Forgiveness versus Justice?

Is forgiveness a bad thing? Does it hinder justice?  Some activists would say, “yes, forgiveness is a bad thing”.  My Christian faith would say the opposite.  I read a very interesting essay by Timothy Keller on the current state of forgiveness in America.   In today’s individualistic culture, where Critical Race Theory and the Cancel Culture are major influences,  there is very little room for forgiveness.

Back in 2015, racist Dylann Roof entered a Charleston church and shot and killed nine African-Americans.  (Three others survived.)  Soon after the relatives forgave Dylann Roof for the killing.  Some activists opposed the forgiveness, because “The supposed moral obligation of forgiveness was seen as an instrument by which those in power maintained their position.”  They consider forgiveness as giving support to the enemy. In this case, the enemy was white racism.  “They argued that forgiveness is a form of ‘self-renunciation,’ giving up your perfect right to pay back to the person what they did to you.”  That is true but without forgiveness there is little, if any, hope of healing and reconciliation. As Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power of love. . . .We can never say, ‘I will forgive you, but I won’t have anything further to do with you.’ Forgiveness means reconciliation, and coming together again.”  

That is what the Christian Faith is all about.  God forgave us so that we might be reconciled to him.  It did not mean that justice was not served.  Jesus paid the price for our sin.  There was a cost. Justice was not forgotten.  We need to forgive in a way that honors justice.

Since God forgives us yet in a way that honours justice, so we should also forgive in a way that honours justice. As Don Carson once wrote, “Christians are called to abandon bitterness, to be forbearing, to have a forgiving stance even where the repentance of the offending party is conspicuous by its absence; on the other hand, their God-centered passion for justice, their concern for God’s glory, ensure that the awful odium of sin is not glossed over.”

An example of this on the national scale is the nation of Germany.  After World War I, justice was served and Germany suffered the cost of making war reparations. I believe because of the heavy cost of justice Hitler rose to power and World War II happened.  After World War II, Germany was a part of the Marshall Plan and received assistance in recovering from the war.  That was forgiveness in action.  There was a cost borne by the USA, but that is a part of the forgiveness, and today Germany is reconciled to the allies.  But note there was still justice.  Its leaders were tried and prosecuted for the horrible things done, and still today German school children learn of the wrongs their nation did.  Forgiveness with justice happened. (Marshall Plan motivation was not about Christian love, but I believe it is still a good example of forgiveness on a national scale.)

Another example of forgiveness on a national scale happened in South Africa, where Desmond Tutu set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which offered amnesty and forgiveness to any person guilty of violence who came forward and publicly confessed what they had done.  This allowed for reconciliation between the former white oppressors and the black majority. Civil war was avoided.

Today forgiveness is countercultural.  Today’s individualistic culture “stresses looking inward to forge one’s own identity based on our desires, and then moving outward to demand that society honour our individual identity and interests.”  That does not allow for the cost of “self-renunciation”, only the exaltation of oneself.  The starting point of the Christian Faith is that we all are broken sinners.  No one is exalted above another. No one is superior. At the same time, as Christians our identity is secure.  We are children of God, and no matter what happens that is who we are.  This is what makes forgiveness possible.

There are three aspects to forgiveness.  We, first, need to embrace the free forgiveness that God has given us.  We can forgive because we have been forgiven due to the costly sacrifice of Jesus Christ.  Then we can give up the desire to get even.  We forgive them inwardly, so that we do not dwell on it. It does cost us to give up what is due us.  And thirdly, we seek repentance and reconciliation from the offender.  The goal is to reconcile with each other.

Through the years, Christianity has changed the world for the better.  Forgiveness has played a big part in that change and it will again in the future.

PS All quotes (in italics) were from the essay.  The essay is insightful and is worth a read.

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