Forgiveness: a new transactional theology 

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The Archbishop of Canterbury appears, in his recent stint on the BBC’s Today programme, to have come up with a new theology of forgiveness.  Interestingly, this seems to have passed most clergy by.  Or perhaps they have simply given up trying to balance what the Archbishop says with actual life in the pews.

Put simply, the Archbishop has announced that forgiveness is now transactional.  It is a deal between two or more people.  A contract that needs action on both sides.  It is no longer a one-way offer in the face of adversity, but a business – more than a moral – agreement between the parties.  Where are the church leaders shouting about this?  All I can hear is a deafening silence.

The Archbishop was commenting on the current ‘rip ‘em down’ statues fad – applying it to churches and cathedrals.  Of course, he was doing his usual party trick of pandering to the zeitgeist rather than standing up for basic Christian values and standards.

He said, amongst other pearls of wisdom, that “repentance and justice must go together”; that the acts of those memorialised in statues could be forgiven “only if there’s justice,” and that forgiveness can only be granted “if we change the way we behave now and say this was then and we learn from that and change how we are going to be in the future.”

Since when was forgiveness conditional on repentance and justice?  How did that one slip through the net of clever footwork that usually masks our leader’s woke dilution of the faith and the Word?  And since when have recent generations been required to forgive the sins of their ancestors?  Can they do such a thing?  Is not forgiveness being confused here with ‘coming to terms with’?  What power or authority do we have to forgive people in the long-ago past?  Why should we?  Don’t we mean that we should simply grasp the fact that there were some awful people in the past (just as today) and that the many decent people in the past lived with a different set of social standards compared to ours?

Apparently not.  Those wishing to stoke grievance amongst the ‘disadvantaged’ need to build up the sins of the past in order to visit them on the ‘guilty’ of the present day.  This is nothing more than a political movement dressed up as ‘social justice’.  And ‘social justice’ itself is nothing more than a political movement to press for equality of outcome for everyone, no matter what effort is put in or what ability is brought to the table.  Human society does not, and never has, worked like this.  This is not to say that the successful today should not aim to help the less successful.  Of course they should, and do.  No doubt more can always be done.  But this does not require what is being demanded through ‘social justice’.  Equality of opportunity is not the same as equality of outcome – yet this is what is being demanded all round.

One hundred years from now, someone or some group may announce that they forgive us for some social injustice that we don’t realise we are enabling today.  Will that ‘forgiveness’ make any impact on us?  No!  But it will probably be used as a grievance-promoter (or for other political advantage) for those demanding the ‘forgiving’ at that time in the future.

But back to forgiveness itself – and we’re talking about human forgiveness here. Traditionally, from the Christian perspective, forgiveness has been a one-way offer – a choice – to absolve another person or group in a situation of hurt or upset or harm.  Today, it is an entirely different thing. Now it is a demanded response.  And it does not have to be demanded only of the perpetrator, but of anyone associated, however loosely, with the original perpetrator. Now that forgiveness has a new identity and philosophy, let’s look at some of the points that arise with it.

Firstly, is anyone still alive who was involved in the past events, either as a perpetrator or a victim?  Is anyone who is being expected to forgive today really any relation or beneficiary of the past sinner(s)?  If so, please define the benefit, exactly and specifically, with specific (not general) examples.  Is there any legitimate link at all between today’s population that is being urged to repent and the people who committed the acts in the past?  Is there any meaningful relationship between the sufferers of the past and the people who are claiming the same or related suffering today?  Who is defining what the supposed links are?  Who is defining what the harm was and allegedly is?  Who is demanding the forgiveness of whom?  Who is demanding the repentance of whom?  Why? What are the demanded outcomes?

All of these are pertinent factors in the new concept of forgiveness.  But we are not supposed to raise them.  To question current orthodoxy is to be socially cast out.  Look at JK Rowling’s recent experiences.  (Another blog piece is coming on that topic).

We can liken the current debate Approved Thought Enforcement Programme about slavery in the past with the horrors of the Holocaust.  Much is rightly made of the suffering of the Jews (and others) under the Nazi regime, not least because survivors are still with us, and families are still mourning lost relatives today.  This happened within living memory.  It should still be remembered once it is no longer within living memory. But here’s a point to consider – once we pass beyond several generations of any awful events, both the people and the links between then and now can change hugely.  This is not to say we shouldn’t remember and learn from atrocities.  It is simply to say that the remembrance and learning take on different characteristics once living memory is no longer a factor.  That is not to lessen the atrocity.  It is simply to say that when no personal experiential and direct link to the past suffering exists, then the response changes somewhat.

I can sympathise with people in the past who suffered terribly, and I can morally condemn the perpetrators for those actions if such suffering was purposely imposed on the sufferers, but I cannot take it upon myself to forgive the perpetrators.  Nor can, or should, I make any reparation for their acts.  That was then, this is now.  I have no link with the perpetrators.  Even if I am descended from them, how am I responsible for their acts today?   Any such ‘responsibility’ can only be assumed by me, not assigned to me.

With the slavery argument, nobody, as far as I can see, is denying the fact that slavery existed or that it was a great injustice.  It was terrible.  But what we see today is a taking-up of that fact as a political tool to beat down today’s supposed ‘guilty parties’ – i.e. white people.  This is as ludicrous as blaming all white people today for the diseases that travelled with European sailors to the New World, or for bringing back tobacco plants that eventually led to the deaths of millions of Europeans from smoking.  Please note that I am not equating smoking deaths with slavery, merely using it as an example of an argument.

Now, to fit the current mindset, we find the Archbishop conflating forgiveness with repentance and justice.  Where on earth did that come from?  Certainly not from the Bible.  As this chap is seen as the leader of the established Church in the UK, people naturally look to him for the definitions of Christian concepts.  So when he defines forgiveness as x, they tend to believe him that such is the true Christian definition.  Sadly for us, his new definition of forgiveness is not the same as the forgiveness we hear about from Jesus.

We are told in the Bible to forgive others.  Full stop.  Our forgiveness is not conditional on the other person repenting.  It is not conditional on the other person making reparations in the name of justice.  We are told to forgive even when there is no repentance or justice.  That’s what makes it hard to do.  If forgiveness in the face of no repentance and no justice were easy, then we could all do it.  The fact is, it is hard to forgive others sometimes.  But we are still supposed to do it.  It’s a one-way street.  Jesus told us to forgive others ‘seventy times seven times’. This means that we should forgive even when the other person keeps on doing the same or similar stuff that we first forgave them for.  There is no injunction there to demand repentance and justice.  Just a command to keep on forgiving down that one-way street if necessary.

When Jesus was on the cross, in absolute agony, and in the face of total injustice, what did He say?  “Father, forgive them as long as they repent and make up to me all that they have done against me”? No!  His words “Father forgive them, they don’t realise what they are doing” say it all.  Jesus was forgiving the people who had brought Him to this point and those who were doing the crucifying.  End of.  He didn’t demand justice.  He didn’t say “I’m only forgiving this lot if they repent of what they have done to me”.

His wonderful forgiveness was not dependent on those who hurt Him acknowledging their acts or recompensing Him for what they had done.  He forgave them – and that was that.

Points to note here include the personal nature of forgiveness.  Jesus was forgiving those who had and were harming Him.  Are we called to forgive people for stuff that doesn’t directly affect us?  Can we forgive those who harmed Jesus?  It’s not up to us!  Who gave us the authority to forgive (absolve) the sins of those who have not affected us directly?  The only response that we can have to the guilty parties in Jesus’ death is to remember that He forgave them, therefore we should not condemn them.  That is the link between God’s forgiveness and human forgiveness.  Don’t condemn others.  That is not the same as forgiving them.

Forgiveness is in the heart and mind of the wounded person.  It is not a transaction between two or more people.  It is an action chosen by the wounded party as he or she relates to the perpetrator of the wound.

Think about the Archbishop’s words for a moment.  This is not the forgiveness enjoined on us by Jesus.  This is the politically correct ‘guilt acknowledgement’ transaction that lobby groups and the media are promoting on the rest of us. Whether we are guilty or not.  God knows that we are all guilty of plenty, without piling up more on the heap when it is not our responsibility.  It’s what we do today that counts for us. We are not guilty for what others did long ago and neither are they accountable to us.

In his comments, the Archbishop is following the path laid down by the ‘progressives’ in the church who wish to subtly change the meanings of traditional words and rites into their own version of them.   All such changes can be traced back to the ‘progressive’ goals of including anyone and anything under the banner of Christianity, whether they fit into the demands of the faith as we know it or not.  ‘Progressives’ are driven by the ‘social justice’ agenda rather than the God agenda. They seek to over-ride what they see as the limits of the faith.  And in doing so, they dilute it and fundamentally change it.

When our leaders so clearly identify themselves with this pathway, it is time for all Anglicans to consider their position.  It is one thing having all this stuff going on at national and international level, but how long before it arrives at parish level?  Once it does, we are all going to have to decide which side of the fence we sit on.  At which point, we may see an even greater exodus from the pews than ever before.

For me, forgiveness is not a transaction.  It is a choice and it is a one-way street if necessary.  If the one-way street of forgiveness was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for us today.  Any change in the other person is an added bonus, not a necessary clause in a contract.

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