Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Vengeance, Resentment, Repentance, Forgiveness

Forgiveness and Its Limits

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?


DeGirolami, Marc | Permalink

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i am not a law professor and not baptised into any faith (as i grew up in the former soviet union), but if you allow, i'd like to comment on forgiveness

i think that God's forgiveness is an absolute, He has an unlimited credit of forgiveness toward a man
any human forgiveness is limited
it's like giving a person another loan after he wasted money the first time and never paid back
it would be stupid to repeat mistakes (here i mean the lender)
yet, in the light of a new situation, how we sense it (not promises of that person) be willing to give another chance, sincerely believing that a person can change and whole-heartedly willing that

this is far from God's unlimited forgiveness, but i think, it is possible because of it

looks like there are many levels of forgiveness, the highest of which is God's, absolute, unconditional
it's not an easy concept at any of those levels as it does not imply obliteration of memory - facts, events, things of the past are still there, yet we look at them differently
God's absolute forgiveness simply means love

and it is the same on our lower human levels

we love our children and forgive them a lot closing our eyes on the facts, favoring them unequally in front of others who committed the same acts
this does not mean that we do not tell or show them what was wrong in our view, or that they guarantee to avoid "mistakes" in the future
we teach, talk, argue, discuss, help
yet, unlike our interactions with others, we have a very deep line of credit open to them because of love, much more than they deserve rationally

next come parents, spouses, people we love, relatives, then friends and others

Posted by: elena | May 1, 2011 9:26:46 PM

I get this question a lot from parents at conference time; sometimes directly from my students. The first time I heard the question I was quite taken aback as I had never considered it before. Isn't it obvious that we are called to unilateral forgiveness?

As I've worked through this blindspot in my thinking, I've come to think that it is not so obvious. But I think it may still be true (I approach the question with much more humility than I would have years ago). When Christ enjoins us to love our enemies I think He means while they are still our enemies, not after we have been reconciled as friends. This seems to reveal the logic of the forgiveness to which we are called as His disciples: a forgiveness which transcends the contractual.

With the caveat that forgiveness does not make us stupid. No need to hand over the keys of the house!

Posted by: A Catholic School Teacher | May 2, 2011 1:08:42 PM