you want to punish all the culprits and compensate all the victims
and settle all
the legitimate grudges (not to mention the illegitimate ones),
you’ll have quite a tangled history to unravel. At times,
you might well find yourself punishing and rewarding the same
The idea that we can make things feel
as if the wrong never took place is futile. That doesn’t mean that it’s
a mistake to pursue retributive justice; there’s a real need
for human communities to take a hard look at the truth of the past
and to acknowledge the evils in it. But what this kind of justice
can accomplish is always limited. It may help clear the ground,
but it doesn’t do much to build the future. Forgiveness does
sometimes dispense people from that particular kind of justice.
Forgiveness means, among other things, that we’ve recognized
the ultimate impossibility of putting the past fully “right.” The
past is over as event, even though it still lives with us in its
consequences and in our memories. We cannot make it right. Instead,
we can choose, as we go on with life, to reuse the past in creating
a new future.
But there is another conception of justice, one in which forgiveness
has a great role to play. This vision of justice focuses not on
the past but on the future--on building a just future characterized
by peace, by shalom, which means not mere absence of conflict and
harm but positive well-being, a world in right relationship. A
world characterized by this kind of peace will be a supremely just
world, because each person will be taken seriously.
life of faith aims to produce people who are just: “What
does the Lord require of you / but to do justice and to love kindness,
/ and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8 NRSV). Sometimes
the ancient Hebrew or Greek words involved are translated into
English as “righteous” rather than “just,” but “righteousness” can
sound too narrowly individual, too interior, too much a matter
of keeping one’s nose clean, whereas “justice” captures
the social element that is very much a part of this virtue.
true saints are not simply those who have walked humbly with
their God but those who have also done justice and loved kindness. They have lived with a profound and loving respect for others,
a respect that freely accords to each person the right to be as
much a human being and as much loved by God as they are.
as we’ve been describing it, is virtually the
same thing. It works by maintaining a basic sense of community
with the rest of the human race and by looking forward, even when
there is little encouragement from the data, to a time when others
will join us in God’s household for the creation of a new
world. Justice seeks the world of shalom, the life of the age to
come. It will do nothing that would make such a world impossible.
It will do anything that might actually bring it closer. It will
even forgive. Instead of dedicating ourselves, then, to the impossible
task of getting the past right, we find ourselves freed
by forgiveness to live fully in the present and to begin building something new
©2004 L. William Countryman
from Forgiven and Forgiving ©1998 by L. William
Countryman are used with permission from Morehouse Publishing.
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