In Insurrection and Epiphany I tried to explain what was truly revolutionary about Jesus of Nazareth, focusing on his message and revelation of “unconditional forgiveness.” That exact term wasn’t used by him, but the gospel stories about him and the stories he told (called parables) both imply and explicitly declare a new understanding – grounded in a truly transforming experience – of God’s forgiveness as already accomplished and universally granted to human beings, everywhere and without exception.
The conventional model in which forgiveness played an important part was, and still is, transactional in nature. According to its logic, the offender (or sinner) has to satisfy some basic conditions before the one who was offended, injured, exploited or betrayed has the prerogative to grant or withhold forgiveness. As encouragement to the would-be forgiver, as well as acknowledgment of a reasonable limit, the Judaism of Jesus’ day had counseled the pardon of such a repentant offender up to but not exceeding three repeated offenses. Beyond that, the offender’s sincerity is clearly in question and no more mercy should be expected.
Jesus was enough of a realist, and sufficiently in touch with his own human inclinations, to observe how this transactional model of forgiveness could never really resolve the key challenge of relationships.
This challenge is centered in the fact of persistent festering feelings in the heart of one who has been offended, injured, exploited or betrayed. Those manipulated conditions of repentance – acknowledging the sin, confessing one’s guilt, petitioning for mercy, and making amends – can be satisfied in their prescribed and proper sequence, with even “religious” scrupulosity, but still leave the offended one unpersuaded and internally unchanged.
In other words, for Jesus forgiveness had to be about more than a conciliatory transaction between the offender and offended, where the ritual of repentance is presumed to satisfy conditions that make it finally possible for the offended one to forgive. “Checking the boxes” of steps taken cannot really touch – and it certainly can’t resolve – the feelings of profound disappointment, justified anger, and vengeful desire in the heart of the one whose dignity, honor, and trust have been violated.
Sooner or later, the need to retaliate and exact retribution will take over – if only as a “therapeutic” vent for all that pent-up frustration. Thus will the wheel of suffering be turned 180°, as the offender-turned-offended one now feels that the balance has been tipped against him. If his enemy doesn’t follow all the steps to satisfy him – which, as Jesus understood, is impossible if emotional appeasement is what he’s really after – the newly offended one will seek his opportunity to put things back to rights.
This is what I call the “retributive reflex,” which in both Jesus’ day and our own is the impulse that divides us and predictably destroys community.
All of that is a necessary preamble for an appreciation of what Jesus taught about forgiveness and exemplified in his own life. In contrast to the familiar transactional model of relationships, he advocated for a transformational one, where the rupture of trust caused by the offender’s betrayal is acknowledged as fundamentally beyond the “repair” of following steps and satisfying the conditions of a formal pardon.
Jesus realized that genuine liberation from the retributive reflex and its perpetual wheel of suffering can come only as the offended one is willing to “let go” (the literally meaning of forgive) of the need for revenge and appeasement.
It’s important to note that such an unconditional forgiveness (granted without preconditions) does not necessarily excuse the offender from accountability for his or her actions. Reparations may still be required in order to make up for the damage, theft, or injury that was caused.
The difference – and it is indeed a transformational difference – is that the drive for vengeance and its corresponding demand for propitiation are inwardly resolved and preemptively released by the offended one.
Such a move allows for a form of justice that is truly restorative: treating partners as responsible co-operators, holding them accountable for their actions, resolving conflict and misunderstandings, working for compromise, and restoring both sides to equal partnership in the ongoing work of making their relationship and the community around them stronger.
When Jesus said, in effect, that humanity’s debt to God was forgiven, that God had released them from the work of having to appease and satisfy God’s wrath before they could enjoy the fullness of God’s love in perfect freedom, he was dropping a seed of spiritual transformation in the soil of our collective consciousness.
In his day, such a radical (literally “at the roots”) insight and teaching was not only incompatible with the dominant ideology and everyday assumptions of social life, it was revolutionary – as it still is in our own.
The institutional religion that eventually formed in his name failed, for the most part, to incorporate and procreate his insight into its identity and mission – even to the point of cancelling it completely in its doctrine of salvation. Jesus had to die on a cross (so goes the theory) in order that God’s wrath against a sinful humanity could be placated and we could be made acceptable by his vicarious punishment on our behalf.
In other words, forgiveness is conditional and transactional. The gospel or “good news” that Jesus announced to the world was effectively cut from its roots.
One wonders how Jesus would fit into a social, political, and economic system like ours. Would he endorse capitalism with its values of a free market and private property? Would he promote a form of socialism with its priority of protecting equal access to public goods for all citizens? Or would he advocate for a communist society instead, where the principle of “from each according to ability, to each according to need” (Marx) governs the nation?
Would Jesus be a Democrat, a Republican, or an Independent? Conservative, Liberal, Progressive or Nostalgic? Given that a favorite metaphor of his was the monarchical “kingdom of God,” would he even commend our democratic ideals and sensibilities?
I think we are asking the wrong questions. It’s not about where Jesus would fit in our existing systems, what kind of society he would be happiest in, or which way he would vote. The question we should be asking is, What would happen to the world as we know it, if his transformational insight of unconditional forgiveness were given a chance to grow? When it comes down to it, Jesus wasn’t so interested in social, political, or economic systems as much as he was in human relationships.
When human relationships change, so goes the world.
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