From “Exclusion and Embrace:
A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness and Reconciliation”
by Miroslav Volf, b.1956
Forgiveness is not a substitute for justice. Forgiveness is no mere discharge of a victim‘s angry resentment and no mere assuaging of a perpetrator’s remorseful anguish, one that demands no change of the perpetrator and no righting of wrongs. On the contrary, every act of forgiveness enthrones justice; it draws attention to its violation precisely by offering to forego its claims. Moreover, forgiveness provides a framework in which the quest for properly understood justice can be fruitfully pursued.
"Only those who are in a state of truthfulness through the confession of their sin to Jesus are not ashamed to tell the truth wherever it must be told,“ maintained Dietrich Bonhoeffer in “The Cost of Discipleship” (1963).
Only those who are forgiven and who are willing to forgive will be capable of relentlessly pursuing justice without falling into the temptation to pervert it into injustice, we could add.
How do we find the strength to forgive, however? Should we try to persuade ourselves that forgiveness is invariably good for mental and spiritual health whereas vindictiveness is bad? Should we tell ourselves that, given the nature of our world, it is wiser to forgive than to fall prey to the spinning spiral of revenge? Even if valid, will these arguments get at such a powerful emotion as the desire for revenge? More significantly, do they take sufficient note of the fact that the desire for revenge, far from being just an irrational passion of a sick or maladjusted psyche, flows “from a need to restore ‘something missing,’ a sense of physical and emotional integrity that is shattered by violence,” as Susan Jacoby rightly argued in “Wild Justice” (1983)? How will we satisfy our thirst for justice and calm our passion for revenge so as to practice forgiveness?
In the imprecatory Psalms (those that invoke judgment, calamity or curses upon one's enemies or those perceived as the enemies of God), torrents of rage have been allowed to flow freely, channelled only by the robust structure of a ritual prayer. Strangely enough, they may point to a way out of slavery to revenge and into the freedom of forgiveness. This suggestion will not work, of course, if we see the imprecatory Psalms as publicly pronounced indirect threats to powerful enemies who could not be confronted directly, moments “in a larger web of intriguing words and actions in which the Psalmist is fully involved” as Gerald T. Sheppard has argued. Partly out of a false concern that these Psalms may “dissipate and neutralise the desire actually to retaliate, to punish, or to take power from another person, Sheppard misreads the specific character of the Psalms as discourse. They are prayers and everybody except moderns for whom God does not matter knows that the primary addressee of prayers is God. Whatever else these Psalms might have done to those who listened (and I do not doubt that they functioned at that level too), they brought the puzzlement and rage of the oppressed over injustice into the presence of the God of justice who is the God of the oppressed.
For the followers of the crucified Messiah, the main message of the imprecatory Psalms is this: rage belongs before God not in the reflectively managed and manicured form of a confession, but as a pre-reflective outburst from the depths of the soul. This is no mere cathartic discharge of pent up aggression before the Almighty who ought to care. Much more significantly, by placing unattended rage before God we place both our unjust enemy and our own vengeful self face to face with a God who loves and does justice. Hidden in the dark chambers of our hearts and nourished by the system of darkness, hate grows and seeks to infest everything with its hellish will to exclusion. In the light of the justice and love of God, however, hate recedes and the seed is planted for the miracle of forgiveness. Forgiveness flounders because I exclude the enemy from the community of humans even as l exclude myself from the community of sinners. But no one can be in the presence of the God of the crucified Messiah for long without overcoming this double exclusion, without transposing the enemy from the sphere of monstrous inhumanity into the sphere of shared humanity and herself from the sphere of proud innocence into the sphere of common sinfulness. When one knows that the torturer will not eternally triumph over the victim, one is free to rediscover that person’s humanity and imitate God's love for him. And when one knows that God’s love is greater than all sin, one is free to see oneself in the light of God’s justice and so rediscover one’s own sinfulness.
In the presence of God, our rage over injustice may give way to forgiveness, which in turn will make the search for justice for all possible. If forgiveness does take place it will be but an echo of the forgiveness granted by the just and loving God, the only forgiveness that ultimately matters, because, though we must forgive, in a very real sense no one can either forgive or retain sins “but God alone" (“Mark,” chapter two, verse seven).