Forgiveness is costly, and it must be coupled with justice

Brandt’s act of grace got us all talking

All of a sudden my Twitter and Facebook feeds were all abuzz with talk of forgiveness. This was after I tweeted out, “Botham Jean’s killer’s guilty verdict is a step in the right direction. #BlackLivesMatter.” I’m not one for punitive justice, but when cops face consequences for killing black boys and men, when they generally have not, I do think it’s a step in the right direction. Twitter got angry again, when Botham’s killer, Amber Guyger, got a ten-year-sentence—many people thought that that was an injustice. But if she were a man, she’d have gotten more someone said. Another person remarked it was double the typical sentence for a woman in her position. Anyway, it was clear emotions were running high.

But then something unthinkable happened. Brandt Jean hugged his brother’s killer and told her that he forgives her. It was a beautiful moment. But we need to handle it delicately, and that is how many black people responded to it. My friend Drew Hart, tweeted:

Bree Newsome Bass wrote:

In response to Sarah Morice Brubaker, who wrote this isn’t “sermon fodder,” I said:

What these commentators were bringing light on is something I felt in my stomach. Something is off here. Brandt’s display of forgiveness is beautiful, it is powerful, it is Christ-like. But ending the conservation about racism and police brutality with the compassion and generosity of a black victim seems wrong. It seems unjust. It seems cheap.

Forgiveness is not cheap; cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without repentance

In her excellent book The Crucifixion (to whom I owe much of my thought in this post), Fleming Rutledge quotes (thanks Jonathan Balmer) Desmond Tutu, the anti-apartheid activist, as saying, “Forgiveness is not cheap, is not facile. It is costly. Reconciliation is not an easy option. It cost God the death of his Son.”

Forgiveness costs us something. It requires something. It is not simple. It’s not cheap. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the famous Nazi resister, calls that sort of thing “cheap grace.” He says in Cost of Discipleship, “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession… Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

On Facebook, Jahmoal Clark said, “Don’t hijack Christianity to highlight forgiveness without the presence of justice. To have one without the other is a powerless gospel and insufficient salvation. It is Christ-like to both give forgiveness and pursue justice. But don’t use forgiveness as an excuse to not pursue justice.”

Forgiveness and justice go hand-in-hand. Forgiveness and righteousness go hand-in-hand. Jesus died to maintain God’s righteousness in the world. That word, righteousness, is found in the New Testament Greek as dikaiosuné. And it can be translated just as easily to justice, or as Rutledge says, “rectification.”

The crucifixion of Jesus shows us Jesus identifies with Botham Jean

The ultimate act of forgiveness that has ever occurred is the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. It is the center of our faith. The most important historical event to ever occur. Understanding Christ’s crucifixion shows us two things: forgiveness always costs something, and in crucifixion Jesus identifies with all of us.

The God we follow, embodied in the person of Jesus Christ, dies. And doesn’t just die, but dies on the cross.

God is crucified. God is lynched. God is killed by the cops, like Botham Jean. Christianity itself is distinguished by its contemporary faiths insofar as the God we worship was the one that was crucified. Paul reminds the Jewish people he’s writing to in Galatians that being hung up at all is a curse. God is cursed. God is shamed. There is a sort of godlessness to dying in this way.

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.” Galatians 3:13

Image result for sixteenth street baptist church stained glass
Stainless on Sixteenth Street Baptist Church

The image that covers Rutledge’s aforementioned book is the stainglass art on Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, after the church was bombed in a terrorist attack that killed four little girls dressed in their Sunday best. It was marked by a shift in the Civil Rights Movement. That inscription, “YOU DO IT TO ME” is a reminder of Jesus’ powerful words in Matthew 25: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” Here, the statement is simple: when you terrorize the least of these, you terrorize God. The white supremacists who performed this attack on Sept. 15, 1963, killed God again. And that’s the curse we’re talking about.

Jurgen Moltmann says, “To the humanism of antiquity, the crucified Christ was an embarrassment.”

Bonhoeffer again, just a few months before his execution wrote, “God lets himself be pushed out of this world on to the cross… Christ is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us.”

The shame of the crucifixion is then the final way Jesus, God incarnate, identifies with us. God endures a shameful death to identify and connect with us. We don’t’ have many expressions like this, but it is reminiscent to the lynchings that plagued the Jim Crow south in the United States.

God identifies with us when we suffer the most in the crucifixion. It is the ultimate display of empathy and understanding. The incarnation is not complete without the crucifixion. If God doesn’t suffer, God doesn’t relate.

God goes to such great lengths to relate, to love, to connect with us, that God brings upon Godself the greatest shame. This is why Paul tells the Romans as he opens up his letter, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel.” Because the assumption is that he should be shamed. At the moment where God could demonstrate God’s great power, God dies.

Paul does the same thing in 1 Corinthians, opening up this letter with a similar statement, this time emphasizing that to the whole world, Jews and Gentiles, the crucifixion is absurd and weak.

So the crucifixion completes the recapitulation of our life. Jesus lives our lives and dies, and through that “redoing” of our life, saves us. The fullness of Jesus’ humanity, completed by his death, acts as a bridge between us and God.

The crucifixion of Jesus shows us forgiveness costs us life

Anselm of Canterbury, the reluctant bishop of Canterbury elaborates further on the cost of forgiveness. He is one of the most influential and important figures of Christianity, and he writes about why Jesus died in is amazing work Cur Deus Homo or Why the God-man.

His theory for why Jesus needed to die is often depicted negatively, especially among people like me, but I want to get Anselm another chance today. Anselm posts that the death of Jesus satisfies God. Anselm argues that sin against the infinite God is infinitely guilty, and can be atoned for only by an infinite satisfaction. There needs to be the “God-man.

One of the reasons people don’t like his theory of atonement is because it feels too much like a formula, and possibly violent or vengeful.

This brings into question both the ideas of sin and justice. Look around the world right now. There is something wrong in the world. We have to be serious about the “something wrong” and the serious about the justice that follows. If you are blind to evil or don’t see a need for justice, Jesus may not have needed to die at all. But I think that that “something wrong” is evident in the world. Rutledge says that Anselm says that “something wrong” “wholly ruins” our relationship with God.

If we admit that our behavior, the complicit behavior we find ourselves in just by living in this earth, or our individual behavior has wronged God then we face problems. We can’t restore it on our own, so we are in need of help. And if we don’t want to restore it, we are unjust.

Jesus shows us that we can forgiveness, and act for justice; but we must do both

God’s compassion alone doesn’t make injustice go away. Brandt Jean’s forgiveness is not enough. Justice must be made. Reparations must be paid. Rectification must be had. Amber Guyger’s sentence isn’t enough. We need to keep pursuing justice now; that is the other side of forgiveness. Repentance, reconciliation, rectification, reordering. We know in the American context that societal sins can’t be forgiven, there needs to be a “payment” of some sort.

Anselm argues that God necessarily saves us and restores us, not as a matter of an outside criteria, but because of who God is. God can save us alone because the weight of evil is so great. God must act and there is nothing we can do individually. That there is no possibility for justice unless the price paid is “greater than all the universe besides God,” and that’s why the “god-man” is necessary. A human must make the payment, but no human can apart from God, and so a god-man, Jesus, needs to.

I hope today we can cooperate with God in this sort of worldwide liberation that undoes the evils in the world that seem to overwhelm us. Forgiveness is possible because of the cross, but the cross doesn’t end our work today. Much like Jesus’ death on the cross wasn’t cheap, neither can our forgiveness be today. If you are tempted to make something simple out Brandt Jean’s forgiveness, please don’t. Hold the moment of gravity, the power of forgiveness in the face of injustice. And pursue, through the grace of God, justice today.

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