Forgiveness and Resurrection: At The Crossroads of New Beginnings

In his book Forgiveness: An Alternative Account , Mathew Potts suggests that at the crossroads of forgiveness and promise lies a necessary appeal to newness, or new beginnings. What binds these two ideas together is the very thing that has been jettisoned by tendencies to read forgiveness as the promise, which is action, or one’s freedom to act.

Potts notes the centrality of human action;
“We enter the human world through our words and our deeds, an entrance that resembles a “second birth in which we confirm and take upon ourselves the naked fact of our original physical appearance… Action establishes the agent within a sociality or a plurality; it reveals who the agent is in fundamental ways.”

This acting within and upon the very reality of our birth (or our existence) is what calls forth newness. Potts writes, “This insertion of ourselves into the human world is conditioned by, and represents a continuation of our birth, since birth grounds our every opportunity to begin “something new on our own initiative.”

Action, Potts notes, “has etymological roots in beginning (as in the Greek work archein, to begin, to lead, and eventually to rule indicates).” The “capacity to begin”, then, is “to act”, and this is what “distinguishes humans from other animals”, is the idea that “the unexpected can be expected from humans.” These are acts of freedom. Acts of disclosure. “Through word and deed others come to know us.” We “come into intersubjective being by acting among others in word and deed, by setting forth a new beginning… to be human is to begin.”

But, as Potts points out, it is here that the central issue emerges. Actions inevitably have “unintended consequences “ which lead to “unpredictable results.” Acting, to put it another way, is risky business. “Because we place our actions into a public space not entirely- or even signicantly- under our own power, we must ultimately yield those actions and their outcomes to the world to come.”

Here Potts offers a critique of the Western movement of philosophy (and theology);
“This lack of complete control has been a constant worry for Western philosophy. Because uncertainty haunts all our unintended outcomes, the West has sought conceptual refuge from unpredictability and uncertainty in its philosophy… Western thought has traditionally displaced action as the singular freedom of the human in the hope of escaping the unpredictability of sociality, in order to evade that haphazardness and moral irresponsibility inherent in a plurality of agents. Indeed, escape from the frailty of human affairs into the solidity of quiet and order, a passage from social vulnerability into the perfect freedom of unconditioned self grounding, becomes a singular priority of Western political philosophy.”

Trading uncertainty and frailty for quiet and order- marks of “unconditioned exceptionality” runs rampant through western philosophy. To be “unencumbered by the messiness of intersubjective action” is what it means to be truly free and unencumbered, “condemning action for luring men into necessity…” Liberation of the individual from the uncertainty of beginning and for self sufficiency of arriving is the goal of western philosophy.

Here Potts arrives at a necessary corrective;
“To be free to act among and with others means to be caught up in the consequences of free actions too… The fact that humans cannot escape contingency and condition does not mean they are incapable of acting… this is our freedom, not to be entirely unconditioned, but to initiate a new possibility into the conditions and contingencies out of which we have arisen… This accepts the risks of the future without pretending to have broken with the past.”

Promise and forgiveness taken together reveal the human possibility to begin again, to begin anew. “Redemption from the predicament of irreversibility- (of being unable to undo what has happened)- is the faculty of forgiveness…. Forgiveness is the only reaction which does not merely react but acts anew and unexpectedly… (it) risks a new beginning.”

Walter Brueggemann writes in his Lenten devotional titled “A Way Other Than Our Own”,
“While his followers met where the doors were “locked for fear,” he came. He stood there in the midst of the violent restless empire, and he said, “Peace be with you.” (John 20:19)… And then, “He breathed on them.” In the Bible the notion of “breath” is the same word as “spirit.” He gave them spirit.”

Brueggemann goes on by giving this charge to Easter Sunday-
“Imagine a world of life come amid the destructiveness of empire. It is this life-carrier who said to his followers, “I give you the power to forgive sin.” I recruit you for the forgiveness business. I charge you with healing, transformative reconciliation. It was then, and always is, a hard work for the church, because in the empire there is no free lunch, no open hand, no breaking of the vicious cycles of fear and violence and failure.
So here is my pitch. Imagine that you and I, today, are a part of the Easter movement of civil disobedience that contradicts the empire. Let’s see what happens. Let’s see if life is longer than death. Some will never move and will keep trusting in the empire. But we know this much: we have been breathed on. We have been addressed. To us he said, “Peace be with you.” He said it three times, and then he charged us with forgiveness. We are on the receiving end of his offer of life . . . praise God!”

This is how the promise of Easter meets the proclamation of forgiveness that flows from Jesus’ person and work through the cross. When we detach forgiveness from the idea of necessary retribution. When we begin to see it not as the result of a necessary punishment for sin and death but instead as the freedom to name the reality of Sin and Death in this world and in our lives, we can then see how forgiveness then frees us to act within this reality by claiming the power of new beginnings shaped in the shadows of that which we mourn and grieve in this world and in our lives and in the light of Jesus’ promise of new creation. This is what resurrection hope is all about, not the erasure of the past through the forgiveness of the cross, but the invitation to allow our mourning to lead to new beginnings. If John sees Jesus as the author of a new Genesis, and if the other Gospel writers see Him as ushering in a new Exodus, then what we find in Jesus is God’s acting in and for the world by way of the promise to renew the whole of creation, to defeat the Powers of Sin and Death which define our present reality. The fact that Easter Sunday declares this to be already true is what invites us to risk acting in forgiveness. Not because Sin and Death cease to define our present reality in all its uncertainty, but because we lay claim to a certain hope- God has acted in Jesus. The new creation project has begun, and the wonderful truth about forgiveness is that it removes all obstacles to our free participation in it. To act in forgiveness is to embrace life rather than death while being given the ability to name both.

Published by davetcourt

I am a 40 something Canadian with a passion for theology, film, reading writing and travel.

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