Recently I’ve been exploring the topic of forgiveness and how Jesus’ teaching on the topic moved the West beyond theism with respect to human morality. The gist of my argument is that Jesus clarified forgiveness of the enemy as the only way through the impasse of retribution, vengeance, and redemptive violence – the latter term referring to a “solution” which requires someone to suffer for sin before things can be made right.
In the early days, Yahweh (tribal deity of the Hebrews) was rather violence-prone and bloodthirsty, taking life as satisfaction for disobedience and iniquity. There are even hints in the Bible that Yahweh took some time to get past his need for the blood dedication (sacrifice) of human firstborns – an advance, certainly, toward a more enlightened morality.
During the intervening centuries Yahweh developed the ability to look upon outsiders with compassion and even forgive sinners … up to a point. While his human devotees – especially some of the prophets – were envisioning what the world would be like if Yahweh simply “let go” of his need for vengeance and appeasement, dreaming of the day, with Jeremiah, when god would forgive without the prerequisite of repentance, Yahweh just couldn’t let go of his reluctant obligation to condemn sinners.
By the time of Jesus, then, there were at least two strands of theological development vying for the hearts and minds of true believers. The dominant strand insisted that god is holy and just and simply cannot tolerate disobedience. If the sinner refuses to repent, then god has no choice but to reject and condemn. If this sounds like a limitation on god’s power and love, the orthodox tradition resolved the question by saying that god had set up reality in the very beginning according to the balancing principle of retribution.
Similar to the oriental notion of karma, this principle simply says that “you get what you deserve” – maybe not right away, but eventually things are going to be made right. Yahweh’s so-called obligation is indeed reluctant – he doesn’t necessarily want to destroy sinners, but still he must abide by his own rules. The idea that there is something higher than god putting limits on divine (and human) freedom was an essential linchpin of orthodox morality, and remains so to this day.
The other tradition, definitely a minority report by comparison, was less mechanistic and more romantic – concerned less about keeping “the system” intact than promoting the dream of a nonviolent reconciliation of sinners to god. What if the god who led our nation out of captivity is also at work in other nations, providing for human liberation and prosperity in ways peculiar to their historical conditions? So dreamed the prophet Amos (see Amos 9:7).
Later on, Jeremiah looked forward to a time when god would set aside the rules, accomplish a radical preemptive forgiveness, and put the knowledge of his will in the hearts of people (see Jeremiah 31:31-34). In that day there will no longer be a need for sacrificial priests, ranting preachers, or Sunday school teachers. The mechanism and official procedure for our human repentance to god – practically the entire religious establishment – would be transcended and left behind.
But of course it had to remain just a dream, for the simple reason that its progress into reality would have entailed too much revamping of orthodox religion and its incumbent deity. In fact, if god really is – not just in our dreams but in reality – for all people, and ready to forgive without repentance in order to get everything moving forward into freedom and true community, then much would need to change. Most importantly, the old god – the author, supervisor and executioner of retributive morality – would have to go.
Now, that’s something terrifying to consider, especially when just about every feature of your identity is drawn from your identification with this god. If you go forward with it, some explanation will be in order as to why for so long you used god in the justification of your superiority over others, of your bigotry and violence against unbelievers and people differently oriented in the world.
Will you admit that you had it wrong back then? That you were advancing your own agenda and not god’s? Or will you finally realize and honestly confess that god is not an objective, absolute, and unchanging reality as you once believed?
Such are the questions that begin exploring the cultural terrain of post-theism. As we go along, it becomes easier to stay open to the idea that god is a representation in mythology, the central metaphor of the mystery that supports our existence and inspires our faith. It’s not necessary to defend the validity of earlier encounters with god as literal events, actual interventions of a deity who exists separate and apart from us. To say that such scriptural accounts are just more mythology does not diminish their meaning. Indeed it becomes possible once again to appreciate this meaning in proper context, as part of the Great Story of our spiritual awakening as a species.
What Jesus did was “simply” but bravely step into reality without the satisfaction and security in knowing that people get what they deserve. He realized forgiveness as the power to let go and move on – not away from one’s enemy but back into relationship. Taking hold of the retributive reflex before it compels an act of retaliation and vengeance provides just a moment for reconsideration, but a moment is all that is needed.
Jesus believed that waiting for our enemy to see the light and plead our forgiveness is not something that will help us forward into reconciliation, community and genuine peace on this planet. Instead, forgiveness needs to come first, it must be preemptive and unconditional, not waiting around for the conditions to be right or the risk to go away.
Bringing love back into the face of hatred – that is to say, not energizing it with matching countermeasures but responding with kindness and benevolent strength – will result in the aggression eventually spending itself into bankruptcy. It may take some time, and many will get exploited or consumed along the way, but the Day is coming when the true enemy (ignorance, conviction, hatred and violence) and its many human incarnations will simply collapse out of exhaustion.
Finally the seed will break open and New Life will spring forth.
If we are to follow Jesus in this way of radical forgiveness, something needs to be done about the tribal deity of Christian orthodoxy. Tragically, this same orthodoxy took Jesus hostage in the opening centuries of establishment, re-making him into the savior who rescued the world from god by dying on a cross and satisfying the conditions against our forgiveness.
To its credit, the orthodoxy got it half right. Jesus did rescue us from god.