Forgiveness Fosters Justice

Margaret Farley focused on forgiveness in addressing the question “What does justice require in human relationships?” Farley, distinguished professor emerita of Yale Divinity School, delivered her lecture during the school’s Fall Convocation.

Farley began by reassuring her audience that there is a fundamental compatibility — and even symbiosis — between forgiveness and justice, despite systemic conflict and oppression that are clearly apparent in our world today. Forgiveness is essential for the right ordering of relationships, both personally and in the larger society.

When continuing, unrepentant injury seems to preclude the possibility of realizing forgiveness, Farley proposed the concept of “anticipatory forgiveness” as the condition that can lead toward realizing the full thing.

Farley continued with a three-part discussion of the subject. First she reflected on forgiveness as commanded in John 20:19-23. Then she turned toward the meaning of forgiveness in human experience, both forgiving and being forgiven. She concluded with a reflection on the role of forgiveness — and particularly anticipatory forgiveness, alongside justice and resistance.

Farley noted that the traditional interpretation of the forgiveness passage from John 20 is to identify it with a similar passage in Matthew 16, where the commission Jesus gives to his disciples is clearly linked with the authority of the Church to judge between right and wrong. Farley suggested that taking another tack in interpreting John might ultimately be more productive: that it is not primarily about the apostles’ authority to judge, but rather about their continuing Jesus’ mission to forgive — and thereby to free those who receive his forgiveness.

“If you do not forgive them, who will?” she asked.

Farley stressed that true forgiveness should not be confused with an anemic passivity that colludes with an oppressor to perpetuate wrongdoing. Instead she turned to the hard work that those who forgive, and those who receive forgiveness, both undertake.

She made use of an image from Emily Dickinson’s “Time and Eternity”: “I drop my heart.” For Farley, forgiveness consists in letting go of something within us, in order to accept someone. The one who forgives lets go of injury, pride, and the desire for punishment or revenge, in order to accept the offender as one beloved of God.

Likewise, the one forgiven chooses to receive the offer of forgiveness, and to accept the one who offers it. Both choose to embrace the possibility a new future together, one that generates joy, and gratitude that human actions have not finally severed the bonds of family, friendship, collegiality, and love. The greater the offense, the greater the possible future once it is forgiven: “the one who for whom much is forgiven loves much.”

For the Christian, the paradigmatic moment is the forgiveness of God. As we experience his forgiveness, we find ourselves accepted by the incomprehensible source of our lives. Even so, we do not become totally innocent — rather, our forgiveness comes “while we are yet sinners.” Such a realization invites us into communion with infinite goodness and beauty. The response God requires is only to trust in the word of his forgiveness; to let go of our fears, surrender our hearts — to “drop” them, in Dickinson’s words — “and receive eternal acceptance.”

Farley said calls to forgive that ignore the claims of justice are misplaced; likewise, struggling for justice without regard for the content of the heart is misplaced. What’s wrong in the world demands resistance. Farley called on all to maintain a spirit of openness to any attackers, a fundamental respect, even love, for them; to be ready to accept them, longing for them to turn, yearning for the enemy to become the friend.

Anticipatory forgiveness cannot finally be realized until the perpetrator recognizes the injury and accepts grace. But in order to maintain the possibility of a just future, those who are offended must continue to behold their offenders as persons with whom peace is both possible and desirable. This is hard work indeed, but demanded by any conception of justice that aspires to greater harmony than that produced by the swinging pendulum of revenge.

The Rev. Blake Sawicky

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Image by Loavesofbread (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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