Ancient stories from the beginning of the bible are written by people trying to make sense of things. Some of them focus on the universal human use of retaliation. Violence and war are the children of the human need to get even.
From the very earliest times right up to this century conflict is often created by the need to settle old scores. There is an offence and there is a reaction. As it is said the seeds of future war are sown in the ceasefires and ill-conceived peace of previous conflicts. Human history is a record of numerous feuds and conflicts based on the principle of retaliation. Often the origins of the violence are forgotten but there seems to be no end in sight.
In the story of Israel the Mosaic Law attempted to reduce the rule of ever-increasing reprisal by establishing the law of equivalence – ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’. Exodus 21:23-25. This is heard today in the cry for a proportional response to an undeserved attack.
But retaliation is still in control, be it in the playground, as road rage, between nations, and it is the assumption behind all defence systems.
But in the world as Jesus would have it as Richard Holloway writes ‘this way of responding was to be reversed. The law of equivalence was not only to be denied, it was to be transcended’ Matthew 5:38-45.
And the means by which this would be done is by an act of forgiveness. Although forgiveness is not mentioned as such in the words from Matthew 5, they are a preamble to the Lord’s Prayer –“forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”
Holloway continues, ‘What forgiveness is intended to do here is to interrupt and redirect the normal retaliatory impulse that would otherwise add exponential strength to the original offence and push it further into unstoppable and destructive career.’
The reality is that Jesus has not been taken at his word and what he proposed has not been followed except by some extraordinary people and some small Christian groupings.
‘The actors may change but the plot is always the same: offence followed by counter-offence; eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth’. Except in war the response is never so measured and reprisal means obliteration. Only forgiveness can change the plot.
What then is forgiveness?
It is not the pat on the head of an indulgent parent who chooses to ignore the effect of the offending action of their child. Nor is it the action of someone who is morally indifferent.
It is a heroic refusal to let the original offence overwhelm the future. Forgiveness blocks the invasive power of the original offence and stops it spreading further.
Forgiveness creates the possibility of a different future.
Honesty has to admit that whist there have been occasions when a powerful act of forgiveness has been pursued on an individual basis there is little evidence that this has been achieved at the level of national and international relations. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission went close to achieving this in South Africa and to a lesser extent the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland.
‘It would be pushing it to claim that the idea of forgiveness was explicitly present in either of these laudable attempts at peacemaking, but something of its interruptive power was at work’.
Whist this interruptive power will have been seen in such personal acts of forgiveness as that of Gordon Wilson who forgave the bomber who killed his daughter Marie in Armagh it has never been taken up seriously either by governments or the Church.
Holloway concludes with this heartfelt appeal ‘but there it is at the heart of the story of Jesus: a standing challenge to those whose bitterness keeps humanity’s religious and political feuds burning and refuses any attempt to extinguish them. Forgiveness is a revolutionary act that can divert and redirect the destructive floods of human history’.
But where is God in all this?
Of which God do I speak? For ‘God’ has often been invoked on both sides of the argument/conflict. God has been called in to tidy up our need for revenge by cloaking it in the fine word – justice.
But why are there wounds in the side of the Christian God? Why for the Christian is the defining image of God a human body hanging in the embrace of torture?
This arises from Jesus’s own understanding of the nature of God. Suffering was no longer evidence of God’s disapproval. It was evidence of God’s presence. It was where God was to be found, the side God was on. Jesus had no time for a dispassionate God.
We know this from the Beatitudes. The God who declares the blessing is the God of the poor (in spirit), the distraught, the meek, the peace-maker and the hungry for righteousness who are persecuted.
It is the God of the Scars who blesses the victims of human conflict and pride.
This is a view of God which transcends the God of the High Place. The God of Jesus is always at ground-zero where the victims of hurt and revenge wreak their vengeance.
Jim Cotter was on to something when he chose to translate the ‘forgiveness’ strand of the Lord’s Prayer thus: in the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us. Like a lamb going to slaughter the one who forgives is silent. But it is a costly thing to do. Forgiveness takes into itself the harm done and does not pass it on.
So forgiveness is not a sign of weakness but rather courage and faith. To forgive as does the God of Jesus is to offer a new start, a fresh beginning where old wounds are forever in sight but do not cause an excuse for retaliation.
Revd John Rackley
This is a reflection during the Ukraine-Russia war, quoting from ‘Stories we tell ourselves’ by Richard Holloway.