09 July 2013

Forgive or Die

Forgiveness in the teaching of Jesus is not for the sake of moral purity;
it’s quite simply for the sake of a future.
~Fr. Richard Rohr

The above quote from Rohr is nagging at me. I think it may be profoundly true on a level we're happy to miss.

On the surface, it's a fine piece of rhetoric: by a simple use of antithesis, Rohr challenges a common assumption—that the letting go of one's offenses, as if they had never been committed, in the teachings of Jesus had as its primary objective the cleaning up of one's life (inside and out). Sure, that may be one means to the end, but it's the end—the future—that faces extinction without forgiveness.

This idea isn't original with Rohr, of course. I think most notably of former Archbishop of Cape Town Desmond Tutu's book No Future Without Forgiveness (Image, 2000). Through his eyewitness account, Tutu focuses on how the Truth and Reconciliation Commission he chaired (pressed upon him by President Mandela, et al.) attempted to move beyond the various forms of institutionalized retribution taking place in post-apartheid South Africa. Calling out the unworkable "solution" of bringing perpetrators of apartheid to court, he describes the highs and lows of his commission's approach to justice: the granting of political amnesty to those who make a full confession of their crimes.

While Tutu's account centers on this world, it's deeply informed by the next. It's a working out of the blueprint Israel's god YHWH drew up so long ago. It's the imperfect attempt to follow the model that God in Christ lived out. It's God's way to approach justice that his Spirit continues to empower up to this very day.

While we are no doubt chosen "to be [God's] through our union with Christ, so that we would be holy and without fault before him" (Eph 1:4; see also Col 1:22), it's God's forgiveness that creates the biblical vision of his future—resurrected life on a renewed earth. The bit that gets so hard to grasp is the fact that the creator God bound himself to forgive. Without forgiveness, even his future goes. What else does the story of him walking through the animal halves alone when ratifying his covenant with Abraham mean (Gen 15:12–21)? That if the promise fails, YHWH himself will be like those shredded carcasses. This is why in the new covenant, ratified by the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, we see that if "we confess our sins to God, he will keep his promise and do what is right: he will forgive us our sins and purify us from all our wrongdoing" (1 Jn 1:9). How striking that the writer includes that God will "do what is right"! Why is it "right" (or "just") for God to forgive sins when they're confessed? Because that's what he promised to do, precisely because of his promised future.

He binds himself to forgive. Remember that the next time you fall into the same old sinful patterns that betray his covenant.

As Tutu's example shows, this kind of forgiveness for the sake of the future, the kind that God himself enacts and ultimately embodied in Jesus by the power of his Spirit, easily applies to every relationship we experience. From the creator God to his created, to the rebuilding of nations, and (not least) to familial ties, withholding forgiveness murders the future—and it will kill you.

Forgive (and be reconciled) or die.


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