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Forgive us our Debts as we Forgive our Debtors

by | Apr 24, 2016 | Formation, Reflections

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Forgive Us Our Debts As We Forgive Our Debtors:

Mercy and Justice in the Political and Economic Sphere – Part I

We begin with a dream (or perhaps more accurately a fantasy).  What, if in the days following what we now refer to as 9.11, people’s minds and hearts turned towards forgiveness and reconciliation rather than ultimately towards anger and the desire for some kind of retaliation?  We will, of course, never know what the outcome might have been.

In the next few meditations we will examine the relationships among mercy and justice, politics and economics, especially through the lens of “forgiveness.”  Considering our current global context of increasingly more pronounced terrorism and violence, this exploration is as timely as ever.  Because of overall length, this particular meditation is divided into three parts.  In this first part we simply highlight some of the pertinent issues.  In the second part (next week) we will examine in depths the thought of Jacques Derrida as expressed in a short work entitled On Forgiveness.  In the final part (two weeks from now) we will meditate on some major strains in current church teaching related to the issue especially in the context of this “jubilee” year of mercy.

This meditation on “political forgiveness” or “political mercy” might appear especially problematic at this time in the United States.  In the midst of the current United States presidential campaign, the concept of “politics” is liable to elicit ambiguous if not outright negative (or perhaps humorous) dispositions.  It might be helpful to state that “politics” here simply refers to the way in which the polis or “city” (that is, public life) is publicly and structurally organized; in other words something broader and deeper than the current somewhat contentious partisan politics is envisioned here.  Likewise talk of economic forgiveness is difficult because of the current laissez-faire capitalism which informs much of our economy.  Furthermore, yoking politics and/or economics and forgiveness, might strike some as odd.  Suffice it here to say that the concept of “forgiveness” is being applied analogously (much as “sin” is applied analogously when speaking about original and structural sin).

In fairness Pope Francis never employs the phrases “political forgiveness” or “economic forgiveness” in the Bull of Indiction; neither does he speak of “political mercy” or “economic mercy.”  The best one can do is tease out implied ideas based on the relatively inter-personal rhetoric of the Bull.  However, in the Bull the exploration of the relationship between mercy and justice is initiated with these words: “It would not be out of place at this point to recall the relationship between justice and mercy” (#20).  What is “the point” or context at which this relationship is introduced?  In the previous section (#19) Francis addresses the conversion of those “whose behavior distances them from the grace of God.”  He is referring to “men and women belonging to criminal organizations of any kind.”  Furthermore, he extends this same invitation to those “who either perpetuate or participate in corruption.”  He goes on to define/describe “corruption.”  It is worth quoting Francis directly:

The same invitation is extended to those who either perpetrate or participate in corruption. This festering wound is a grave sin that cries out to heaven for vengeance, because it threatens the very foundations of personal and social life. Corruption prevents us from looking to the future with hope, because its tyrannical greed shatters the plans of the weak and tramples upon the poorest of the poor. It is an evil that embeds itself into the actions of everyday life and spreads, causing great public scandal. Corruption is a sinful hardening of the heart that replaces God with the illusion that money is a form of power. It is a work of darkness, fed by suspicion and intrigue. Corruptio optimi pessima, Saint Gregory the Great said with good reason, affirming that no one can think himself immune from this temptation. If we want to drive it out from personal and social life, we need prudence, vigilance, loyalty, transparency, together with the courage to denounce any wrongdoing. If it is not combated openly, sooner or later everyone will become an accomplice to it, and it will end up destroying our very existence.

 This is the opportune moment to change our lives! This is the time to allow our hearts to be touched! When faced with evil deeds, even in the face of serious crimes, it is the time to listen to the cry of innocent people who are deprived of their property, their dignity, their feelings, and even their very lives. To stick to the way of evil will only leave one deluded and sad. True life is something entirely different. God never tires of reaching out to us. He is always ready to listen, as I am too, along with my brother bishops and priests. All one needs to do is to accept the invitation to conversion and submit oneself to justice during this special time of mercy offered by the Church. 

It might seem somewhat strange to speak about political forgiveness.  We are generally accustomed to viewing forgiveness as an interpersonal exchange involving two parties, and if you include God in the process, three parties.  We also tend to think of forgiveness as a matter of religion rather than politics.  Furthermore, if one reads the Bull closely, it is this interpersonal context that Pope Francis addresses more often than not.  This being said, however, let’s play with the idea of forgiveness in the realm of politics.

For our purposes here we want to life up the following major ideas:

  1. Corruption threatens personal and social. It tramples the vulnerable, especially the poor.
  2. Corruption replaces God with money as a form of power.
  3. It is time to listen to the innocent people who have been deprived of their property, dignity, feelings, and lives.

A number of modern and contemporary thinkers address these issues though perhaps in s different manner.

Hannah Arendt, for instance, has reminded her readers that Jesus himself presented forgiveness as having an indispensable role in all social exchange.  As a matter of fact, some would argue that forgiveness is the fundamental human problem.  Part of the difficulty for us in the liberal west, of course, also entails the way in which religion has been relegated to the private sphere.  Hence, obviously if forgiveness is associated with religion and religion is private, then forgiveness has to do with the private realm.  Not a few contemporary thinkers want to expand forgiveness (and more broadly) mercy into the political sphere.

Donald Shriver in An Ethic for Enemies: Forgiveness in Politics has noted the importance of political forgiveness.  He posits that political forgiveness possesses four constituent components.

  • First, forgiveness does not entail forgetfulness but, rather, memory. This remembering involves moral judgment of injustice and wrongs.  Two parties must agree that wrong has taken place.
  • The second element entails the abandonment of vengeance. In so doing, the actual cycle of violence is broken.  Again, without this you cannot speak about political forgiveness.
  • The third element entails empathy, a pathos for the humanity of the “other” or more particularly the humanity of the enemy.
  • The third, empathy, can lead to the fourth component, which is the renewal of human relationship. In the political sphere this involves interchange with the other party, or at least co-existence.

In speaking about the nature and process of political forgiveness, there are a number of other observations that might be made.

  1. The association of forgiveness with forgetting, as the old cliché puts it, is also problematic. Considering the kinds of massive horror we have witnessed in the 2oth century, to forget would seem a very dangerous thing to do.
  2. First, there are other elements that one might include here. For instance, restitution might be a dimension of such a process.  This can and will vary, however, from one situation to another.
  3. The time line for political forgiveness might be vastly different from the time line for personal forgiveness. For instance, when we are speaking about political forgiveness in terms of nation-states, this is a process that can take generations (to say the least).  This kind of change sometimes happens very slowly.
  4. The language and attitudes may sometimes have to be different. For instance, when dealing with personal forgiveness the expression of apology can be (and often will be, I suppose) highly emotive.  In the case of political forgiveness, however, the apology might be far more symbolic than emotive (especially as several generations may very well be past since a hurt or wrong has taken place).

One philosopher, in particular, has addressed these issues in a cogent, poignant, and provocative fashion.   In the next installment we will examine his On Forgiveness.

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