Wednesday, August 27, 2014

“A Rose by Any Other Name?” Yes. But calling one a tulip doesn’t make the thorns go away – Why I think we’ve cornered the market on Forgiveness.

"This is about 'forgiveness?' So what's my picture doing here?"

In response to a post by Paul Louis Metzger which included a discussion of some Buddhists’ quest for “emancipation” and its bearing on Christ’s sacrifice and forgiveness (Dr. Metzger’s post is here:, my friend and colleague, Chaplain Chris Haughee wrote, “Metzger’s post is entitled ‘Imagine a world without forgiveness,’ and I have one small problem with it…it seems to presuppose that the concept of forgiveness is unique to Christianity, or at least to the person of Jesus Christ.” (Chaplain Haughee’s post is here: Here is my reply.
"Forgiveness? MY boys?! Sorry, no. But penance, well..."
I would agree that Dr. Metzger portrays a forgiveness that is unique to Christianity, not necessarily that “the concept of forgiveness” is as unique. Everyone wants to talk about forgiveness, it seems. But the question that comes to this chaplain’s mind is this: Is what you are seeing elsewhere really forgiveness? Sadly, though, I cannot deny that it is too-seldom seen among followers of Jesus Christ. But there seem to be some important distinctions to be made. 
Even where we seek to practice theology-in-community, I’m hopeful that we realize, as you note, that we cannot “simply distill all religious traditions down to their philosophical ideal” without taking into account the “imperfect permutations” we will always encounter. Just as you rightly emphasize regarding Buddhist “denominationalism,” some of Christ’s most visible adherents routinely neglect to pursue justice, mercy, and humility in their interactions with one another, not to mention with the “large number of families that have come to groups of Jesus’ followers looking for grace, understanding, and compassion, and…have been sent away wanting.”
Forgiveness and compassion are too frequently lacking among many followers of Jesus. But in my experience and education, I find that other religious and non-religious groups provide for something labeled as, but only resembling forgiveness. Again, allowing for limitations in my education and experience, I find others prescribing a mutual disengagement of the issues, a patronizing condescension of another’s “errors,” or a patient trust that one may simply wait to see that “what goes around comes around” (i.e., “Karma’s going to get you eventually”).
The foundational principles on which interpersonal conflict results in either conciliation or separation may qualify only as a “philosophical ideal.” But if we are not clear about the reasons and resources for actual forgiveness, we end up “making do” with something else, which is always something less and, I would reiterate, something different than the forgiveness made available to us, and possible through us, by the sacrifices of Jesus Christ.
Not roses. Don't call them that.
In a few similar conversations, others have expressed their preference for other traditions’ approach to conflict. Some have advocated silent avoidance (“Let’s just agree to disagree.”), sullen minimalization (“No, it’s not really that important.”), or Solomonic arbitration (“Can we just split the difference?”) But I have not found elsewhere an approach such as Jesus recommends (in Matthew 18:15-18), much less that which He admonishes (in Matthew 6:14-15), warns (in Matthew 18:21-35), and commands (Luke 17:1-4) regarding a forgiveness based in emulating His sacrifices.
The sacrifices necessary to consistently show mercy require a desperate reliance on the protection and provision promised by Christ. Otherwise, even where some friends are seeking to entirely eradicate their self (see my post at, the human tendency to self-preservation, at the very least, requires us to place limitations on the exercise of anything remotely resembling Christ’s completion of and our calling to forgiveness.
From my perspective, then, only in a cruciform, sacrificial servanthood (II Corinthians 4:5, Philippians 2:17, Colossians 1:24, etc.), which is possible only through the Christ-conforming influence of the Holy Spirit, is there any foundation and, therefore, any potential for true forgiveness.
As my friend noted, “This, certainly, is a topic that has been and will be hotly debated.” And it may require some forgiveness, too. But I hope that you will comment in either confirmation, contradiction, or both—depending upon the particular areas that interest you.
Thought I should leave you with a dozen roses.


Anonymous said...

"Come now, let us reason together," says the LORD. "Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool." Isaiah 1:18.

How could God have said that through Isaiah hundreds of years before Jesus was born if there was no true forgiveness available until Jesus' death and resurrection?

I maintain that while ultimately forgiveness finds it's fulfillment in the person of Jesus and his atoning work on the cross, we assume a cultural superiority that is detrimental in relationships if we assume that we have cornered the market on the concept of forgiveness.

Good discussion.

Wm. Darius Myers said...

I think two distinctions need to be made (at least more clearly, since I failed to articulate them sufficiently above) as we are discussing forgiveness.

First, as with the many passages in Isaiah, not all of which are directly Messianic, of course, there is a distinction to be made as to whether we are discussing God's forgiveness of human beings, or the forgiveness we exercise (however rarely) in emulation of the depth and breadth of that (which I would call "real" or "true") forgiveness--a forgiveness that entirely removes any potential for restitution, shame, or other remedy on the part of those forgiven.

Likewise, the second distinction I had tried to make clear might seem a matter of splitting hairs, but especially among Christians I find that we wrangle about "the concept of forgiveness" with discussions of its limitations, its qualifications, its prerequisites (usually wanting to withhold forgiveness until there is a demonstration of repentance), or any number of other factors. But I want to be more careful about defining forgiveness itself, not just assigning it as a philosophical category under which a variety of other practices might be comprised.

I hold that the actual implementation of a forgiveness that echoes that which was provided through the sacrifices of Jesus Christ is certainly rare enough among Christians. But it is not only inadvisable among those without a faith-relationship with God through Christ, it is patently impossible without the indwelling presence and assistance of the Holy Spirit.

I understand fully the liabilities of holding such a position, since it is often perceived as an assumption of "cultural superiority." Speaking the truth in love can easily fall to temptations on either side of the equation (lovingly avoiding difficult truths or presenting the truth in the absence of a loving concern for its hearers). I may have erred on that second count since, admittedly, the phrase "cornered the market" is too clever by half to be accurately communicative.

Still, if I were to allow that what is practiced elsewhere is actually forgiveness, then the best I could do to reframe that unique extension of self-sacrificial mercy I see in Christ would be to qualify it as "the kind" or "the type" or "the extent" of the forgiveness made possible by Christ and through the Holy Spirit.

I think that where we disagree is in whether something less than that can accurately be labeled as forgiveness, but it may be a matter of whether we can lovingly speak the truth (or truthfully express our love) through something less than a distinctly defined vocabulary, at least so far as "forgiveness" is concerned.

Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment, especially as we consider the difficult pairing of both "unity" among the body of Christ and "diplomacy" in communicating (even "the scandal of particularity") to those at odds with the claims of Jesus Christ.

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