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Seventh Sunday of the Year

The Justice of Forgiveness

Forgiveness is at the heart of the Christian gospel. Jesus forgives people in order to restore human relationships, to create just order, and in the end to restore humanity. Sin damages relationships and just order. The only way to repair those damaged relationships and re-establish just order is for sin to be forgiven.

Such forgiveness is at the heart of the instructions: 'Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who treat you badly.' Following these instructions would do something towards restoring just order. The other instructions in today's gospel may seem to go a step further: giving our tunic to the person who takes our cloak; allowing the robber to keep our property; or offering the other cheek to the person who slaps us. These instructions seem to make an unjust situation even worse.

Surely it is unjust to allow the robber to keep his ill-gotten gains, from the perspective of the robber as well as the perspective of the victim. Surely the priest is obliged to instruct the penitent thief to make restitution, because it is a way of re-establishing justice. We can safely assume though that the gospel would not instruct us to act against God's justice. What the gospel is saying is that we are more likely to re-establish justice by offering the other cheek than we are by slapping back in retaliation, or by somehow trying to enforce better future behaviour. The concern is always about what course of action is more likely to re-establish justice in the sense of good order.

This is not how justice is always understood. Our society is not submissive towards those who rob or slap people around. There is every chance that our 'Christian' society will send such people to prison. And they will claim that they do it in the name of justice. It is likely though that, for some, the concept of justice in mind here is balancing an injustice with revenge rather than the re-establishment of a just order.

Forgiveness is at the heart of the Christian gospel, but it is a concept that seems to be disappearing from the public domain. A few years ago an evangelical couple were in the news when their child was the victim of some horrendous crime. The couple forgave the perpetrator of the crime on national TV, and they said that they were doing so because of their Christian convictions.

In such a situation, it is impressive to use a vocabulary of forgiveness, never mind actually meaning it. The parents' reaction was not one many people understood. The interviewer was left speechless. The reaction was seen as not being 'normal'. Apparently the normal reaction is to want the return of the death penalty or at least a desire for the perpetrator to rot in prison for the rest of his or her life. There are even those who would proclaim 'hanging is too good for them'.

We only need to look at the case of the two young men from the James Bulger case, who were young boys when they murdered another young boy. The suggestion that the two should now be released has some in a state of apoplexy. Apparently there is a justice that entails that the two young men be detained for as long as possible.

Is it just mad Christians who say they should be forgiven, or is the point that all should want just order restored? By labelling forgiveness 'Christian', it can look as though forgiving is just something Christians do or are expected to do. In truth, forgiving is something everybody should do whether they are Christian or not.

Forgiving restores good order where people live in peace and justice with each other. This is a sense of justice that is good for everyone. Justice as revenge at best leaves human relationships damaged and disordered, but is more likely to do more damage.

When we are the victims of sin, what is best for us and everyone else is that just order is restored. On one occasion it may mean turning the other cheek. On another occasion it may mean throwing the moneylenders out of the Temple. However, when forgiveness is asked for, nothing is gained by refusing, and a lot can be achieved, namely justice in the sense of good order in human relationships.

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