“For Nietzsche pain is a mnemonic.” And as Potts outlines in his book Forgiveness: An Alternative Account, this recourse to pain “all begins in the human capacity to make promises.” For Nietzsche, “To inspire trust in his promise to repay and guarantee the sanctity of his promise, the indebted promiser pledges to his creditors “his body, his wife, his freedom, or even his life as collateral or substitute if he should fail to repay what is owed.” The substitute “reminds debtors of what they owe and what they have failed to repay, while the threat of punishment can inspire others obligation to be met.” In this sense it not only reminds us that a wrong was done, it ensures the other will never forget that they hurt you.- the perceived balancing of debts and guilts.” This categorizes then as a kind of pleasure.
Punishment is a social construction, not an expression of a wrongdoers debt but a compensating pleasure to the wronged. “Punishment is not what crime naturally or necessarily merits or deserves; it is simply what anger wants.” This anger, however, is “held in check and modified by the idea that every injury has its equivalent and can actually be paid back.”
It is on the basis of this equation that individual wrongs eventually get swept up into the notion of community and society, wherein an “economy of crime and punishment” develops. But here’s the thing. “The law of talion” only pretends towards equivalence. It plays at a common currency of pain, but in fact what retaliation offers the wronged as payment for their suffering exchanges one currency for another… what compensates for suffering is not equal suffering, and certainly not the replacement of a lost good, but the satisfaction of seeing wrongs visited upon the one whom we resent.” It is at its heart, then both irrational and an illusion. “If your tooth is not equally given for mine, then how much of your suffering should serve my pleasure?” As Potts describes, in this view “there is no rational standard for how much pain pays; there is no going rate for punishment.”
So what is the worth of this plain-pleasure equation? It is “self worth and self assertion” (a feeling of individual autonomy and control or mastery over the wrongdoer) of the offended. Or in broader terms, the illusion of order and balance, the nagging sense that “to eschew retribution is to undermine justice and to give moral license to iniquity in our world… vengeance is the original passion for justice.” It is in this sense that the inconsistencies of retribution cease to matter.
In this same light though, does it not undercut morality to “see people, even offenders, as objects by which ones own status might be restored.” Is it not a problem to assume “that status can be restored only through the same means by which it was taken?” The “problem with (retribution as necessary payment) as “a moral paradigm or framing metaphor” is that “all too often no payment is actually possible… though retaliation offers some satisfaction, it satiates the wrong desire… punishment may have purposes other than payback, but our philosophical justifications of retribution and our penal practices of justice tend especially to cling quite firmly to the idea that payback is crucial and primary.” What also seems clear is that “this compensatory intuition is constructed and conditioned, not natural and necessary.” Whatever payment we imagine such forgiveness satisfying does not actually right a wrong.
Perhaps, Potts surmises, ‘what we really most want is to remember, and we have been tricked by custom or instinct into believing pain will be our best mnemonic… (when) in fact, to remember the past rightly would be to admit that no payment is possible, that what is lost is really lost.” Thus, “grief/lament rather than retaliation should be the outcome or partner of our anger… the fullest, truest memory of the past would acknowledge and address that past’s irrevocability, the irrecuperability of its wrongs and wounds… the will’s loneliest misery is its inability to alter the past.” Therefore, if “law cannot fully determine justice because it is founded on violence and covertly perpetuates it… forgiveness reveals that a fundamental mourning haunts any human justice, and it is upon this irrevocable grief rather than the illusion of its avoidance that both freedom and forgiveness might establish themselves.” This is why “forgiveness is and must remain a fundamentally unthinkable, irrational action… it can serve a heuristic purpose in our reflection and can be a way of diagnosing the limiting frames of our moral reasoning.” As he goes on to say, forgiveness is not limited in terms of human practice, rather it is limited in our attempts (capacity or ability) to think about or conceptualize it in an actualized way.
So how does this all translate theologically? First off, I wonder if our predication towards retaliation has led to tendencies to elevate the story of Adam and Eve as one of crime and necessary punishment, while leading us to miss the larger narrative flow of the story that follows in Cain and Abel. Both stories are patterned after the other, and both examine the issue of injustice in this world from a slightly different vantage point.
The first story tells us how the reality of injustice gained a foothold and entered God’s good creation (through Adam Sin and Death entered the world). It tells the story of a good creation through which we can then perceive that which is wrong- a world where such injustice exists. This is, as they often say in the Orthodox Tradition, a fall from innocence, and the words that cloak this movement from one reality to another are “so that they might not live forever” in this unjust reality. This is framed by two things- God’s promise to make right what is wrong and to make a way back to the garden (the good creation space once again made whole), and the call to participate in the way of God’s working for the sake of the whole, or the other
The second story then is about human participation in this reality of injustice versus participation in the way of God. There are two important markers in this story. The first is a defining of the root of injustice (read: Sin), which is desire for what someone else has culminating in envy. Envy produces fear which produces anger which produces violence. The point in which God addresses Cain is at the point of desire, following God’s favor being poured out on Abel. God asks Cain why his face is downcast. Cain sees this act of God as an injustice and he fails to see how this act of God is in fact the means by which justice will be given to the whole. Instead of trusting in the way of God Cain appeals to his fear and engages in an act of injustice.
The second important point then is this- just like in the Adam and Eve story, Cain is driven eastward and set in conflict with the “earth” or the good creation. As opposed to the once fruitfulness of Adam and Eve meant to image the way of God, the lineages that follow are defined by death (each name is marked by a birth and their death) and an endless cycle of repayment and retribution (if Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times, which in the ensuing chapter fills the whole world with death). It is into this picture that we find this curious mention of the mark of Cain which stands in contrast to this cycle of death and restitution- “The LORD put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him.” This phrasing is paralleled with another key passage often overlooked, which is the birth of a new child “in place of Abel”, born once more to Adam and Eve- Seth.
Two parallel stories which then define the two realities moving forward in the biblical narrative- a reality of injustice defined by necessary repayment, and a reality of justice defined by forgiveness. Both stories marked by a good creation given to perpetuating cycles of violence and death, the only true end of appeals to necessary repayment. Into this comes the story of Jesus as the one who will crush the head of the serpent, which careful readers will note is tied to the story (seeds) of Seth and Cain.
As Potts suggests, there are two essential realities when it comes to forgiveness:
- “Without any wrong, forgiveness will search in vain for its object… since forgiveness arises with the wrong, insofar as that wrong is reduced or erased- whether by expiation, explanation, remediation, restoration, reparation, or atonement- forgiveness will be reduced or erased as well.”
- “If people earn our forgiveness in some manner and we grant them the pardon they have come to deserve, then all we will have really rendered them is their due.”
What cuts through the tension of these two problems is the idea that “forgiveness does not right any wrong, it responds to a wrong that cannot be made right… Forgiveness answers a wrong that refuses to be overcome.” If this is the case, Potts insists that “this should not necessarily prevent our practice of forgiveness, even if it confounds our reasons for it.” It is, as he notes, an act we participate in precisely because it reminds us that a wrong is real and irrevocable and yet we can forgive anyway. “History will continue and with it reconciliation , but with the equivocation of a forgiveness mixed up with the work of mourning… a mourning like this would thus embrace its own incompetence to repair the past or even provide redress in the present. It’s work would be the work of accepting incomprehension… the work of mourning is the spiritual-political kingdom- the difficulty sustained, the transcendence of actual justice.”
It is precisely in this space that we can begin to make sense of Jesus’ death. Where Jesus embraces the inevitable consequence of this perpetual cycle of repayment while simultaneously speaking in to this an inescplicable word of forgiveness. As Potts suggests, “each time forgiveness is effectively exercised, it seems to suppose some sovereign power… one only forgives where one can judge and punish.” And yet, what we find in Jesus is a “worthwhile aspiration” that is also not, in and of itself, a “happy ending”.
“Preserving forgiveness’s conceptual and impossible purity should assist us in recognizing what is more deeply at stake in our systems of everyday and impure judgement and punishment, even in our orchestrations of sovereignty.”
To “dream of” a “forgiveness without power: unconditional but without sovereignty” is to open us up to the idea that “to be sovereign is to be free from the need to answer wrong with wrong.” And this is precisely what we find at the cross, is the necessary paradox of God’s promise being fulfilled (to make right what is wrong) with the unconditional embrace of mourning a present wrong, a reality marked by injustice, the very reality God enters into by way of Jesus. This is what it means for Jesus to proclaim “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” This is what it looks like for Jesus to shed tears in the garden and to lament over Jerusalem. This is a forgiveness that “mourns forgiveness”, an unconditional forgiveness that is also “unconditioned by sovereignty.” This is the sort of forgiveness we are called to embrace and enact as followers of Jesus on the way back to the garden, the promised healing of a divided creation.
This is what enables us to locate and name both goodness and the evil, to locate and name disorder and order, to locate and name injustice and justice. We do not move past the cross on the way to resurrection, we remember the cross so as to properly imagine resurrection hope.