Thursday, June 13, 2013

Forgiveness--Questions and Exploration

FORGIVENESS--A continuation of issues raised in my prior post and a denouement of sorts

While I was writing my previous post on blood, vengeance, and justice, I was simultaneously thinking about forgiveness, and it just so happened I was continually running across people talking about forgiveness (not to mention revenge and justice)--in the news, in articles, and theological discussions.

Perhaps needless to say, this post consists of my own thoughts, not those of anyone else or any group or denomination.

Justice and Forgiveness
The first thing I came across was this New York Times article from January, 2013, that had been circulating among mainline liberal churches.  It focuses on what is called restorative (as opposed to retributive) justice.  The article details the case of a 19 year old young man who shot his same-aged girlfriend to death after a marathon argument between them that raged for 38 hours.  It turns out the young couple, who had been together since 10th grade, had an emotional connection that had consisted mainly of arguing and fighting.  Their relationship had become abusive, an unfortunate state of affairs that existed unbeknownst to friends and family and that escalated until it culminated in the shooting.

Afterward, the parents of the girl felt they did not want revenge. They said they believed their daughter wanted them to forgive the murderer.  Within the restorative justice movement, "forgiveness" equals "'complete relinquishment of anger, hatred and the desire for retribution and revenge'."--which may not be inconsistent with justice--or is it?  The parents then angled to get a shorter sentence for the boy, reasoning they did not want his parents to lose a child as they had.  The eventual sentence was twenty years, to be followed by parole.

The families' restorative justice expert, no doubt revealing her own views, characterized these parents as "amazing."  The expert also expressed the belief that "conservatives" would find the choices and the outcome repugnant--by implication belittling such a reaction.  I thought assigning such a reaction to "the other side" constituted a short-circuiting of debate by means of which she projected all possible objections onto "the other" and denied that reasonable people could have legitimate questions or concerns about her formulation.  I thought it was not only possible but easy to see points at which social pressure, self-seduction, emotional manipulation or even emotional avoidance could enter such a process and influence the parties' decisions.  This young man used the girlfriend as an object to change his life situation, not only to escape the hell of the ongoing argument they were having but also to extricate himself from his entire out-of-control life.  He effectively arranged for the structured setting he apparently requires for his own continuing development--that is, he arranged to be stopped, and he paid for that with his girlfriend's life.

Moreover, psychologically speaking, anyone who commits even lesser (but still serious) wrongs within a relationship, for example, drug abuse or infidelity, can only demonstrate his or her purported change and atonement over a period of years, certainly not in days or weeks.  That one has changed cannot be demonstrated by any particular words or emotional display.  Confession notwithstanding, repentance notwithstanding, and no matter how contrite one is or how convincing, the medium of time is the only medium through which to show that change of the required magnitude has taken place.  If it has, the individual who is presented with the same or a similar set of circumstances in which he previously erred will now behave differently.  In couples' pathology the circular pattern of abuse followed by contrition, closeness, and calm, but then, inevitably, by the build-up of tension and the repeat of the pattern, is only too well known.  The substitution here of the girlfriend's parents for the girlfriend in that vicious cycle is no panacea.  I thought that I personally would have been more comfortable with the possibility of parole after twenty years.

The assistant state attorney in the case concluded that agreeing to the twenty-year sentence did not violate his oath of office to members of the community beyond the immediate relatives. That's an issue because a crime is not simply a matter between the immediate parties but also a matter for the entire community, the state attorney being the representative of the state and responsible for "finding justice for" the murdered girl.  As has been in the news in recent months regarding the impact of minimum sentencing, in view of our burgeoning prison population, it is through the discretion of state attorneys that sentences can be manipulated.  While state attorneys cannot change the minimum sentences directly, in effect they can do just that by manipulating the charges.  That's how the young man who killed his girlfriend ended up with twenty years instead of life.

Consider the case we have been looking at in light of the case of Amy Bishop.  She is the neurobiologist who in 2010 committed a mass shooting of her fellow University of Alabama faculty members after having been denied tenure.  It turns out that 24 years before, in 1986, she had shot and killed her brother in what was termed an accident.  Her parents, like the two sets of parents in the murdered-girlfriend case, had lost one child and didn't want to see the second child lost to prison.  Did actions taken in 1986 constitute a cover-up in the name of mercy? That's a question that didn't arise until her more recent shootings.  If so, her case might be considered one in which, unlike that of the young man, justice was entirely short-circuited.  In other words, if she did in fact murder her brother, she got away with it.

Insiders and outsiders
Dwarfing even such considerable questions and concerns is the question of equitability. Even if we think the outcome of the murdered-girlfriend case was a good outcome, how in the world could we apply such a process fairly?  According to a quote in legal scholar Ronald Dworkin's recent obituary, the single most important virtue of the law is integrity, defined as the principle according to which the state treats every member of the community as an equal (my italics).  In fact, equal treatment under the law, one of America's founding principles and one toward which we as a country are still struggling, was the theme of national Law Day for 2013.  If we're more likely to lean toward restorative justice when the accused is "one of us"--as in the above case of the young man who murdered his girlfriend--what about when that's not the case?

In other words, we must avoid the politicization of justice.

Johathan Haidt's 2005 book The Happiness Hypothesis explains the seeming paradox of how religions that teach love can in fact engender violence.  It is precisely the political issue of whom we see as "one of us" that is involved--that is, the fact that we take the teachings of our own group to apply to insiders, not outsiders.

Take for example the following aphorism, which captured my attention when it circulated on Facebook after the 2012 Colorado movie-theater massacre: If a mass murder is committed by a black man, we say he's a thug; if he's a Muslim, we say he's a terrorist--but if he's a white man, we say he's mentally ill--which just goes to show the difficulty of the dominant societal group in looking at itself.  Thus, we seek some other rationale than evil for the perpetrator's actions when that perpetrator is "one of us."  The way it looks is that we are cutting more slack for one of our own.

From a slightly different angle, perhaps it's that we can see the full complement of humanity in a member of the in-group, such that we are willing or able to handle greater complexity in passing judgment.

Because I had been thinking about such issues, I noticed the story of John McNeil, which had been in the news.  According to the Feb. 12, 2013 story in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, back in 2005 he was at odds with his neighbor, who was also the contractor on his home and whom he believed had been taking advantage of him. The two had argued.  On the fateful day, McNeil's son called him and said the contractor had threatened him with a box cutter.  According to the story, when McNeil arrived home, the contractor came into his yard, walking toward him.  He reportedly continued to approach McNeil, who first fired a shot into the ground, then shot the oncoming man.

Although McNeil at first remained free on grounds of self-defense, after 10 months he was arrested, convicted of murder and sentenced to life.  The case turned on a recorded 911 call in which he had told the operator to send the police quickly because he was "getting ready to beat (the contractor's) ass."  His was a case in which the stand-your-ground law that had been spotlighted in the Trayvon Martin case was ignored; pertinent to examples of "them" and "us" in applying justice, John McNeil is a black man, while the man who accosted him and whom he shot was white.  No prosecutor or state attorney reduced the charge for John McNeil.  (In a recent development, after McNeil had served seven years, a judge finally ordered that he be given a new trial or released because of problems with his attorney and jury instruction. His charge has now been reduced in a plea deal to voluntary manslaughter, and the sentence to time served plus parole.  He is a free man once more.)

It's not that "white people" always are the ones deemed to merit more slack and fuller consideration; it's the dominant group.  According to The Law in These Parts, a film that showed at this year's Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, Israeli military judges in the West Bank expressed more doubt about the culpability of Jewish settlers and more certainty about the guilt of Palestinian Arabs.  That is what we would expect if they were considering fellow Jews, but not Palestinians, in all their complexity.

Similarly, a news item from pre-"Arab Awakening" Egypt (circa December, 2010) has stuck with me. The best I can remember, it was against a backdrop of ongoing church burnings and vandalism that the courts had finally handed down a conviction.  A Coptic Christian, understandably feeling vindicated, was quoted as saying that, previously, nothing had been done, for, previously, church burners had been getting off as mentally ill.

A corollary may be that we also can award "plausible deniability" to the harm that results in cases in which the perpetrator is found mentally ill.  "Those church burnings in Egypt?  Meaningless!"  My point is that the dominant group can insist the episodes don't say anything about bias against the Coptic Christian minority, arguing instead that the perpetrators were "mentally ill."  Thus it was that in January, 2011, here in the USA, after Jared Lee Loughner targeted Representative Gabrielle Giffords, who is Jewish, many people who had just been holding forth on the power of words to incite violence were quick to deem the shooting meaningless on the grounds of mental illness.

We need to reconsider such knee-jerk denial.  It could be precisely the most unstable among us who are least able to handle all the diverse societal messages and most likely to act out.

Sometimes, we cut more slack for--and cast a more beneficent eye on--not only insiders but also on our "client groups"--those societal or political groups whom "our side" champions.  Think back to the Troy Davis case. He was a young black man who had been convicted of murder and sentenced to death but whose case had become a cause célèbre for liberals whose claim was that he had been unjustly convicted and sentenced.  Some backers came close to making a saint out of him, on occasion even portraying him with a cross and halo, which was quite at odds with his life before the murder for which he was eventually executed.  The point here is that Troy Davis was not a white liberal but benefited from being made the symbolic representative of a group whom white liberals champion: unjustly criminalized minority--specifically, black--youth.

As the Troy Davis example shows, we are inclined to whitewash those whose cause "belongs" to our side.  Conversely, some of the same backers came near condemnation of the family of the slain police officer (the victim) as bloodthirsty zealots.  In contrast to how we treat our client groups, when our narratives take on a life of their own we can demonize those individuals or groups who are "not us," even to the extent of transforming the victims into perpetrators.

So it is that we elevate those who represent "our side," while those against whom we find ourselves arrayed suffer the opposite fate in our narratives.  We tell ourselves that our opponents are wrong, even evil, and that we therefore rightfully oppose them.

Maybe we have it backwards.  Maybe we demonize them to justify our opposition, our attitudes, and our politics.

In fact it may be that the more uncertain and uneasy we feel about our opposition to particular individuals or groups, the more we have to demonize them.  Maybe it's a rule of thumb: the more we believe we should not hate, the more we must convince ourselves of the evil of our opponent in order to rationalize our own attitudes and actions.  And the more we must point the finger of judgment away from ourselves, training our gaze on "the other."

Accordingly, in my experience, those who are so attracted to the anti-Israel cause, of which Rachel Corrie advocacy is a case in point, appear strikingly pro-vengeance.   Although they are usually pro-peace and pro-forgiveness, not so in the case of Israel.  Forgiveness has not been a hallmark of the Rachel Corrie movement.

At any rate, bandying around concepts like forgiveness, truth, and justice is suspect if they are not applied equitably.  As Ronald Dworkin said, the essence of justice is treating each person equitably under the law.

News items--forgiveness and justice
The word forgiveness appears so often in the news!  Example 1--Back on March 18, the new pope (Francis) was talking about forgiveness less than a week after his election; he said he was inspired by a book about forgiveness and wanted to talk about mercy.  He joked about promoting the book, written by one of his cardinals.  Example 2--In local news from April 11 in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC), two officials in the state Department of Agriculture resigned after a wild pool party that involved skinny-dipping. Subsequently the Commissioner of Agriculture said, "I believe in forgiveness and redemption for all involved, but I am committed to a department built with integrity and honesty." Example 3--The headline on the April 5 obituary of Ben Purcell Jr., a POW for more than five years during the Vietnam war, said that he had forgiven his captors.  According to his daughter as quoted in the obituary, he saw his captors as soldiers just doing their duty. He eventually returned to Vietnam and could shake hands with his captors.  His daughter, who saw the former U.S. Army colonel's faith as having allowed him to move forward without ill will, said he had given her a lesson in forgiveness.  Example 4--On April 18, after the bombing of the Boston marathon, one of the runners, Matt Sanders (who wasn't hurt), was quoted (Leslie Clark, McClatchey Newspapers): "We can't be vengeful, but to return love for evil," he said.  "People say Boston's tough; we'll overcome it.  We will, but we're not going to set it aside for a while."

Based on those "forgiveness" examples, we can surmise forgiveness is an ideal; the pope talks about it without any hedging; it is the official stance.  We also surmise that for the speakers forgiveness has something to do with letting go of bitterness or ill will.  Yet looking at the quote from the Commissioner of Agriculture about believing in forgiveness and redemption, we could wonder if forgiveness by itself was covering all the bases for him.  In fact, he goes on to add a comment about his additional commitment to "integrity" and "honesty." It's worth listening carefully to the language and thinking about how the word "forgiveness" is actually being used, whether usage goes beyond some "official" stance, and, if so, how it varies from it.

Moving on from forgiveness to justice: I watched the April 18 PBS NewsHour as the FBI spokesperson showed photos of the two Boston Marathon bombing suspects and spoke of bringing the perpetrators "to justice."  On April 4, the AJC described Ira Glass' exposé of a judge said to have meted out "unusually tough justice" and who subsequently resigned in the face of misconduct charges.  (Ira Glass is host of NPR's "This American Life".)  In an April 2 column, The Miami Herald's Leonard Pitts quoted Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1965 refusal to cooperate with "unjust laws."  An April 5 AP story reported a Memphis march to honor the 45th anniversary of  MLK's assassination.  A union member was quoted as saying, "Something lifted off of us when Dr. King came to Memphis.  Before he came, we had a hard time.  When he came, it looked like everything brightened up; a light began to shine out" (thus forestalling acts of violence taken in vengeance).  ...After the recent slaying of a North Texas DA and his wife, the DA office's chief investigator was described in an April 5 AP story as breaking down in tears at the funeral while saying, "We will not stop pursuing justice.  We will not give up the good fight.  We will not stop doing God's work." And in an April 24 AJC story about the dismissal of charges (for selling securities without a license) against the Rev. Wiley Jackson on the basis of his having paid investors back, a district attorney in the case used a turn of phrase that was new to me.  The DA said that the case was being dismissed  because the victims "were made whole;" whereas the victims may not have gotten their money back in a timely way, even if charges had been pressed and a conviction gained. 

So, "justice" gets used to mean the justice system, as in bringing perpetrators to justice.  It is also used to mean "fair," as unjust laws are unfair laws.  Justice can point to something numinous, bright, and shining.  It can be contrasted with vengeance.  It gets used to mean punishment, as in the sense of justice for wrongdoing.  It sometimes gets used to mean repaired, restored, or healed, as in "made whole."

Forgiveness versus vengeance?
While I was on the alert for discussions of forgiveness, Krista Tippett's radio program On Being (previously Speaking of Faith) posted a link to her May 12, 2012 interview of Michael McCullough, a psychologist who specializes in forgiveness as the opposite of  vengeance.  He spoke about the circumstances under which forgiveness gains traction, including such circumstances as cutting slack to people we want to like us, circumstances in which we find value for ourselves in being forgiving, and circumstances in which we feel safe enough to forgive.  For Michael McCullough, the latter circumstance, safety, encompasses factors like the rule of law and the offender's ability to convince us he or she won't commit the offense again.

The circumstances Michael McCullough enumerates do give indirect significance to group factors. Although for him, forgiveness is primarily our reaction to individuals whose positive regard we value and, so, whom we find it worthwhile to forgive, that in itself is connected to our group affiliation.  In other words, we care about the reactions of individuals we see as members of our own group.  That could be exactly why we are willing to extend the hand of forgiveness to them while being less charitable toward outsiders.  So once again we are favoring positive in-group relationships, with outsiders ("the other") being vulnerable to differential and unequal reactions--just as we were discussing previously.  Although in his writing it's possible Michael McCullough addresses the issue of equitability for outsiders, his emphasis in the On Being radio interview was on how individuals react (that is, with vengeance or forgiveness) and the social pressures impacting on those reactions.

On the recorded radio broadcast, Krista commented that forgiveness is strongly associated with Christianity, thus giving her guest an opportunity to respond, but I thought he replied at a tangent, saying only that forgiveness isn't "wimpy."

The impact of legal systems
Here's a striking quotation about bad behavior and the law that I came across. I think it's obliquely related to forgiveness. It's a quote attributed to Tullian Tchividjian, the grandson of Billy Graham, that I found on Goodreads, a book review site:

We make a big mistake when we conclude that the law is the answer to bad behavior. In fact, the law alone stirs up more of such behavior. People get worse, not better, when you lay down the law. To be sure, the Spirit does use both God's law and God's gospel in our sanctification. But the law and the gospel do very different things. 

What an intriguing quotation! That author seems to be using "the law" as Paul sometimes sounds like he's doing in his epistles, but is he also equating the rule of law that we have today to some conception he has of "Jewish law?"   If so, he may be out in left field, that is, if it's not the case that the rule of law makes things worse.  See my previous post, in which I asserted that "Jewish law" is more properly considered rabbinic, not biblical.   And in that prior post, I went so far as to hypothesize that it's human law itself, with scriptural precedent, that constitutes the answer to the problem of vengeance.  Note that Michael McCullough's conclusions, too, from the On Being radio interview, suggest that the rule of law itself enhances the impulse toward forgiveness over that toward vengeance.

This 2011 New York Times profile of another psychologist, Steven Pinker, supports the positive aspects of the rule of law (and contradicts Tullian Tchividjian's claim that law makes things worse):

Steven Pinker was a 15-year-old anarchist. He didn’t think people needed a police force to keep the peace.  Governments caused the very problems they were supposed to solve. Besides, it was 1969, said Dr. Pinker, who is now a 57-year-old psychologist at Harvard. “If you weren’t an anarchist,” he said, “you couldn’t get a date."
At the dinner table, he argued with his parents about human nature. “They said, ‘What would happen if there were no police?’ ” he recalled. “I said: ‘What would we do? Would we rob banks? Of course not. Police make no difference.’ ”
This was in Montreal, “a city that prided itself on civility and low rates of crime,” he said. Then, on Oct. 17, 1969, police officers and firefighters went on strike, and he had a chance to test his first hypothesis about human nature.
“All hell broke loose,” Dr. Pinker recalled. “Within a few hours there was looting. There were riots. There was arson. There were two murders. And this was in the morning that they called the strike.”

So in the above example the purportedly anarchist belief that "Governments caused the very problems they were supposed to solve" sounds very like Tullian Tchividjian's belief  that "law" creates more bad behavior.  But it was what we could call the absence of law, not law itself, that led to worse behavior.

Further, freedom from law may not be what it seems to be, whether we are talking about that common Christian habit of looking on Christianity as the opposite of law (which it is not), or in the modern secular stance of castigating all religion as systems of incomprehensible rules and the opposite of freedom.  In fact modern cognitive science has established that we are always responding to external conditions, all the more so when we are unaware of doing so, and that freedom consists, therefore, not in ignoring discipline but in choosing the discipline via which we respond to the world.

Language and Meaning in Scriptural Interpretation
Aside from pointing to the vicissitudes of the rule of law, the Tchivaidjian and Pinker quotes highlight an issue pertaining to language.  Our scriptures weren't written in English, and were originally concrete--solid and understandable to their communities--not abstractions.  When we expound on them as though they were English abstractions, any elucidation we gain can be at the expense of detachment from the solid ground of both scripture and meaning.

Here is the website of Andrew Daw, a self-identified Christian preacher and defender of the traditional Christian understanding of substitutionary atonement whom I found on the Internet.  He does look at the Hebrew and Greek words in question in the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) and the second century BCE Greek translation (that is, the Septuagint) and in the New Testament.  He says that several different Greek words meaning atonement appear in the New Testament, and further he claims that those words communicate a sense of "making gracious" or "making happy" a king or deity. From these Greek words and even a stray Latin term or two comes the sense of propitiating an angry God--but that's a sense that wasn't so apparent in the Israelite priestly tradition.  (See my Part IV.)  Andrew Daw further claims that a Christian can't avoid the legitimacy of substitutionary atonement because, according to him, the Hebrew Bible to which Paul and other New Testament writers refer is chock full of substitutionary atonement.

Andrew Daw's connection of forgiveness to atonement goes like this; for the Levitical references, see the link in the above paragraph.

Atonement was made by the blood of animals, farm produce, and money.  Blood atonement became effective through personal identification by placing a hand upon the head of the offering, making it the means of divine forgiveness.  Offerings for sin became sin, consequently Hebrew does not supply an additional word for ‘offering’, the atoning sacrifice is simply called ‘sin.'

But the Ancient Hebrew Research Center site gives this meaning for the Hebrew word kaphar--atonement (which we can see is related to the "kippur" in Yom Kippur, Day of Atonement): "to cover over." That definition suggests that atonement means to cover over with pitch, erase--much as paper covers rock in the childhood game.  The definition places forgiveness in relation to a concrete understanding of atonement, as in painting out--or deleting--the fault.

Moreover, the Tanakh is not a simple code that can be broken.  The references to which Andrew Daw points encompass all sorts of sacrifices--for example, gift as well as sin offerings.  There also are offerings of first fruits and thankfulness, and free-will gifts of tribute or well-being (sometimes translated communion)--often unrelated to sin.  To further complicate the picture, the earlier, pre-priestly tradition was eventually supplanted by the relatively late period, the priestly source being the latest redactor of the Tanakh.  In the priestly sense blood sometimes cleanses/washes away sin--but sin in the sense of accumulated impurities rather than moral violations.  Eventually the substitutionary mode does emerge within priestly thinking but not exactly in the Christian sense, that is, the sacrificial animal doesn't so much die for the gift giver or sinner as much as its blood performs a function.  Also the notion of propitiating an angry God is absent.  That comes along later, during Second Temple (or Greco-Roman) times. The early Rabbis as well as the early Christians did seem to share some angry-deity ideas, but those ideas may be a product of the times and a new way of reading the text that was better suited to the reality of the day.

In general, though, the root of the importance of blood is that blood was thought to hold the life force of a living animal. Animal sacrifice, then, was a way of sacralizing the taking of life as food and rebalancing the world by returning the life to the ground.  Touching the head of one's sacrificial animal did not necessarily mean the animal "became" one's sin, as Andrew Daw thought, but  could be instead a way of transferring ownership of the animal to God so that the sacrifice would be accepted (The Jewish Study Bible).  Acceptance of sacrifice was a big issue in the ancient world.  Think Sophocles' Antigone, in which the evil uncle, King Creon, offends the gods by refusing to let Antigone bury her rebel brother.  Natural law trumps Creon's laws, so his sacrifices to the gods become unacceptable.  In late biblical Judaism, that is, priestly Judaism, where we have sin and the animal's blood substitutes for the person, the issue remains one of repaying the earth for spilled blood (or whatever the sin in question).  There is not the sense of the animal's dying for one's sin in the Christian sense.  Nor is there any angry God, since, in the idealized story as presented, God's commandments are by definition being implemented.

Whether the individual Christian thinker or theologian likes the doctrine of substitutionary atonement and credits the Old Testament, or whether he or she dislikes it and blames the Old Testament, he or she is in that case putting the responsibility for the doctrine squarely on that text, typically Leviticus, and sometimes on Judaism as well.  But it is in the eyes and hearts of the beholder.  There is substitutionary atonement in the Christian Old Testament--when looked for and when read through that Christian theological lens. As no two people wade in the same river, neither do Jews read the same book as Christians--in any case, a living text, not a frozen one.  As an unidentified pro-gay-marriage activist, apparently a priest, said on the March 28, 2013, PBS Nightly News, There are lots of ways of reading scripture!

A Mainstream Christian View of Atonement and Forgiveness
Charles Hefling, writing the cover story for the March 20, 2013 Christian Century, covers some of the same territory about atonement and forgiveness, in this case without reference to languages other than English.  Christian Century identifies the author as former editor-in-chief of the Anglican Theological Review who also has taught systematic theology at Boston College. He is an ordained Episcopalian priest.   His article is "Why the Cross?"  In it he discusses what it means for Christians that Jesus died "for us." 

It is a commonplace that no “orthodox” answer has ever been formally defined. Nor is there consensus....
The word atonement itself is no help. In a way it is part of the problem. On the one hand, we were all taught that it wears its meaning on its face: atonement is at-one-ment, reconciliation....  What is meant by atonement may be either of two things. It can mean being or coming to be at one—the original, etymological sense. It can mean leveling the score, redressing the balance, making reparation or restitution or the like—probably the more usual sense. The two meanings are not unrelated, and the distinction between them is often blurred, but to insist on it is by no means splitting hairs. For one way to sharpen the question at hand would be to ask: Does atonement depend on atonement? Otherwise stated, does reconciliation with God depend on compensating, making amends, paying a price? Is that what the cross is all about?

Going on with his exploration, he reasons: If God's justice demands penalties for sinners, then the price must be paid, so Jesus pays, and human sinners are pardoned.  In that rendition of Christian theology, Jesus' suffering thus results in divine forgiveness for people.  But unlike Andrew Daw, Charles Hefling concludes substitionary atonement does not fit within the bible or make logical sense.  He details the struggle for forgiveness between individuals.  That struggle begins with the decision of one of them not to retaliate, but remains incomplete until the offender reciprocates, with an emphasis on their mutual suffering.

...Forgiveness involves a change in both the forgiver and the forgiven—in their attitudes, their motivations, their selves. Enemies they were; friends they become, or become again. Hostile interaction gives way to concord. Such a reconciling shift in personal relations does not always happen, and when it does it is difficult, painful and costly—but not because suffering is an extrinsic preliminary condition that has to be met before forgiveness can occur, but because willingness to suffer is intrinsic to what forgiveness, in the personal sense, is.
Why so? Because, in the first place, evil is like the good it undoes in that it is infectious. It propagates itself. Suppose, then, that I have injured you. As a person, you are free to choose your response. If you choose to retaliate, you perpetuate the evil by causing a new injury. The choice may be wholly justifiable, but it is no less injurious for that. If instead you choose to hold a grudge, to brood on your injury and cultivate your dudgeon, you will still perpetuate the evil, internally, by diminishing yourself, souring your character and becoming your own victim as well as mine. On the other hand, if you choose to forgive, you are choosing to absorb the infection, as it were; to contain its self-diffusion, to forgo the gratifications of revenge, resentment, self-vindication and righteous indignation. Furthermore, you are choosing to make your willingness known to me, to offer me your friendship, to accord me a status and value no less than yours, all without denying my offense or ceasing to be my victim. At the same time, conversely, until I have chosen to acknowledge you as such, to own the injury, ask for your benevolence and reciprocate your offer, the forgiveness that we must both choose if it is to occur has yet to be fully chosen.

Then, seemingly paradoxically, he says,

Even-handed justice responds to evil only with evil and only to good with good. Forgiveness responds to evil with good by transforming it, by willingly accepting diminishment so as not to prolong it, and by using it as a means of introducing a new good or restoring one that was wrecked.

...Has all this got anything to do with atonement? No. Not in the sense that because Christ accepted his suffering we do not have to suffer. It is the other way around. He accepted it because we do have to. His was a cross that had always been ours, the one way open to us, in a skewed world, for putting a stop to the consequences of our own malice without adding to them. Accepting that way, the way of the cross, was an act of solidarity with us and an offer of solidarity with him—an appeal for us to follow him by willingly taking up whatever crosses the world imposes, by making them occasions for joy, by forgiving.

But this, Charles Hefling continues, is an "exemplarist" or "moral influence" account for which the crucifixion would not have been necessary.  His argument against that, which he considers a sort of heresy, is that the charge fails because humans, he says, can't choose forgiveness by themselves. They have to abandon heroic self-affirmation in favor of being drawn by God's Spirit to the self-emptying example of Jesus accepting the cross.  Hefling is wanting to argue against retributive justice in favor of restorative justice. Punitive justice, he claims, is concerned with what to do about evildoers, while restorative justice is concerned with what to do about evil. In that sense, he says, justice is a divine attribute, and God has submitted to the same justice he requires of his human creatures.  That, says Hefling, is good news.

A View from Judaism
An article by Moshe Halbertal in The Jewish Review of Books, Fall, 2011, gives an illustration that parallels Charles Hefling's rendition of the process of reconciliation between two people--to a point.  Moshe Halbertal is a professor at New York University Law School and Professor of Jewish Thought at Hebrew University of Jerusalem and also is on the Jewish Review of Books editorial staff.  Reviews of his books, which are on religious topics, indicate he also is a philosopher.  His article, "At the Threshold of Forgiveness: A Study of Law and Narrative in the Talmud," cites three parables.

In the first parable, one Talmudic sage of antiquity, R. (Rabbi) Jeremiah, has injured another, R. Abba.  R. Jeremiah is sitting on the doorstep of R. Abba's house, unable to take the next step toward making amends and achieving reconciliation.  While R. Jeremiah is seemingly stuck on the literal threshold of forgiveness, R. Abba's maidservant, who is pouring wastewater out of the window, accidentally splashes some on R. Jeremiah.  At that point, R. Abba, who now realizes that he too must make amends, comes out of the house and face-to-face with R. Jeremiah and says, "Now it is I who must appease you...."  (For the full parable, see the link to the article.)

That first parable shows that even though we are directed to ask for forgiveness when we have offended, we can only do so when an encounter between the offender and the offended party is possible.  If we are stuck on that threshold, out of fear of being rebuffed or perhaps of making things worse, we cannot proceed.  According to Moshe Halbertal, before the offender can ask for forgiveness, the injured party must first offer a partial, preliminary forgiveness lest the distance/space between the two parties be insurmountable.

The second parable simply states that a certain person has injured R. Zera, who then proceeds to put himself repeatedly in the offender's presence--to "invite himself into his presence"--to give the offender an opportunity to ask for forgiveness, which would clear the way for reconciliation.

The Talmud presents that second example as worthy of emulation, according to Moshe Halbertal.  By repeatedly drawing near to the offender, the injured party is extending a preliminary forgiveness that sets the stage for reconciliation.  Even though the offender may not (yet) feel the remorse that would prompt him or her to ask forgiveness, the injured party makes that next step possible.  The preliminary forgiveness is an act of grace, being given without any guarantee that the offender will actually feel remorse or ask for forgiveness; the parable expresses how great is that grace when one can give it--even though it is not until the offender does feel remorse (prompting him or her to seek forgiveness) that full reconciliation can be achieved.

Some Comparison of the Approaches of Christianity and Judaism
Before moving on to the third parable it is worth pausing to compare Charles Hefling's and Moshe Halbertal's conceptions of forgiveness.  I think they are comparable, despite different conceptions of forgiveness in Christianity and Judaism, since both Hefling and Halbertal have described a need for some preliminary move anticipating reconciliation between two individuals.

First, it seems both Hefling and Halbertal think that preliminary forgiveness by an injured party is crucial, although I get that for Hefling that initial step may be less a preliminary step and more nearly the whole of forgiveness.

The second point of comparison between Hefling's and Halbertal's conceptions of forgiveness and reconciliation is a point of contrast. Hefling puts great emphasis on suffering--on the suffering of the offended party in proffering forgiveness rather than returning evil for evil.  I don't see emphasis on suffering in Moshe Halbertal's article.

The third point of comparison also is one of contrast.  Hefling says specifically that the goal for Christians is to deal with evil, not with evildoers.  Halbertal's formulation, while similar to Hefling's in not focusing on evildoers, is people-focused, specifically in his emphasis on their meeting and reconciling.  Of necessity, that includes dealing with people, not with evil in the abstract.

In the Talmud, seeking forgiveness is required and is to be public.  God can forgive offenses against people, but if one has injured another human being, one must make amends directly to him or her--even if the offended party has died, in which case, the moral community stands in for the deceased.  "Atonement for transgressions committed against other people depends not on God but on reconciliation with the injured party." The basis of that formulation is that without reconciliation the whole community would be damaged.

Moshe Halbertal has the following to say about the various approaches to forgiveness:

There are ethical and religious systems in which an encounter, public or otherwise, between the injurer and the injured party is not central to the idea of forgiveness. The Stoic, for instance, grants forgiveness as an expression of autonomy, foregoing what is properly due him. The point is not to restore a relationship but rather to free oneself from one, since the toxic force of a grudge might harm his inner life. In contrast, one who forgives as an act of Christian grace is concerned with the injurer's soul, ideally extending forgiveness in advance of any expressed remorse. The absence of any necessary encounter between injurer and injured makes these models of forgiveness quite different from the one formulated by the Talmud.

Although Halbertal describes Christian forgiveness in different terms than does Hefling, his comments seem on target, as Hefling in "Why the Cross" does say the issue is evil and not the evildoer, even while he is not oblivious to the issue of reconciliation.

Charles Hefling has some harsh criticism of what he calls "pure justice"--that it consists in handing out straight punishment and reward.  Further, since all are sinners, all would be in for punishment.  He says that atonement in Western thought is sometimes considered to be "divine child abuse."  He says he sees some truth in that; it's what he considers retributive justice.  For Hefling, pure justice is all mixed up with punishment, yet my exploration of the ways "justice" is used in our English language does not clearly support such a narrow definition.  Hefling has to go to some lengths, then, to get restorative justice out of the narrow conception of justice he has put forth.  In the process the picture becomes somewhat difficult and abstract, which may be why substitutionary justice, as he says, preaches so well--and why, I think, so many Christians hold on to that belief--that, for them, Christ is taking punishment that otherwise they themselves would be liable for, so that God then forgives them.

Arguably, justice is not limited to the implacable doling out of punishment (or reward).  Remember, from Part IV:

Justice, in Hebrew, is tzedek.   "Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land...(Deuteronomy 16:20)...." 
Justice, tzedek, is derived from the root zakah--meaning, to be clear, clean, or pure, and, from that, right or just; justified, that is, made just.  The verb, zakah, means to act on someone's behalf; to justify.  Also derived from that root is tzadek, which means "righteous one"--a saint, a righteous person, and tzedakah--including the meanings of both charity and justice....

I don't hear anything in that about doling out punishment or rewards. What about the process of discovering the truth of who did what and under what circumstances?  The idea that atonement means punishment, much less child abuse, seems a narrow definition.

Why the focus on the punishment, rather than on the setting right, the correction?  If my iniquity has bent me out of shape--a sort of scoliosis of the soul--would I look at the physician's prescribing a corrective brace until I'm straightened out as punitive?  What if, instead, it's healing, "making whole?"

Remember, atonement is the English translation of a word that did not originally come to us in English. If I look up atonement in an English dictionary, I will find it does come from an Old English word meaning "at one," "reconciled."  According to Hefling, "...that does seem to have been what the word was invented to mean."  But, again, none of the figures in our various scriptures spoke in English.

In Hebrew, there are several separate words for sin, one of which carries the idea of "straying from the path," another of which implies rebellion, and finally, the most severe, avon, often translated "iniquity," which literally does mean crookedness--in other words, deformed by the sin.  Just as the world--our human community--can be unbalanced and polluted by sin, so is the human being imperfect--leaving it aside for now whether he arrives that way or not (yet another Judeo-Christian debate).

If I were finding it impossible to bear my iniquity, so that I finally repented, that is "turned back" or "returned" to God, then God's correction might bear by analogy some resemblance to that brace for scoliosis.  It would be painful, and pain does involve suffering, but is not necessarily punitive.

We can find plenty of Christian explanations for forgiveness and atonement.  Many of them will naturally be along the lines of how Jesus saves.  Also, many of those explanations will purport to show how Jesus saves by unfortunate contrasts with presumed Jewish theology.  For example, I twice came across Christian explanations that claimed Jews really do believe in original sin although they say they don't.  On the Internet I saw yet another exposition that said Jews could be cleansed of "sin" but only Jesus could deal with "iniquity." The Living the Questions course I took at a church with my husband in 2007 included written material claiming that the Pharisees believed they could perfect themselves alone (without God).

Such theology entails Christian claims of understanding Judaism, another religion, in order to use that purported understanding for the elevation of Christianity in contrast.  As such those claims are also political statements via the dominant narrative.  And they are not uncommon.  Sometimes such claims seem to be the coin of the realm.

For just a moment here, I'm going to return the favor, not with the intent of being anti-Christian but to the extent of turning my gaze back on Christianity.  When I look at Christian theology, it often appears Christians have to emphasize suffering, because Jesus suffered.  Christians have to believe in original sin (and that people are really bad and find it impossible to offer forgiveness or to atone on their own), to make sense of the fact Jesus died.  Christian theology may have to postulate an implacable God of punitive justice, because, otherwise, what happens to Jesus' role in ameliorating God's wrath?

In other words, since Christianity starts with Jesus' death and suffering, Christian theologians experience pressure first and foremost to write that into their theology.  Either suffering is paramount or it's the internal logic of the narrative that "suffers!"

Sooner or later we arrive at the necessity to make sense of our narratives.  That's the way it is for all of us, each and every one.  We (or our predecessors) have an experience in our hearts.  We do our best to hold on to it, to capture it with words and poetry.  Only later must we explain and make sense of it.  Finally to fully flesh out our visions we require an entire worldview.  I elaborated further on that in February 2012.

Christian theology can devolve into anti-Judaism in reaction to the fact that Jews are not Christians.  Therefore they don't accept the internal logic of the Christian story.  Anti-Judaism can and often does lead to Christians blaming Jews for the Christians' own attitudes and behavior toward them.  But ultimately everyone bears responsibility for the realities they create out of their theology and beliefs.

Back to Judaism and the Third Parable
In Moshe Halbertal's third and final parable from the Talmud, the problem is not just that the offending party fears being rebuffed or making things worse.  It may be worse than that.  Maybe the offending party simply doesn't care, or even thinks the injured party deserved the injury.

In this third scenario, the local butcher has injured another one of the ancient Rabbis, here simply known as "Rav."  It is almost Yom Kippur, but the butcher has not repented or even approached Rav, who now announces to his disciple that he will go to the butcher and appease him. Thereupon the apprentice says, "Abba (father) is going to kill a man."  Rav went and stood over the butcher while he worked.  The butcher looked up, and when he saw Rav, he said, "Abba, go; I have nothing to do with you." While he was still killing the animal, a bone shot out, struck the butcher in the neck and killed him.

The third parable may look on the surface like the second one, in which R. Zera put himself within speaking distance of the offender to give him an opening to ask for forgiveness.  The story may even appear to be one of vindication of Rav.  In other words the person who has wronged him pays, and pays the ultimate price, at that.

That isn't what Moshe Halbertal teaches, though.  Rav's act, although superficially resembling the act of grace in the second parable, is one of aggression.  The key to that understanding is in the reaction of the disciple, who could tell something was up.  Rav did cross the literal threshold but also crossed a threshold of time, as well, since it is almost Yom Kippur.  So, one way Rav has erred is that time pressure has affected his judgment.  Moreover, he crossed  the threshold of class, or status, as he is an important rabbi and the butcher a lowly working man.  He has been intrusive, has thrown his weight around. 

That's why we have instructive stories as well as laws.  In the second parable we had an act of grace, but one that cannot be ordered or prescribed because of the ease with it could tinge over to being an act of narcissism, as in this third parable.

These parables are still so very relevant today.  They have something to offer for our polarized times, in which we have elevated the art of confrontation to an art form, yet no matter how well we skewer the opponent of the day, it avails us nothing.  Or, rather, it does seem superficially to give us us much pride and satisfaction, but nothing changes.  We are not reconciled with our opponents; they are not changed, we are not changed.  When the dust settles we are both still there, and so is whatever problem over which we disagree.

According to Moshe Halbertal's rendition there is an alternative to that familiar scenario, or there may be one--we can have a dream.  When we are "the injured party" we can try to offer that preliminary forgiveness, by placing ourselves delicately in the vicinity of the perpetrator.  It's better than withdrawing in a huff with resentment in our hearts.  It's better than lobbing recriminations from a distance.  The risk, though, in crossing the threshold, is, as Halbertal says, that in our narcissism we will pretend to ourselves to be non-demanding, all the while aiming to pressure the offender or show him or her in a bad light.

It's a delicate dance.  It's so hard to see ourselves clearly.  Sometimes the best we can do is try to be more assertive if we are usually too retiring--or vice versa.  We also can try to keep alert to feedback the other party is emitting.
The preliminary forgiveness that precedes complete forgiveness and reconciliation may be a difficult and delicate dance that cannot be commanded or legislated, but is nevertheless worth envisioning because it offers some way out of the morass of blame and recrimination from all sides that we have in society today.  Each bit of unresolved personal and group resentment contributes to the morass--a quagmire of unfinished business.

Part of the way forward is realizing no one is perfect or perfectly in the right, not even us when we've been offended.  Remember that first parable in which R. Jeremiah offended R. Abba, but then R. Abba's employee accidentally splashed R. Jeremiah with sewage—so that the offended party is in some small way an offender, too. 

When we, as offended party, try to put ourselves in the presence of our offender we aren’t going to be able to conduct ourselves perfectly because we aren’t perfect, so we ourselves will become, to a slight extent, an offender, too.  That can inform our judgment and mitigate our behavior so that we withhold final judgment or condemnation and conduct ourselves with humility and with the knowledge we lack control of other people and can only play our own part as well as humanly possible.  We can aim for healthy self-assertion—without self-righteousness.

Following Camus, we can say that even when we aren’t guilty, we are responsible.
The official aim of Judaism is the reconciliation of two parties, which will then benefit the stability of the entire community.  According to Hefling, at least, the official Christian aim is reduction of evil in the world and the increase of goodness, but Hefling did allow as how complete reconciliation of the parties is also an aim. In his rendition, then, the good of the overall community may also be a value even if not the official goal.

The Christian modus operandi of encouraging complete forgiveness from the start, even without contact between offender and offendee, would benefit the community in the short run, at least, in that it would encourage a certain quietism on the part of offended parties and reduce overt conflict within the community.  It's a way to manage a humongous majority culture whose sheer size might prevent micromanagement.  Difficulties would arise in the absence of true resolutions and if, despite the ideal of forgiveness, many offended parties are left with simmering resentment.

Also, one could foresee a source of inequity.  Powerful parties within the society in question would not accept quietism and would work their wills on the less powerful; it would be those less powerful parties who would be stuck with big consciences--with submissiveness masquerading as an internalized ideal of forgiveness.

A related point is that in this predominantly Christian culture, minority groups themselves could constitute less powerful parties of whom forgiveness is expected.  Meanwhile, the dominant majority may fail to notice that they themselves are not being forgiving--as when Christians judge Jews to be "unforgiving," all the while according to themselves the prerogative of making unforgiving judgments.

The way of forgiveness according to Judaism is more precision-oriented and more geared to a methodology of working on a resolution between particular adversaries--but it, too, has a weakness.  The required process takes place between two members of a close-knit community, so that process is inhibited if individuals are new or on the periphery of the community or for one of a multitude of reasons are not fully integrated into that community

It is because of the difficulties in the forgiveness process across the board--the myriad wild cards not capable of being legislated--that we need the lessons of Moshe Halbertol's Talmudic parables, the third one in particular.  We need some direction on how to proceed when there are impediments.

We need the courage to place ourselves gently in the presence of offending parties.  If we truly are going to increase the chances of the forgiveness process, we need the wisdom to act with grace.

It has been said that "birds sing, human beings talk," so wherever we are, we do speak.  Speech is part of what happens when we place ourselves in the presence of others.  Even though sometimes it seems one's presence is challenging enough, we must do some speaking; we can't afford to silence ourselves.

We must have recourse to speech, but must steer clear of the "us-them" trap such that we are good and the offender is the evil "other."  We also have to escape our "Wizard of Oz" delusion of seeing ourselves as small and weak and the other party as powerful and invulnerable, because that misperception leads to an "anything goes" mentality.  The injurer is not an opponent!

Patience is a virtue.  We must not err gratuitously due to time pressure, as in that third parable.  Over time, community can grow.

When we speak, struggling to confront issues and not people, with humility as our touchstone, that very process can remind us that the offending party has no monopoly on error.  Thus anchored, the injured party is more likely to be able to give the grace of preliminary forgiveness that can set the stage for the offender's remorse and atonement, and, finally, for reconciliation.

May it be so, speedily and in our time, for the sake of heaven and earth.