Sunday, May 1, 2011
I just made my way through Jeffrie Murphy's thoughtful and highly readable book, Getting Even: Forgiveness and Its Limits. I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in the relationship of vengeance, repentance, and forgiveness to criminal law. Murphy makes some deft arguments about the proper place of at least certain features of vengeance (resentment in particular, and its relationship to self-respect -- there is a well-known chapter titled, Two Cheers for Vindictiveness) for punishment. In one section, he draws on R.A. Duff's important work involving the communicative function of punishment -- communicative in the sense both of its being about the transmission of ideas to the offender, and that those ideas ought to be the community's. At one point I was attracted to the somewhat communitarian, or, if you prefer, paternalistic, feel of some of this -- I'm less so now. There are some arguments that I'm a little skeptical about -- e.g., that self-imposed suffering through repentance ought to be relevant to the issue of official, state-sanctioned mitigation of the sentence -- but all in all it is a terrific monograph.
I want to raise for MOJ denizens a somewhat peripheral claim that Murphy makes relating to the circumstances in which forgiveness is a Christian value. The question arises whether it really is true that Christians ought to forgive unilaterally, or instead forgive bilaterally -- in conjunction with repentance. Murphy's view is that forgiveness should wait for repentance, and he notes that others in his own religious community (Anglican) sometimes take this position as verging on the blasphemous. His opponents generally cite Jesus's words on the cross, "Father forgive them for they know not what they do" and the passage in the Lord's prayer, "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us" as conclusive evidence that forgiveness is a universal and unconditional obligation for Christians. Murphy is not a theologian, and neither am I, but to this untutored philistine, he makes some interesting points:
Jesus's words from the cross are surely not offering universal forgiveness. Indeed, Jesus takes the trouble to offer a reason why forgiveness should be bestowed on these particular wrongdoers -- namely, their ignorance that they are sacrificing the true son of God. (Do you think -- in different circumstances -- that he would have said, "Father forgive them even though they know full well what they are doing"?)
And consider the passage from the Lord's Prayer. One natural reading of the English word, "as," is "in the manner of" -- for example, "Do it as I do." Thus one perfectly natural reading of . . . "forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us" is this: "In the realm of forgiveness, God, I pray that you treat me in the manner that I treat those who wrong me. If I will not forgive them unless they repent, I do not expect you to forgive me unless I repent." (36)
There are other biblical passages (noted by Murphy) which also suggest that forgiveness and repentance are conjoined (e.g., Luke 17:3 -- "If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him"), but the larger point is that a fully worked-out Christian theology of forgiveness is a complicated and difficult endeavor not resolved in the least by citing a couple of translated selections from the Bible. Thoughts?