Thursday, December 06, 2007

Forgiveness and the Inversion of Power - Part I

I'm intrigued by the concept of forgiveness.

Upon occasion, I get to teach various groups at my church, which is astounding if you really think about it. A couple of weeks ago, I was asked to teach in a class about some of the examples Jesus gave for good relationships.

Jesus taught many things, and one of them was forgiveness. He taught that people will be forgiven to the extent that they forgive, which encompasses both quality (from your heart), and quanity (seventy times seven). I won't go into all of it here, but the the divine call to forgive is powerful and vast.

Indubitably, Christians are called to forgive. This often translates into a Christian imperative that a Christian must forgive no matter what, or they aren't being a good Christian. This leads to all sorts of strange behaviors that parade under the guise of "forgiveness", but are really nothing more than faking it. Sometimes, it leads to a sort of forced servitude in which the forgiver submits to the forgiven in an attempt to follow Christ's example. This is cheap forgiveness.

This sort of forgiveness enables those who are powerful to abuse those who are less powerful. With the kind of forgiveness that must be applied no matter what, those who are beaten, shamed, and violated (emtionally, physically, spiritually, or otherwise) by those who are more powerful are prevented from taking action against those who are stronger. Such a system enables oppression, and ignores the Biblical mandate to fight against injustice - to protect the downtrodden and weak, and to pursue justice for all people. One could even argue that such a view of forgiveness erodes the legal system, since forgiveness must be applied seventy-times-seven no matter the crime. Should our call to forgive really supersede our call to justice, and protection of the oppressed?

As I've groped for a better understanding of the complex beast that is forgiveness, Matthew 18:21-35 continues to stick in my mind. In this passage, Jesus is asked about forgiveness, and he responds with telling a story about a man who wanted to settle his accounts with his servants. One servant owed the king more than he could ever pay, and so the king, in his mercy, let the servant go. This first servant, in turn, went to a servant coworker that owed him just a few dollars and had him thrown in jail for not paying the debt. When the king found that his servant had done such a thing, he was livid, and had the first servant thrown in jail and tortured until he could pay the unpayable debt. The story ends with an admonition from Jesus:
"This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart."

It seems to me that something is happening in this parable that we often don't think about. In every instance of forgiveness in this parable, forgiveness flows from one more powerful to one less powerful. The king, who is the ultimate authority, forgives his servant. The servant, who has legal power over his debtors, is in turn supposed to forgive his debtors. There is no speaking of the debtor, who is the one in danger of being oppressed, doing any forgiving.

But if only the powerful do the forgiving, then what do we make out of Jesus being crucified, or of Stephen being stoned, or of the beatings suffered by Paul, or of the persecution of the church? Doesn't it seem that these were beaten and oppressed by ones more powerful, and yet forgave anyway?

As I reflect upon the power tactics of Jesus, I'm not so sure he was killed by those more powerful. Those who are the greatest in Jesus' kingdom are those who are the least, those who come to him as a child, those who give up their life to save it. Jesus' example is that real power is the inversion of power. Power occurs not when you find satisfaction on the intoxication of being above others, but instead satisfaction is found in the healing embrace of God, who welcomes us into a new way of living no matter our previous offense.

So, who was greater - the Son of God who could call a host of angels, or those who thought nailing him to a tree was the best way to get rid of him? Who was greater - Stephen, who looked into heaven and saw the Son of God smiling back at him, or those who picked up sticks and rocks in a blind rage? Who was greater - Paul, who found the worth of his being in the affirmations of Christ, or those who hated him for the message he preached?

Biblically, the direction of flow is a heavy theme of forgiveness. In every case I've ever come across, the more powerful one always forgives the less powerful. In every case, the oppressed cry out, and the powerful forgive. Never to do the oppressed, violated, or abused forgive the powerful unless the powerful are first humbled and the oppressed gain power over them. The flow seems to be only one-way.

I've realized that most people find this view of forgiveness radical and strange - the Sunday School class I taught sure thought it was strange. What do you think about it? Can you think of a Biblical example of forgiveness that does not come from the one who is more powerful? What is the Biblical intuition of power?


stephanie said...

This is interesting, Ben. Not something I had thought a lot about before. But as for an example of the less powerful being the giver of forgiveness... what about Jacob and Esau?

chris j said...


To the legal question of crimes committed, to forgive someone does not mean that consequence of their actions are nulled. Is God going to forgive everyone who has ever lived on the last day? Now the question of carry out judgment against a person who has committed an offense with a vengeful heart is a point to ponder. I think we look at punishment for crimes in the wrong light. We as believers should not look to a legal system to be our avenger. God is our rock and fortress. He is also the one who will avenge his children. When we do proceed with carrying out the legal matter it should be for discipline of the individual because of the consequences of his or hers actions.

chris j

Benjamin said...


I'm not really asking a question about the legal system, but rather stating that a particular view of forgiveness, when followed to its logical end, erodes the legal system. I'm developing the internal dichotomy before I dive into that dichotomy and explore it. To dwell on the issue of punishment and crimes is to miss the point of my post.

Benjamin said...


Great example! Here is how I see Jacob and Esau.

Jacob was the second-born. He stole Esau's blessing, and also obtained his birthright (though it seems that Esau gave it away as much as anything else - Esau wasn't too bright).

On the surface, it seems that Jacob was the more powerful one, since he had the blessing and the birthright, but we need to take more into account. While the subtle inversion of power is starting to be seen in the Old Testament, those with power are still those with the most physical strength. As with many other things, the New Testament deepens/revolutionizes the idea of power.

So, as Jacob approached Esau's territory to cross it, he trembled in fear at the prospect of facing his brother, whom he had swindled, and whom had become a very powerful potentate of the land of Edom. Furthermore, when Jacob heard that Esau had rushed to meet him with a band of 400 men (which, as we know from extra-biblical literature, is the size of a standard raiding party), he thought he was doomed. Esau was far more powerful than Jacob.

So, Jacob split up his family and possessions, and processed them before Esau as a sign of reverence and respect (we also know this from extra-biblical literature). Jacob was seeking to find favor with Esau. When Esau met him with an embrace (a healing embrace?), Jacob responded by saying "to see your face is like seeing the face of God, NOW THAT YOU HAVE RECEIVED ME FAVORABLY." As Jacob rightly discerns, a healing embrace is the providence of the powerful - of those like God. Even if Jacob WAS more powerful (which is unlikely), he humbled himself before Esau in a way that made Esau powerful.

Something else to keep in mind, though, is that the word "forgiveness" is not used in the Jacob/Esau story. Did Esau really forgive Jacob? Or, are we projecting our own "modern" thoughts about forgiveness onto the ancient Jacob/Esau relationship? I tend to think the story includes forgiveness, but I'm willing to be swayed.

As a bit of trivia, the first time the word "forgiveness" is used in the Bible is in Genesis 50 (the end of the book!). The first time God Himself is called "forgiving" is in Exodus 34 (though some argue for Exodus 32). Determining what stories are exemplars of forgiveness when the word forgiveness is not actually used is tricky business.

chris j said...

I understand what you saying. Is there a difference between mercy and forgiveness. If you carry out forgiveness to logical end with eroding of a legal system. Then does it make God wrong for not overlooking those who have not called on the name of Christ? Was Jesus wrong for clearing out the temple. Yes there are other aspects of what you wrote but these are question that arise out of what you stated. fyi-I like this conversation. I don't want you think I am being hostile.