The Discipline of Forgiving Total Strangers

Some teachings of Jesus are ambiguous. His command of forgiveness is not among them.

“If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them,” he taught his disciples, “and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them” (Luke 17:3–4).

In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells his disciples to forgive “not seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Matt. 18:22) and then tells the parable of the unmerciful servant, which warns hearers not to be like a much-forgiven servant who refuses mercy for a small debt (Matt. 18:23–35).

In Mark, Jesus says we should forgive before we pray, “so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins” (Mark 11:25), and in Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, we say, “Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us” (Luke 11:4, emphasis added).

There’s no evasion of forgiveness available to us as Christians, it seems. Yet forgiveness—both giving and seeking—is never easy. No wonder the apostles, on receiving Jesus’ command in Luke 17, “said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’” (v. 5).

Forgiveness strikes me as particularly difficult in our public square, where we too often not only fail to forgive but also sometimes reject forgiveness as a virtue to which we should aspire.

“If forgiveness had a face, it would be hideous to us now,” wrote Catholic journalist Elizabeth Bruenig at The Washington Post in 2018. She continued:

Forgiveness means having the technical right to exact some penalty but electing not to pursue it. This breaks the cycle of retribution with unearned, undeserved mercy. … It is a hard thing, but necessary, if huge numbers of strangers are going to live peacefully together. … It’s the total absence of forgiveness from our cultural logic that makes any penalties whatsoever feel terminal.

In personal relationships, we still find our way to forgiveness. We must, sometimes, if we don’t want to be estranged. Forgiveness in public (and especially political) spaces is different in several ways.

For one, we often speak of forgiving people who have done us little to no direct harm. When a celebrity says something crude or offensive in public, we wonder whether we can ever forgive him, but it’s not always evident we’re really in the rightful position to forgive.

With celebrities, I suppose I might forgive by declining to boycott their future work or to speak ill of them to others who recognize their names. But in a case like this—and there are so many of them now—what rightful penalty could I relinquish? Perhaps it’s only my own animosity, including its public expression among Twitter’s furious flock.

The difficulty of public forgiveness is also compounded, as Bruenig has elsewhere observed, by our culture’s lack of a “coherent story … about how a person who’s done wrong can atone, make amends, and retain some continuity between their life [and] identity before and after the mistake.”

B. Kristian

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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