Forgiveness and Justice
Isn't forgiveness all about things that happened in the past?
It may seem odd to connect forgiveness and justice. Sometimes we even think of forgiveness as a way of nullifying justice or of making an exception to it: “Yes, justice demands that you be punished, but I forgive you instead.” This has something to do with the way we usually think of justice. We think of it in terms of retributive justice, a process that will punish wrongdoers and balance things out again. Ideally, it will even restore things to their original state, make up for past wrongs, and bring us all back to a perfectly equal starting point. Forgiveness doesn’t seem to help us toward this goal. It only muddles the accounts.
This kind of justice has an important role to play in human society. But the idea that it will—or even can—move us toward a truly just society, the life of the age to come, merely by measuring up all past wrongs and correcting them one by one is naive. To choose an extreme case, what would be the chances of accomplishing such justice in the former Yugoslavia, where every ethnic group seems to have a rich record of both sinning against its neighbors and being sinned against?
If 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 persons.
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.
The 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.
The 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.
Forgiveness, 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 and better.
Copyright ©2004 L. William Countryman
Excerpts from Forgiven and Forgiving ©1998 by L. William Countryman are used with permission from Morehouse Publishing. Help support explorefaith.org. Purchase a copy of Forgiven and Forgiving by following this link to amazon.com.