Forgiveness: The Vital Dynamic Of The Christian Counterculture

Jul 17th, 2021 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

The mission of Issues in Perspective is to provide thoughtful, historical and biblically-centered perspectives on current ethical and cultural issues.

Genuine biblical Christianity is called by its founder, Jesus Christ, to be His salt and light (see Matthew 5:13-16) and to be “in the world but not of the world” (John 17:13-18).  We do so by putting on the whole armor of God (Ephesians 6:10-20) with the deep conviction that “He that is in us is greater than he that is in the world” (1 John 4:4).  We represent His values, His virtues and His standards.  We are to be peacemakers, seeking not vengeance, but justice, mercy and forgiveness (Matthew 5:9; 5:38-48).  We are not the agents of chaos, dysfunction or disorder. We love our enemies and forgive them because we have been forgiven (Ephesians 4:32).  The strategy we follow is not a political strategy tied irrevocably to politics or a political Party.  Our strategy is centered on the Gospel, which is what transforms people and thereby culture.  We reject what the late Chuck Colson called “the political Illusion,” the lie that politics is the answer to all of our problems.  In short, genuine, biblical Christianity is a counterculture.  Let’s examine one of the most powerful dimensions of the Christian counterculture—forgiveness.

Tim Keller, pastor, author and apologist for biblical Christianity, has written a brilliant piece on forgiveness.  I quote from or allude to it here:

  • Barbara Reynolds, a septuagenarian who had marched in the civil rights protests of the 1960s, argues that the original movements led by Martin Luther King Jr and Nelson Mandela were marked by “the ethics of love, forgiveness and reconciliation,” and they triumphed because of “the power of the spiritual approach.” While admiring Black Lives Matter’s “cause and courage,” Reynolds concluded that love and forgiveness “are missing from this movement.” She argued that forgiveness disarms the oppressors and wins over many of their supporters, weakening the system. “If you get angry,” she quotes Andrew Young as saying, “it is contagious and you end up acting as bad as the perpetrators.”  An illustration and a contrast:  After relatives of the nine African Americans killed in Charleston, South Carolina, publicly said to the shooter, Dylann Roof, “I forgive you,” a Washington Post opinion piece by Stacey Patton responded with the headline “Black America Should Stop Forgiving White Racists.”
  • Three years after the emergence of this new racial justice movement, Harvey Weinstein’s sexual abuse case set off another mass movement for justice: #MeToo. Almost immediately the issue of forgiveness came to the fore. Danielle Berrin wrote an article titled, “Should We Forgive the Men Who Assaulted Us?” in The New York Times. She concluded that she was not ready to forgive her assailant but held out the possibility that substantial repentance on his part, accompanied by “restitution made publicly as well as privately,” might move her to forgive.

Today, Keller argues, “after the renewal of the racial justice movement in the wake of George Floyd’s death, the emphasis on guilt and justice is ever more on the rise and the concept of forgiveness seems, especially to the younger generation, increasingly problematic. What are the influences that are making forgiveness problematic in our culture?”  He offers three reasons:

  1. The first factor is the therapeutic culture. “As Philip Rieff and Charles Taylor have both shown, our culture has taken a strongly inward turn. While all other cultures have stressed the importance of community and the need to forge a personal identity that negotiates and aligns with the common good, [Post]modernity stresses looking inward to forge one’s own identity based on our desires, and then moving outward to demand that society honor our individual identity and interests.”  A recent interview with an actress in Global Heroes, a magazine insert in The Wall Street Journal, perfectly exemplifies the therapeutic turn. When asked, “What is one good choice that everyone can make to improve the world around them?” she answered, “Look for your own truth, LIVE your own truth instead of repeating anyone else’s.” She elaborated: “What’s crucial to me is to make my audience . . . [question] old beliefs.” She counsels her fans to engage in a daily practice of asking, “What do I need today?” and then to go and get it.  Gregory Jones sees this therapeutic turn as perhaps the greatest reason that we have such “impoverished contemporary understandings and practices of forgiveness in modern western culture. . . . If all that matters is individual autonomy, then forgiveness and reconciliation—which are designed to foster and maintain community—are of little importance.” Today, Jones argues, forgiveness is either discouraged as imposing a moral burden on the person or, at best, it is offered as a way of helping yourself acquire more peaceful inner feelings, of “healing ourselves of our hate.”  Keller argues that “In contrast, the Bible orients us toward the ‘Christian life embodied in eschatological community.’ The church is to be a foretaste of the future world of love and perfect community under the lordship of Jesus. Our sin inclines us to behavior that regularly weakens and breaks relationships, but through the Spirit we are given the ability to realize—partially, never fully in this life—something of the beauty and joy of those future relationships through practices and disciplines of forgiveness and reconciliation now.  Forgiveness is a form of ‘self-renunciation,’ giving up your perfect right to pay back to the person what they did to you. This directly opposes how Americans are now taught to think and live.”
  2. The second influence impoverishing the modern practice of forgiveness is a rising “shame and honor culture” that some have called a new secular religion.  “The therapeutic culture also taught us to think of ourselves as individuals needing protection from society and from various groups with power who oppress us. So, ironically, we have developed ‘a shame and honor culture of victimhood.’ Greater honor and moral virtue are assigned to people the more they have been victimized and oppressed by society or others in power. So the further down the existing social ladder one is, the greater the possibilities for honor.” This new honor society—also called “cancel culture”—ends up “valuing fragility over strength, creating a society of constant, good-versus-evil conflict over the smallest issues as people compete for status as victims or as defenders of the victim. “It atrophies our ability to lovingly overlook slights (cf. 1 Peter 4:8: ‘Love covers a multitude of sins’). But most of all, it sweeps away the very concept of forgiveness and reconciliation. Forgiveness is seen now as radically unjust and impractical, as short-circuiting the ability of victims to gain honor and virtue as others rise to defend them.  It’s no wonder that this culture quickly becomes littered with enormous numbers of broken and now irreparable relationships. Politics itself becomes a new kind of religion, one without any means of acquiring redemption or forgiveness. Rather than seeing some people as right and others as mistaken, they are now regarded as the good and the evil, as true believers or heretics.” The Western ideas of human rights, universal benevolence of the poor, and social justice have deep roots in biblical religion. That is why they arose in the West, and why Christians can so often be allies with secular people who are working for racial and economic justice. But when Christians rooted their moral norms in the divine justice of God, that also meant grounding them in the divine mercy of God. So patience, mercy, and forgiveness of wrongdoers has always been part of the Christian ethic. But today’s honor culture does not root its moral absolutes in the divine.” Indeed, social media has only accentuated and enabled this movement toward a graceless culture. As Alan Jacobs has written, “When a society rejects the Christian account of who we are, it doesn’t become less moralistic but far more so, because it retains an inchoate sense of justice but has no means of offering and receiving forgiveness. The great moral crisis of our time is not, as many of my fellow Christians believe, sexual licentiousness, but rather vindictiveness. Social media serve as crack for moralists: there’s no high like the high you get from punishing malefactors. But like every addiction, this one suffers from the inexorable law of diminishing returns. The mania for punishment will therefore get worse before it gets better.”
  3. Thirdly, our culture is losing the resources for forgiveness and reconciliation. “Many would say this is a good thing, that forgiveness is a form of psychologically unhealthy self-loathing, and that it is also a way that oppressors maintain their power over victims.” But, Dr. Martin Luther King wrote, “He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power of love. .  . We can never say, ‘I will forgive you, but I won’t have anything further to do with you.’ Forgiveness means reconciliation, and coming together again.”

In conclusion, the most obvious contribution that the church could make is “to recover its own theology and practice of forgiveness and become a true counterculture that can serve as a witness to the world . . . [The] Christian faith provides many more resources for it. It is our responsibility to renew the biblical teaching on forgiveness and to show the world the unique resources both Christian belief and Christian community give us for it.”  Keller, therefore, posits a brief overview of what those teachings and resources are:

  • “Forgiveness in Christianity is a set of practices—including practices of prayer (Matthew 6:12, 14–15; Mark 11:25) and of community (Matthew 5:21–24; 18:15–17). It is not, therefore, primarily and originally an emotion. Forgiveness is granted before it is experienced. The practices can slowly shrink the internal anger over time, and that is a great good to be expected, but forgiveness is practiced before felt, not felt before practiced.”
  • “Forgiveness is always a form of voluntary suffering that brings about a greater good. When you are wronged, the perpetrator owes you. It may be literal and financial, but in any case he or she has wrongfully robbed you of some good, whether reputation or relationship or health or of something else. To forgive is to deny oneself revenge (Romans 12:17–21). It is a commitment to not try to exact repayment from them by inflicting on them the things they did to you. Therefore forgiveness is always costly to the forgiver, but the profits—at the least within your heart and at best in the restoration of relationship—outweigh the cost.”
  • “Forgiveness practices have an upward, inward, and outward aspect, and each is crucial:  [1]  Upward: Embracing divine forgiveness. Christians live only by God’s free forgiveness (Matthew 18:21–35), and they know that God will eventually square all accounts (Romans 2:1–11). This means that Christians have no ultimate warrant to revenge, have insufficient knowledge to know what any individual actually deserves, and have the comfort of knowing that no one in the end will get away with anything. So Christians don’t have the right, the ability, or the need to bring God’s judgment down on others.

[2] Inward: Granting inward forgiveness. Christians inwardly give up the desire to get even. To forgive is to give the perpetrator a gift they do not in any way deserve. While the perpetrator has been sinfully unfair to you, now you are mercifully unfair to them. You give them something not fair—it is better than fair. It is mercy. This is ‘attitudinal forgiveness’ that, as Mark 11:25 shows, is something you can do whether or not they have repented . . . It is something you can do regardless of the behavior of the perpetrator, for it is done in and from the heart (Matthew 18:35). [3] Outward: Forging a reconciled relationship. Finally, the ultimate goal of forgiveness is a reconciled relationship. Martin Luther King Jr. was right when he argued that to say, ‘I forgive you but I don’t want to have anything to do with you’ is a contradiction in terms. You have not embraced your divine forgiveness nor granted inward forgiveness if you refuse a reconciled relationship. To refuse to begin work on a reforged trust relationship—something that takes a great deal of time and effort—is actually a way to get revenge.”

D.A. Carson has eloquently captured the essentials of the Christian counterculture of forgiveness and reconciliation: “The reason there are so many exhortations in the New Testament for Christians to love other Christians is because . . . the church itself is not made up of natural ‘friends.’ It is made up of natural enemies. What binds us together is not common education, common race, common income levels, common politics, common nationality, common accents, common jobs, or anything else of that sort. Christians come together not because they form a natural collocation, but because they have all been saved by Jesus Christ and owe him a common allegiance. In this light we are a band of natural enemies who love one another for Jesus’ sake. That is the only reason why John 13:34–35 makes sense when Jesus says: ‘A new command I give you—Love one another as I have loved you.’ . . . Christian love will stand out and bear witness to Jesus because it is a display, for Jesus’ sake, of mutual love among social incompatibles.”

A final example of the power of forgiveness:  “In October of 2006 a gunman took hostages in a one-room Amish schoolhouse at Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. He shot ten children ages seven to thirteen, five of whom died, and then he committed suicide. Within hours members of the Amish community visited both the killer’s immediate family and his parents, each time expressing sympathy for their loss. The Amish uniformly expressed forgiveness of the murderer and his family. The forgiveness and love shown toward the shooter and his family amazed many. Numerous voices called Americans to emulate the Amish and become more forgiving.  Four years later a group of scholars wrote about the incident. One of their main conclusions was that our secular culture is not likely to produce people who can handle suffering the way the Amish did. They argued that the Amish ability to forgive was based on two things. First, at the heart of their faith was a man dying for his enemies. Through communal practices this self-sacrificing figure was seen, sung, believed, rehearsed, and celebrated constantly. For Jesus to give his life and forgive his tormentors was an act of enormous love and spiritual strength, and so within their worldview orientation, the Amish saw forgiveness as the greatest gift and virtue. In American culture, in which church attendance is declining, this view of Christ is slipping more and more out of daily view.”

See Timothy Keller, “The Fading of Forgiveness” (6 May 2021) in Comment Magazine.

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