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Infinite Forgiveness for a Culture Based on Peace

 
 

[1] In his second address to the nation after the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, the United States President, George Bush, called the military operation scheduled against Afghanistan "Operation Infinite Justice." The bombing got started days later and continues today, October 2001. White House and Pentagon spokesmen insist that American people, as well as the rest of the world, must understand victory is a long way away in this war, different from all others because it is waged against international terrorism. There is no predicted outcome.

[2] Osama Bin Laden's speech, aired on television, pointed out that with the attack on the twin towers the United States was having a taste of something Muslims had suffered for many years at the hands of the United States. As far as Osama Bin Laden was concerned, the September 11 attacks were revenge, just as Bush's answer to the attack was revenge. Moreover, Bin Laden threatened there would be no security in the States as long as there was no security in the East, too. With these words Bin Laden was also shouting out loud, infinite justice!

[3] The "Original Sin" of civilizations, the violence unleashed by infinite vengeance, comes to light at the beginning of the Third Millennium. This sin can be best appreciated in the story of Cain, first murderer and founder of a city, and his son Lamech. Lamech sings his wives Adah and Zillah the following line: "I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold." This myth apparently reflects the notion that the more advancement and progress there is in our civilization (Lamech's sons are the founders of culture and industry) the more vengeance there will be. Lamech kills because of a wound, regardless of whether the offender is an old or a young person. Lamech complies neither with the law of an eye for an eye nor with the law that prohibits killing. But his actions fit into the inherent logic of vengeance. He assumed onto himself the sign of vengeance of this forefather Cain, first murderer in history according to the biblical myth, and transcends it to infinity. Lamech boasts of having been endlessly revenged, even more so than his ancestor Cain. Lamech is here a symbol for power. Lamech has definitely been incarnated in both Bush and Bin Laden.

[4] In contrast to this reality, it is worthwhile to ask ourselves as Christians what is the meaning of God's justice nowadays. Speaking of God's justice is difficult, as words are being co-opted by the ideology of war. To use terms such as "enduring freedom" or "infinite justice" in speeches which threaten war means dragging Christian concepts through the mud. We could say the same about the concept "holy war," which seems to be inviting gods to participate in the killings.

[5] As Christians it is important that we consider the biblical meaning of God's justice and differentiate that meaning from what we hear in our culture. God's justice opposes the notion of "infinite justice" whose goal is to exact payment for crimes. God's justice offers clues to change the self-destructive path of our globalized civilization.

[6] The key to entering into this concept can be found in the brief dialogue between Peter and Jesus Christ in Mt. 18.21-22: "Then Peter came and said to him, 'Lord, if another member of the church F135 sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?' Jesus said to him, 'Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.'" Jesus' response refers to the tale of Cain and his descendant Lamech. In the face of infinite vengeance, the Christian faith proposes infinite forgiveness. To forgive seven times seventy means to forgive ad infinitum.

[7] For our globalized civilization, this proposal is quite difficult to embrace. It means touching the very core of how it operates. Crimes cannot remain unpunished, as then there would be no end to injustice and oppression of the peoples in the world. On the other hand, infinite vengeance unavoidably turns into justified crimes and in the long run the dividing line between injustice and justice, truth and untruth, disappears. Truth in facts, not speeches, should lead to a rethinking of events so that new attitudes and compromises can be developed. The clear truth before the eyes of the entire world is the innocent victims; usually the poorest, unworthy because of their gender or the color of their skin, the excluded, the weakest, the very young and the very old. These victims, though they play no active part in those conflicts, are sacrificed for a goal. Death does not come with a price tag attached. An American victim is worth the same as an Afghan or a Latin American one. All analysis of justice should have victims as its starting point.

[8] One of the wisest statements in recent times was uttered by a couple who lost their son on September 11, 2001. In the name of their son, a victim in the attack on the twin towers, they pleaded not to make war and avoid more victims. The love each of us has for human life is the white flag that asks for peace, or the scarecrow that frightens missiles away.

[9] Let us consider the biblical meaning of God's justice. Paul says in his letter to the Romans that God's justice is revealed in the Gospel. This dense theological sentence should be carefully pondered. The Gospel means the good news, and we ask ourselves what there is in the Gospel that could be good news and reveal God's justice. Paul says to the early Christian communities that the entire content of the true Gospel is believing that the crucified Messiah rose from among the dead. What is God's justice in light of the crucified Messiah? We must refer to the core of the Gospel: Jesus Christ's crucifixion and resurrection.

[10] We make a brief stop, then, in the fact of the cross and Jesus as a victim to Roman justice. God's justice is shown in Romans in opposition to human justice, particularly that of the Roman Empire that condemned Jesus Christ.

[11] Crucifixion is the weapon of terror of the Roman state, used as punishment for those who revolted. Those crucified were placed on main arteries so everybody could see them, and their bodies remained exposed as food for scavengers and dogs. Few bodies were buried after being crucified. Historians of that time tell of Jews being witnesses to endless crucifixions in various anti-imperialistic rebellions. When Jerusalem was taken, it is said the Roman Empire conducted 500 daily crucifixions and that there was no place left for more crosses. These crucifixions were the "infinite justice" of the Roman Empire, used to avoid new rebellions.

[12] Jesus of Nazareth, considered the Messiah by his followers, was crucified although he was innocent. For the Christian faith it is significant that God should appear in history through this crucified one. Jesus is the quintessential innocent victim, or as it is said in 1 Peter 2.7, the stone discarded by builders. In this event, central for the faith, two facts are confirmed. As an innocent man the Crucified is, before the eyes of God and humans alike, the representative of all innocent victims. On the other hand he is also God's delegate in these events in the history of the human kind. In the center of the Christian theology appears a God who sympathizes with victims. Therefore, a theological reading appreciates in this divine act God's utmost sympathy for the excluded and the innocent victims in history. We can now start to better understand the meaning of God's justice.

[13] Let's continue now with the resurrection. Paul, in a theological reading into the reality of his age, specifies that God's justice is revealed to all those who believe that the Messiah is the one crucified, condemned by the Roman justice but vindicated and resurrected by God. The focus now, and the good news, is that the resurrected is the crucified; or that the crucified is the resurrected.

[14] What is the meaning of those words, so familiar to our ears, in light of current events? If the Messiah was condemned by Roman justice and resurrected by God, we should interpret the resurrection as the product of God's justice, God's judgment, and then understand what such justice is made of, how it is reached and why it is the Gospel, that is, the good news.

[15] This justice coming from God, by dictating the resurrection of the crucified one sides with the victims, contradicts the imperial and systematic legality which murders innocents and shows intolerance to opponents. This is clearly seen when claiming that God's justice is absolutely generous, that it is performed because of pure love towards God's creatures, that it is due to God's compassion. We say justice does not demand any previous merit so that God can show love by revealing justice. God is grace because God is moved by compassion. It could ultimately be said that God's compassion is in the center of the crucifixion-resurrection event. What unmistakably marks Christianity is compassion; God can only be best imitated in this way.  A world without compassion refers to God's absence and questions our identity as self-proclaimed Christians.

[16] Paul does not explicitly mention the Roman empire when contrasting both justices, the Roman justice and God's justice, but only refers to it via the use he makes of language. The Roman empire is a specific name in a specific story; there were other empires before and there will be others in the future. Paul's analysis transcends the very name of the Roman system because he applies it to all systems -whether imperial or not- which turn a blind eye to the institutional apparatus essential for its functioning. That is why Paul places God's justice in the realm of faith, independent of the law. Placing justice in the realm of faith and not of the law means opting for a different way of living, free and mature with respect to the relationship between subjects and the logic of any law intrinsic to institutions, the very laws, customs, traditions, etc. Individuals blindly subjected to the Law, whether legal, cultural, religious, institutional, turns from subject to object. Actions are conditioned by norms and, as Paul says, we turn into slaves of the law. In case of the Cain-Lamech myth, the law and the logic of the infinite vengeance will not stop growing until it is interrupted by a new logic: the logic of forgiveness-compassion.

[17] Now we enter into a fundamental and surprising aspect of God's justice. Although the starting point is sympathy towards the victims, they are not the only beneficiaries of this justice. The claim that God acts solely out of compassion means such a compassion reaches all humans, victims, accomplices and victimizers. Even though in several biblical texts you can read, "Mine is vengeance, says the Lord," in practice there is compassion for everybody. If the Bible underlines vengeance as a part of God and not of humans, it is to break the cycle of infinite vengeance that is represented in the globalized civilization.

[18] God's justice is strange, as it does not condemn the killer. It is hard to understand that when we come down to earth, walking among corpses of innocent victims, such as the victims in New York or Afghanistan. Nevertheless, if you enter into the logic of those civilizations projected by the Cain-Lamech myth, there is no better way out than interfering and breaking once and for all the cycle of sacrifice and infinite vengeance by means of the infinite forgiveness: "seven times seventy." The specific beings are victims of that system whose logic demands war or vengeance to make justice or bring "peace and salvation." This is called "structural sin," by Paul, and he proposes that God's justice will save us from the law (its logic), sin and death. God's justice does not justify crimes but advances another logic which, through forgiveness, can bring transformation and reconciliation to humanity. God does all this out of love for the victims, so that in the book of life in the universe, there appears the heading Never More.

 

 

© November 2002
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 2, Issue 11