Forgiveness in an Unforgiving World

By Christian Bergmann

In his book The Madness of Crowds, British journalist Douglas Murray offers penetrating insight into how a society becomes a merciless, unforgiving landscape without genuine Christian culture taking root. Basically, his point is this: in a post-Christian world, we still live within a never-ending cycle of Christian categories, including sin, guilt and shame, but without the ability for atonement, without the ability to actually make amends. We know this is true because we see this play out at the cultural and political level constantly. As soon as somebody’s sin is revealed and exposed to the light of day, they undergo the ritual humiliation and shaming at the hands of online mobs, the ritual expulsion from their professional lives and polite society. The kicker is this: there is no method of receiving them back into the fold. They will be forever stained and forever ruined by this process.

The Gospel, I put to you, offers an alternative vision for how forgiveness should work. The Second Vatican Council taught that the Church is “the kingdom of Christ now present in mystery” (Lumen Gentium, 3), which means, amongst other things, that the Church somehow embodies in its life, liturgy, sacraments and evangelism the mystery of God’s kingdom. It is precisely this kingdom that Jesus came to establish that upsets and subverts the principalities and powers of the world, that offers a way of being that is grounded in forgiveness rather than unforgiveness.

In Matthew’s Gospel, one of the few times Jesus mentions the word “church” (ekklēsia) is in reference to this process of confronting somebody with their sin and entering into the process of forgiveness. The most important thing to note is this: firstly, it should be in in private (Matthew 18:15). Only after that has taken place should your brother in the faith be taken to the necessary church authorities (v.17). In a world that thrives on exposing the sins of people for ritual public shaming, how refreshing it might be to actually submit ourselves to the admonition of Jesus: do not publicly shame or humiliate your brother. He is your brother.

This passage ends with Jesus saying that if the brother stubbornly refuses to repent, then he should be treated like a Gentile and a Tax Collector (v.17). But that’s not the end of the story: Peter comes up to Jesus directly afterwards and asks how often he should forgive such a brother. Seven times? (v.21). This is where Jesus offers us a radical vision of his mercy: “not seven times, but seventy-seven times” (v.22). Which is to say: always and without fail.

This number here is interesting. On the one hand, it echoes Daniel 9, which says that the period of time until the restoration of Jerusalem will be “seventy-sevens” (490 years; Daniel 9:24). But also, something which has come to my attention recently, this play on numbers has a much older lineage in the Bible. It goes all the way back to Cain, whom God says will be avenged “sevenfold” if somebody tries to kill him (Genesis 4:15). But Cain’s great-great grandson, Lamech, takes it to a whole new level, claiming that vengeance as a kind of boast. Upon murdering someone, Lamech boasts: “If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold” (Genesis 4:24).

This holy number, seven, which should bring to our minds all the resonances of creation and new creation and all that is holy, is here being claimed and subverted by violence and murderous vengeance. It is a deeply evil subversion of these holy numbers. Which makes me think that forgiveness, following Jesus’ language of “seventy-seven times”, is more than simply a transaction of words (‘I’m sorry’; ‘I forgive you’), but a process through which creation is beginning to be healed again. If we want to take part in the healing of creation, in God’s work of transfiguring and redeeming his good creation, forgiveness is a fundamental part of that. The ritual shaming, expulsion, and humiliation of people subverts and undoes God’s good creation; forgiveness is what starts putting things back together.

As always, the book of Sirach contains an immense wealth of wisdom: “Forgive your neighbour’s injustice; then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven. Could anyone nourish anger against another and expect healing from the Lord?” (Sirach 27:2-3).