Generous Orthodoxy  

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Forgiveness is not enough

A few months ago, I read a review of a Brooklyn cop movie. I have forgotten the movie’s title, but I have not forgotten a quotation from it. According to the review, one of the characters said, “I don’t need forgiveness. I need help.”

A few days ago, I was arguing on the phone with a plumbing and construction company who had done a poor installation. This was the fourth or fifth conversation with no result. The woman on the line kept saying, “I do apologize” (what is it about this ubiquitous locution that sounds insincere? why not just “I apologize”?). I found myself saying, “I don’t want an apology! I want rectification!”

The distinguished New Testament scholar Reginald H. Fuller wrote (and also said, frequently), “forgiveness is too weak a word” to describe the gospel message. This crucial insight has not been sufficiently incorporated into contemporary teaching, preaching, and liturgy. The contemporary prayers of confession that I hear in various denominations all too often ask simply for forgiveness, not for what used to be called “amendment of life.”

Pope Benedict XVI finally seemed to hear the outcries about his failure to communicate to his flock and to the world about the crisis in the Roman Catholic Church. In a set of remarks published on May 11, he said, “The church has a profound need to relearn penance, to accept purification, to learn on the one hand forgiveness but also the necessity of justice.” He has apparently taken to heart the repeated complaints that the church has emphasized forgiveness for perpetrators at the expense of the victims.

The key word here is familiar to all who know the letters of the Apostle Paul. The Greek word dikaiosune has been translated over the centuries as “justification.” This word, used frequently by Paul to identify the work of Christ, lay close to the heart of the theology of the Reformation and in that role had an extremely powerful effect. However, in Protestant preaching over time, the word justification lost much of its force. It came to be used in a weaker way than Paul ever intended—a way that was not only too individualistic but also seemed to be a dead end when it came to Christian ethics. Too much emphasis on the “forensic” aspect of dikaiosune resulted in a sort of amnesty for sinners without any compensating result—forgiveness for perpetrators at the expense of victims in many cases, and in the case of so-called victimless crimes, a free pass (often referred to as “acquittal”) for the sinner without a resulting amendment of life.

It is true—centrally true—that dikaiosune is in no way earned and is a gift of prevenient (“going-before”) grace. What is missing from the concept of dikaiosune as mere forgiveness, however, is the power of God to make right what is wrong. The word dikaiosune is difficult to translate into English. The noun righteousness and the verb justify can both be used, but for most people they have quite different meanings in English. The best word to translate dikaiosune in our language is rectification—and this rendering is picking up steam among New Testament scholars and theologians. It connotes both a quality (righteousness) and a transforming power (the power actually to create righteousness).

When I reacted to the woman at the plumber’s office, I was spontaneously reflecting what I have learned over three decades of studying the theology of the Pauline letters. Forgiveness is not enough. I could forgive the plumber seventy times seven (Matthew 18:22) but our shower would still leak into the lower floor. We need to have the thing fixed.

The human race needs to be fixed. Can anyone doubt it when looking at the news of untrammeled oil leaks, corporate greed and rapacity, the return of the nuclear threat, religious intransigence increasing, terrorism eroding our liberties, Haitian misery exploited by opportunists, an increasingly unworkable prison system, an increasingly coarsened and self-centered society, and on and on?

Paul’s key phrase, the justification of the ungodly (Romans 4:5), which F. F. Bruce and an increasing number of biblical theologians have identified as the radical heart of the gospel, does not mean a declaration of amnesty for the ungodly. The famous South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission had to settle for that, in exchange for public confession by perpetrators. Given the realities of the situation, it was deemed the only way to move the country past its tormented history. In doing so, the TRC achieved a very real victory—of sorts. Confession and amnesty could not, however, be seen as any kind of true or complete solution. A true and complete solution would require a wholesale remaking and recreation as if from the beginning. That is impossible for human beings—“but with God, nothing is impossible” (Luke 1:37).

The word of the cross which Paul preached (I Corinthians 1:17-18) was not simply forgiveness. It was rectification—the rectification of the ungodly. And who is “the ungodly”? Quite simply, it is us.

The rectification of all things--including the creation which groans as it waits (Romans 8:22-3)-- is a future hope, not a present reality. The ethical outworking of dikaiosune in the present time is not “building the kingdom of God” as we so often hear. God is building his kingdom; with human beings it is impossible. What Christians do is to act as pointers, or signposts--witnesses, in short--to what God is doing. This means actions of resistance against inhumanity, especially when to do so is self-forgetful and costly. Such actions glorify Christ, the self-sacrificing Son of God.

In this era when so many Christians are acting as though defending the faith against attack is the most important thing we can do, may our Lord recall us to his own example: the church that would save its life will lose it; and the church that loses its life will find it.