Does forgiveness have a utility?
This is a hobby horse, I admit, but The New York Times changed Michael Eric Dyson’s column’s headline from “We Need to Listen to Desmond Tutu About Forgiveness” to “Where Is The Forgiveness and Grace in Cancel Culture?” I like monitoring how the paper of record changes its headline to acquiesce to its readership or to boost clicks. Let’s be honest, a headline with cancel culture in the title is more enticing than one about how Desmond Tutu forgave. But it also is a disservice to the legacy of Desmond Tutu to equate his forgiveness during the South African apartheid to how we might respond to cancel culture. Nevertheless, the headline does encapsulate some of Dyson’s argument, which I also want to address here. Here’s the “nut graph,” if you will:
Advocates of restorative justice are suspicious of the self-righteousness that can fuel cancel culture. They want to encourage the forgiveness that is a redemptive route to moral restoration. Forgiveness is not a weak ethical response to grave dangers. It is a calculated effort to ward off moral harm by anticipating the destructive impact of unforgiving attitudes, behaviors and actions.
Dyson offers a utility to forgiveness. We forgive because it changes us, it protects us against resentment, and potentially violence against our offenders. Ideally, forgiveness accompanies repentance and reconciliation, however. We can only truly forgive when we reconcile with one another. We can certainly “let go” of harm against us, but for restoration and redemption, forgiveness needs to accompany repentance.
Coals on their heads
Further, far from forgiveness offering a fertile ground for the transformation of oppressors, Paul argues quite a different point: when we treat our enemies with love, as Jesus instructs, we actually “heap burning coals on their heads.” The full passage from Romans 12:
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.”—Romans 12:20
God’s wrath, God’s vengeance, God’s justice will come for evildoers. Our job as Christians is to love our enemies. Doing so may enrage them further, but we forgive to allow God’s room for justice.
God is the distributor of both punishment and grace that when Jesus forgives the paralytic in Mark 2, he is rebuked for doing something reserved for God alone.
When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralyzed man, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”
Now some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, “Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?”—Mark 2:5-7
The religious leaders are right. Only God can forgive, but Jesus is Lord, and so he is demonstrating his own divinity in this miracle. Jesus makes it clear that we forgive because we’ve been forgiven by God. We forgive because our debt to God has been forgiven. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus even makes it seem like there is a reciprocal relationship between our forgiveness and God’s forgiveness.
Forgiveness isn’t cheap
For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.—Matthew 6:14-15
Jesus is telling us that forgiveness costs something. It is freely given to us, but God does not freely offer it. God offers us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It is not transactional, strictly speaking, but rather an expression of offering. Repentance requires action, movement. Jesus acted on our behalf to offer us forgiveness, but we in turn must act and call on others to do the same.
The theme of God’s wrath and justice connecting to forgiveness continues in Matthew. After encouraging Peter to endlessly forgive one who has sinned against him – seventy-seven times, Jesus offers the parable of the unforgiving servant. The servant is forgiven his debt by his lord – much like Jesus forgives us of our debt. But when that servant won’t forgive an even smaller debt owed to him, the lord comes back and throws him into torture until he pays for his entire debt (an allusion to purgatory, perhaps).
In asking for forgiveness from his lord, the servant is repenting. In the passage above, Matthew 18:15-20, Jesus offers instructions for forgiveness, which are dependent upon confession. We cannot forgive independent of confession because forgiveness is not ours to freely give, but rather something that’s been given to us. Too often the calls for forgiveness come from people who have not been harmed by the sin at hand. It is easy for white people, then, to call for forgiveness of racism because it does not burden them, but rather relieves them of their debt. Premature calls for forgiveness burden victims of racism, and it is ours to offer. We offer it because God offers it to us, but we do so at the moment of confession and reconciliation. While we can let go of our pain and process it, forgiveness costs something and is much deeper than simply “moving on.”
How we imagine the cross of Jesus is important here. As much as I value Christ defeating death through the cross as a primary motif, the wrath of God against evil and the restoration of God’s honor are both important ideas to incorporate into our understanding of the forgiveness of Jesus. Reparations needed to be made. Wrath needed to be poured out. Wrongs had to be made right. Even from God, because God is just, and righteous, and complete. This isn’t retributive, it’s restorative.
The false dichotomy of restorative and retributive justice
Dyson, in his column, distinguishes restoration and retributive justice. He’s articulating the difference between bringing wholeness to an offender as opposed to punishing them. But such a line isn’t easy to draw, and sometimes the feelings of those who need to be restored become the center of our dialogue, and so we think we are being retributive. But we can expect the oppressed to be uncomfortable even in restorative justice. Discomfort isn’t condemnation. And vocal and assertive opposition isn’t cancel culture, nor is it retributive. We need to stop measuring the efficacy of justice by the emotional reactions of white people. The opportunity for repentance is often there even among the most hardline social justice activists. Being spoken back to in-person, in an email, or online – even if it results in pain – isn’t “retribution.” It’s advocacy.
Dyson argues, “The moral intent of restoration is to create a flourishing community that acknowledges the wrong done, holds wrongdoers accountable, and invites them back into the community from which their offense estranged them.” (For what it’s worth, this is very similar to Matthew 18:15-20.)
Cancel culture isn’t retributive, our criminal justice system is
But too often acknowledging harm and holding wrongdoers accountable are seen as cancellation or retribution. Dyson’s column and the Times’ header for it reinforce this idea. Even the fiercest of advocates of justice offer an invitation of reconciliation. Our criminal justice system doesn’t, however. Neither does our police state. So, I want to say it clearly: antiracism fights retribution. You can’t say you want grace and compassion and justice without saying Black Lives Matter.
A modern dichotomy between restoration and retribution falls short. Too often, people equate retribution with a public confrontation and restoration with a private one—but that is also wrong. While private offenses should be countered privately, public ones should be addressed publicly and require a public confession.
If you want to talk about the follies of retribution, start with the Nuremberg trials and Chauvin’s murder trial — those are examples of retributive justice that nearly everyone praises, despite their violence. Starting with what social justice activists are doing is transparently partisan and an argument made to advance a particular talking point. Begin with police brutality, the incarceration system, and other forms of violence that minorities are burdened with – not those fighting against them!
Like Dyson, we often hagiographize our prophets, such as Tutu and King, but these prophets would have been seen as retributive in their day and age. A prophet is always hated in their home town. As much as we want to idolize Tutu as being opposed to today’s cancel culture, he clearly took a side. Here’s a famous quotation: “To be impartial is indeed to have taken sides already with the status quo.” Tutu is called us to change the world by taking the side of the oppressed. You might think of that as cancel culture or retribution, but it is the Gospel.