to it, a growth in it, that we seek in Great Lent, in fasting and prayer, in the entire spirit and the entire effort of that season. Thus, truly forgiveness is both the beginning of, and the proper condition for the Lenten season.

One may ask, however: Why should I perform this rite when I have no “enemies”? Why should I ask forgiveness from people who have done nothing to me, and whom I hardly know? To ask these questions, is to misunderstand the Orthodox teaching concerning forgiveness. It is true, that open enmity, personal hatred, real animosity may be absent from our life, though if we experience them, it may be easier for us to repent, for these feelings openly contradict Divine commandments. But, the Church reveals to us that there are much subtler ways of offending Divine Love. These are indifference, selfishness, lack of interest in other people, of any real concern for them — in short, that wall which we usually erect around ourselves, thinking that by being “polite” and “friendly” we fulfill God’s commandments. The rite of forgiveness is so important precisely because it makes us realize – be it only for one minute – that our entire relationship to other men is wrong, makes us experience that encounter of one child of God with another, of one person created by God with another, makes us feel that mutual “recognition” which is so terribly lacking in our cold and dehumanized world.

Reflection:

At one and the same time, Forgiveness Sunday and Judgment Sunday stand in stark contrast and harmonious unity. It is necessary that we should all first recognize that we stand under judgment before we can truly appreciate forgiveness. Because we so often live as if we have no sin, as if our “politeness” and “friendliness” satisfied God’s ethical demands, we often pay lip service to our need for forgiveness. We sing about it in our songs and preach about it from our pulpits, but we live our lives like people constantly wronged by everything from our government to the person in front of us in the express line at Wal*mart with twenty-two items. We are so busy feeling aggrieved that we forget to grieve for the sins that we commit against God and against one another.

It would seem that Fr. Schmemann and the Joseph cycle represent two ends of the full continuum of the human capacity both for evil and forgiveness. On the one hand, we have a conspiratorial plot to commit fratricide and a brother’s willingness to do better than to forgive and forget when the tables of power are turned. On the other hand there is the somewhat more frightening tendency that we all have to be self-involved and apathetic just beneath the surface. The difference between them is that we all recognize that the former is wrong and have been taught to forgive when we are wronged and (to a lesser to degree) to seek forgiveness when we have wronged another. What Schmemann points out is the pervasive kind of evil that has become so common place that we do not think to seek forgiveness for it anymore.

We’re under the mistaken impression in our society (and I realize that I am beginning to wax philosophic) that to behave rightly toward one another is to behave in such a way that you wish it would be universally mandated that everyone behaved thus. That moral imperative allows for me to be only insincerely polite to you because all I expect or want is your facile kindness in return. God demands more than our cultural expectations, and if we think critically enough about it, we will recognize that we owe more to one another than the kind of honey glazed apathy that we insulate ourselves with.

To recognize this, the Orthodox observe a rite of forgiveness in which they prostrate themselves before one another or before a priest and each asks forgiveness of the other. It is an important gesture performed with the right intention, as it reminds that in approaching Lent it is not only to God that we owe repentance nor only from Him that we seek forgiveness. Instead, it is to our brothers and sisters, our yokefellows, those who bear the image of God and who are being transformed into the image of the Son. We can rest assured, however, that in a community with the Redeemer as its head our forgiveness from other Christians is no less sure than our forgiveness from God.

Prayer:

O Lord give me strength to refrain from the unkind silence that is born of hardness of heart; the unkind silence that clouds the serenity of understanding and is the enemy of peace.
— Cecil Hunt

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A Prayer for Loyalty to God

A prayer from James A. Harding, quoted in Kingdom Come: Embracing the Spiritual Legacy of David Lipscomb and James Harding:

O my father, deliver me from the domination of money. My heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick, only though canst know the depth of it. Without realizing that it was so, I was on my way to become a professional. And now, Father, forgive thy penitent servant, and guide his wayward feet unto thy paths. Make me wholly free from the fear of men. May I by thy grace love thee, even thee alone and supremely, and because I love thee may I love thy truth, and the souls of men. Enable me to lay all my burdens and concerns as to this world’s affairs upon the God who will in no wise fail nor in any wise forsake them that rest their trust on him; and then go forth to do all thy will, even thine, unto the end.

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