instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Monday, June 27, 2005

Again with the forgiveness

Monsignor Peter Magee, who used to work for the Vatican Diplomatic Corps and will start a teaching gig at Georgetown (I think) this fall, spent the past year as a priest-in-residence in my parish. He's an outstanding homilist, so as soon as I heard he had a book coming out this month, I planned on ordering it.

It's called God's Mercy Revealed: Healing for a Broken World, and is based on homilies he has given at St. Matthew Cathedral in Washington. I'm six pages into it, and it's already worth the price. In those six pages, he offers a new (to me) understanding on the question that comes up over and over again in St. Blog's regarding the concept of unconditional forgiveness. Here is my riff on his take:

Before it is an act we experience, God's forgiveness is part of Who He is. When He forgives us, then, it is not fundamentally a juridical act whereby the party of the first part waives all rights and claims against the party of the second part appertaining to all injuries, fiducial and otherwise, directly or indirectly incurred as a result of the following actions of the party of the second part, &c. &c. &c.

Rather, God's act of forgiveness is an invitation to share in His life of forgiveness. It is God saying, "I AM Forgiveness, and you may join Me."

This perspective has many profound implications.

First, it makes forgiveness all of a piece with God's love. It's not something extra or optional. If God is love, if God is God, then God is forgiveness, and He will forgive all of us everything. It makes each individual act of forgiveness, for each individual sin each individual commits, of a piece with the Incarnation, Passion, and Resurrection of Christ, the preeminent expression of God's love (and mercy, and forgiveness) within creation. It [all but] dissolves the old "mercy v. justice" paradox (which I've never seen as all that great to begin with).

Forgiveness as an aspect of Divine life also means that to be forgiven is to have the Trinity living within you. A richer notion, wouldn't you say, than the status quo ante notion of merely canceling a debt.

It further converts the idea of asking forgiveness into the idea of allowing God to live within you. If "to forgive" is to offer to have God live in you, then "to be forgiven" is to actually have God live in you. Logically, between these two comes "to ask forgiveness," meaning to let God live in you. In juridical terms, "to ask forgiveness" is prior to "to forgive," a chicken-and-egg problem if, as orthodox Christians, we want to insist all the good we do comes from God.

The "God is forgiveness" perspective also illuminates the fact that, for a Christian, to forgive someone else is to invite them to share in God's life. Under what circumstances ought a Christian choose not to invite someone to share in God's life? Under what circumstances, then, ought a Christian to not forgive someone?

When the topic of unconditional forgiveness comes up, people always insist that you can't forgive unless you were first harmed. Better to say that you can't forgive unless you were first forgiven. You can't give what you don't have; you can't offer a share in God's life if you don't have God's life within you.

Still more, for a Christian to forgive is not for him to say, "I forgive you your offenses against me," but, "God forgives you your offences against Him." Christian forgiveness is no more a juridical act, fundamentally, than is Christ's forgiveness. It is an act of evangelism, a proclamation of the Gospel, and to whom are we not to evangelize?