There is much to be learned about Christian forgiveness by considering what forgiveness consists of as a feature of ordinary social life. Forgiveness is an asymmetric social relationship because the two parties to the disclosure of the secret offer different things to one another. The person asking forgiveness reveals a secret that will put that person in a bad light. The person does so because the secret in question has become too much of a burden to bear; it has too much separated the person from his friend or lover or comrades because the person in his or her own mind harps on the secret and whether to tell it or not, on what to do with it. The person who discloses a secret then awaits a response. The moment is inevitably suspenseful because there are a number of things the person whose forgiveness has been asked can do. The forgiver can decide not to do that but lambast the person asking forgiveness for being just as bad as the disclosure reveals the person to be, that the person is nothing but this lapse or is best summarized by this lapse. You cheated on me? I should have expected it. It just shows you were no damn good to begin with and that is the last straw and I will have nothing else to do with you. Or I will be very angry for a while and I will see if I can come to forgive you. Meanwhile, sleep on the couch. Or I love you so much I can even accept this deep wound you have inflicted on me. Or, as the wife of the disgraced Governor Eliot Spitzer is reported to have said, “It is a wife’s job to look after sex,” and so she was responsible, the guilty party who required forgiveness for having ruined her husband’s career.
The person who does the forgiving does so by cultivating an aspect of the person asking forgiveness that seems worthwhile and which the forgiver wishes to continue to cultivate. You don’t have to forgive someone you never want to see again except as it relieves you of the burden of having bad feelings or being otherwise preoccupied with that person. You remember the nice things he had done as a person or a friend, or something charming about him, and decide to let bygones be bygones, even if you don’t forget the insult. You just regard it as a fact rather than an emotional residue, even if it has consequences for your subsequent relationship that you do not want to own up to at the moment. People who say I hope we are now back on the old footing know that the announcement of that thought shows it not to be the case because there has been a rupture between what went before the disclosure and what came afterwards in that this very ultimate sentiment had to be invoked to help make the distraction from or cleavage in the relationship go away.
This attempt to repair relationships after Humpty Dumpty has fallen off the wall applies to all disruptions in relationships, whether an argument about who did the wrong thing, or because of a collateral issue, such as whether you married a person of the wrong race or religion or took the wrong side in a political controversy. The damage has to be repaired or at least seem to be repaired and that is accomplished by forgiving or by going through the motions as if one had forgiven when one had not. All of these also involve secrets: the secret come out that you are a Republican, that you are an apostate, that you are a criminal. And there is also the secret of how far a declaration of forgiveness is really that or only the appearance of forgiveness. Who knows what lurks in the hearts of men—and women?
What has just been drawn from Georg Simmel’s analysis of secrecy is a modern way of putting the problem of forgiveness because it centers on how individuals are distinct from one another rather than alike. People each have secrets that seem to them unique because the secrets are in their own heads rather than think of secrets as a burden of existence which everyone carries. Christian forgiveness is also concerned with how people each have an internality which is worth respecting in that only God certainly knows what is going on in there and the person, in examining his or her own feelings, may sense whether sorrow about misdeeds is genuine and so worthy of forgiveness. What both have is the sense of drama: that it is problematic whether a plea for forgiveness will be honored or not. The sinner anticipates that all sins are forgivable, but on the other hand is aware of just how sinful he or she is and so must experience himself or herself as unworthy of forgiveness even if God does come through and forgives him anyway. There is no basis for demanding forgiveness even if the procedures of the Church allow forgiveness to take place pretty readily. That one is always in the need for forgiveness, either for personal failures or because of the general failure of mankind, is a very heavy burden for the individual Christian to carry, however grateful the Christian may be that the Church comes through.
Christian forgiveness, as I say, is in keeping with the Hellenistic middle brow mentality of the time of “Lamentations” because it insists on being visible and respectable. Christian forgiveness is not just a theology developed by St. Paul to make the atonement necessary and so an explanation of why Jesus had to die. Rather, the feeling of forgiveness is moved center stage to be the basic emotion of Christianity by the Gospels themselves in that so many of the actions of Jesus, of which there are not all that many recounted, are attempts to define a spiritual form of forgiveness to replace the less worthy forms of the emotion found in the Hellenistic Old Testament without purging the concept of the lachrymose and other qualities that make it distinctive. Consider the following stories from the Gospels in that light. All of them deal with one or another aspect of forgiveness.
One of the most famous of Jesus’ sayings that is neither a parable or a speech and is instead an observation that carries with it considerable moral weight is his answer to the crowd who would stone a female adulterer. Jesus says, “Who shall cast the first stone?” This is taken as a sublime moral stand, putting aside customary justice and replacing it with a morality of compassion. Everyone's a sinner and so everyone deserves punishment, and who among you are so free of guilt that they can in righteousness stone someone to death? Let live lest you be judged.
It is worth noting, however, that Jesus does not ask the crowd to forgive the woman. Commentators often say that is because Jesus is very particular not to go against the religious law as that is interpreted and applied by the Hebrew priests. The law held that female adulterers could be stoned to death, and Jesus was not going to say that they shouldn’t be and so he found a way around that by turning the tables on the crowd and appealing to them not to apply the law, however legitimate it would have been to do so. That is the same logic whereby Jesus tells the cured leper to report his recovery to the priests because, presumably as a public health measure, they kept track of who was on the list of lepers.
That is not enough of an explanation. That it would be taken as an aesopian way to allude to a commandment to disobey the law does not explain the power of the question which is more like an injunction in that the inference to be made by those who hear Jesus is that they should be ashamed of themselves for feeling righteous enough to stone the prostitute. Instead, take the meaning of the question directly. People are, in general, not in a position to judge other people even if that creates a problem in that Jesus does not advocate that noone should ever be judged by the law. Jesus is not an anarchist. What this particular case should remind people of is that they should not in their hearts condemn people even if the people are to be punished. Always more in sorrow than in revenge or in anger or in communal outrage.
Turning the eye of the potential stone thrower upon his own shortcomings rather than the victim accomplishes more than that, though. Those who refrain from throwing stones are acknowledging to themselves that they are obeying an even higher law, not just being deliberate and removed from emotion in carrying out a harsh penalty. They are reflecting on their own moral responses rather than on the morality (or lack of it) of the victim. The execution is about them, not the victim. It is they who have to become pure and they do so by not carrying out the punishment. Inturning does not make people selfish; to the contrary, it makes them capable of appreciating a finer set of emotions and, presumably, go on to live a finer sort of life. They act like what will become known as Christians do, even as they go about their business as members of the Jewish community. Yes, that might make them a bit smug, this feeling that they are morally superior to the people around them who simply carry out the law, required as followers of Jesus are to have a higher sense of the meaning of moral action, but that is a stance which Judith and others would recognize: they take pride in caring only about things that remind them of their own moral integrity and carry their freedom to choose their moral impulses around with them in their individual consciousnesses and so are free of the law in more than that they are rid of its burden of proscriptions and rituals. So Jesus’ interrogatory shifts the moral landscape even if the actual world doesn’t change. Yes, this woman might have been spared, but the law has not been changed, only and most profoundly superseded. Jesus’ morality is about changing individuals from within.
Another insight into the fact that Jesus’ moral law is not really a set of laws is provided by another peculiar remark that also stops short of being an injunction. Jesus says to Peter that Peter will deny him three times before the cock crows. This is a statement of fact rather than a condemnation. It signifies that people have their shortcomings and that these have to be taken account even if Peter is still to be treated as a trusted confidant who, after all, will become the founder of the social movement based on the life and death of Jesus. This is another and oblique way of approaching the question of moral responsibility. People are to be shed of their understandable and inevitable shortcomings. Peter will be cowardly but not therefore of ill will, not someone who has failed a crucial test, but rather as someone who can weather his own sense of having betrayed Jesus and go on to productive work. Moral weakness is not incapacitating nor does it require condemnation. That is another way of reading forgiveness: it is putting aside lapses rather than focussing on them.
That is not true of all moral weakness. Judas is not forgiven for his betrayal. Instead, he is so wracked by guilt that he kills himself. Now, Peter’s crime was only to extricate himself from a dangerous situation, like a Resistance fighter lying to the Germans, while Judas had been a crucial act in the capture of Jesus. He was a traitor rather than a scurrier. But Jesus having called attention to the fact that Peter would deny him makes it a moral crime as well, something that had to be overcome somehow however practical it was that Jesus’ apostles were able to survive him to carry on the religion. How could they do that? It was by internalizing the guilt as something everyone carried around with them along with guilt for any number of other transgressions, minor and major. Guilt is the common condition of life, beyond forgiveness except in the sense that Jesus can, in the final analysis, provide a plenary forgiveness for every soul, something worth having precisely because it is not otherwise obtainable. Here guilt is not a matter of original sin, but of the inevitable accumulation of bad deeds everyone is prone to.
The parable of the prodigal son provides a third example of Christian forgiveness by contrasting two different senses of morality: the old law, which emphasizes duty and fairness, with the new law, which emphasizes generosity and forgiveness. A wastrel son decides to return home because he has wasted his money and because he has been reduced to being a servant because the times are so bad that there is no other work for him. He thinks that it is better to work for his father--he can expect no better given that he had insisted that the family holdings be split so that he could go off with his inheritance before it was due to him. However much the calculation that goes into his decision, he retains enough sense of family attachment that he prefers to be a servant in his own family home than for someone else. When he gets home, he is greeted by his father with open arms, as a full fledged son who, moreover, has the fatted calf killed for a dinner in honor of his return.
The other son goes to his father and complains about this. Here, he had always been loyal, and never had such a feast provided for him, while the wastrel is given this honor even though his behavior was wrong. Where is the right in that? Should not the dutiful son be honored more than the wastrel? The father replies that the son who left had returned and that was unexpected and so to be treated with joy, while the son who had stayed behind was not recovered but doing what he had always done. Being dutiful does not earn extra rewards; only special events do that.
This is a profound clash in moralities. Why should we not recognize the morality in remaining dutiful? After all, morality is an abstraction imposed upon life and we can choose to honor what we would. And the prodigal son, after all, had been less than cooperative, had ripped the family apart, and should there be no recognition of that fact? But Jesus is suggesting that the joyfulness of reunion trumps diligence, which may also be the case if one thinks of the enthusiasm of conversion as trumping the everyday diligence to the law that would have been a characteristic of the customary life of the Jews.
The joy of the father may be seen as naive and unself-conscious, while the calculations of the prodigal son are anything but that. In that case, the parable may be taken to mean that spontaneous or “natural” morality is more important than a morality based on giving everyone their due. Nobody should just get their due because all of us would then be found wanting and so a nice outcome should always be treated as a special occasion.
There is another way to look at it. Consider the parable not from the point of view of the participants but from the point of view of a reader, someone who is presumably not supposed to be considered naive but rather a careful reader of the paradox of the parable. The careful reader notes the conflict within and the not totally self-inflicted situation of the prodigal son and so sees reason to forgive him as well as to see the resentment on the part of the son who had stayed behind, that sentiment hardly an indication of being in the right. What the reader therefore grasps is not just that there are two moralities at war with one another. Rather, the son who feels wronged should feel ashamed of himself. He has been put in his place by the joy of a father having had his lost son restored to him-- a theme as old as Abraham and Isaac and as recent as the sacrifice of Jesus. The reader can take pride in recognizing that he is on the side of the father and feels a superior morality to that of the aggrieved son, even if the father is not self-conscious and thus possibly not prideful about his own moral judgment. The reader of the parable has been enlightened and knows it because he too might have thought before having heard the parable that justice lay on the side of the aggrieved son. Once you know something it feels as if you have always known it and so the rightness of it no longer escapes you but seems inevitable, a new standard to use. Morality therefore includes within itself a sense of superiority to the world around you. The believer wanders around the world wrapped in the smugness that comes from knowing what is right rather than in being dutiful to what has been prescribed as right.
These three stories are very different from one another. The first, about stoning the adulterer, allows Jesus to draw a moral lesson without it being accompanied by a miracle; the second, concerning Peter, is an incisive remark about the psychological dimensions of conspiratorial groups; the third, about the prodigal son, is a story told for the purpose of drawing a moral lesson. What they all have in common is a sense of what is distinctive about Christian virtue. The Christian is proud of being moral. That is different from both what later Christianity would say, which is truer to a philosophical sense that morality must be its own reward or else it is not morality, an insight most clearly formulated by Kant. The early Christian view in keeping with the contemporary Hellenistic lachrymose point of view from which it is adopted while shorn (may be) of middle class prudery. Moral virtue is, for the Christian, not a matter of conventional belief or custom. Indeed, it challenges that, as in casting a new light on the situation of the adulterer and on whether a prodigal son should be greeted when he returns home with anything but anger for his betrayal.
What these stories carry forward from the Hellenistic figures such as Judith and Esther and the widow in “Lamentations” is that morality is about the person being moral rather than about how to handle a situation where action will objectively be moral or not. The Christian is selfish in the sense that the Christian is always concerned about the state of his own soul, preoccupied with what we would today call the self, on how the state of the soul is making progress toward its salvation. That is very different from being selfish in the sense of being concerned about self interest, a capacity fully know to the ancients. Rather, this inturning, this examination of and obsession with the content of one’s own character is part of what makes Christianity inherently modern because that is what preoccupies the modern soul from at least Shakespeare on, rediscovered after the Aristotle soaked Middle Ages overlay the Christian dispensation with an analysis of morality based on the discrete virtues and vices so carefully laid out in Dante, whose characters are indifferent to what got them into Hell and are engaged only in the fact that they are obliged to endure it as if, as it were, it were no fault of their own that they are there. After twenty years or twenty centuries at hard labor, what difference does it make if you were really guilty as charged?
What these three episodes concerning Christian forgiveness have in common is that they are internal rather than collective and that they transform the person so that the person is now welcomed back into social standing. And the bite there is that the Christian is in the paradoxical position of being always personally guilty while knowing that the recognition of one’s salvation is being within the good graces of the community of Christians, for they are the ones who endorse this new, not very juridical, morality.