The Cycle-Breaking Creativity of Forgiveness

Letting go of certainty for love's sake


Despite it being a cornerstone of our faith, Christians are not good at talking about forgiveness. We resort to bland and unhelpful blanket statements that only lead to confusion, or we try to fit it neatly into a box, as if it always looks the same. Forgiveness is a good and holy thing, but it’s not a science. What forgiveness looks like in one situation doesn’t easily replicate to another. Because of its nebulous nature, some Christians think it’d be better to focus less on forgiveness and more on something seemingly precise, like ethics. But, if we did that, the heart of the gospel would be lost. What we really need is a better way to talk about forgiveness. I recently finished reading Matthew Ichihashi Potts’ new book Forgiveness: An Alternative Account which deals with just that. I’ll be in conversation with Potts’ book throughout the rest of this piece, after a story of my own.

Around the time of the killings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, I was doing a lot of work with teens. I saw many of the young men I worked with and cared about in the faces of these two. My grief and anger came to a head when a kid I had worked hard to hire for a summer job that I supervised, stole an expensive piece of technology on a day he had training at a different location, and ended up spending the day being interrogated at the police station. 

People above me went over my head, and got the police involved right away. My supervisee was fired, and I never got the chance to talk with him about it. Rather than letting me (someone he had a working relationship with) talk with him and find out what happened, the administration went straight to authorities he had never seen before, and was likely wary of. I was told that he had initially lied, and said he hadn’t taken it, which wasn’t a good idea. No question. But, he was 15 years old. He was bright and funny, but also inexperienced and naive. He was used to living in survival mode, saw an opportunity, and took it. There was no reason to get authorities outside of our organization involved. I was angry then, and I still get angry thinking about it now. There was no forgiveness for him, just another devastatingly predictable spin of an all too familiar cycle.

I started going to protests and involving myself in other racial justice opportunities. It’s important work, and I saw many people trying to enact positive change. However, as time went on, I wondered if the goal of some in the movement was only a transfer of power. If so, was this markedly different from other relentless cycles of action/reaction? Could a role reversal like this lead to something actually new, or would it only perpetuate the cycle of harm?

Acting in response to love

The desire for revenge is understandable and natural in high stakes, high emotion settings, but it is ultimately fruitless, even damaging. Potts writes that people “imagine that revenge will bring relief, even though the fantasy of revenge simply reverses the roles of perpetrator and victim;” and when put into practice, satisfaction doesn’t follow. We think revenge will heal our wounds, but it usually doesn’t, and often only ends up “stoking the fires of hatred,” and “worsening traumatic response.”

Often, when we’re overwhelmed or frightened, we turn to ideologies and narratives to make sense of the fallen world we live in. We want the illusion of control. We want something to measure our (and everyone else’s) righteousness against. We look to them for surety because we are deeply distrustful of the unknown, of nuance and mystery. We like that they give us reasons to shut people out who don’t adhere to the same. In the most compelling section of the book, Potts uses Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s unfinished Ethics to helpfully disabuse us of this. He writes that according to Bonhoeffer:

An action ‘based on ideology is already justified by its own principle,’ whereas ‘responsible action renounces any knowledge about its ultimate justification … The one who acts responsibly thus remains entirely and willingly ignorant ‘of one’s own goodness or evil’ and instead depends absolutely ‘upon grace.’ … they know only that they are loved, not that they are good, and they offer their actions—actions taken in careful response to the world’s manifest sin—up to God’s judgment, confident in God’s forgiving love.

Potts writes that the moral dilemma for Christians is that, “we cannot but act, and we cannot but betray God with our action.” Following and quoting from Bonhoeffer, he advocates for starting from the fact that our “moral knowledge … is severely and significantly limited.” We shouldn’t trust that our actions in response to the things that frighten us or cause us pain “will be self-justifying on their own, self-evidently and assuredly good simply because we believe they are our best, most rational or moral response,” that in reality:

We know only two things: first, we know that we are finite creatures of limited knowledge, power, and existence; and second, we know ‘the reality of being elected and loved by God’ in our finite state. Our actions, therefore, must be based on this knowledge, rather than on any other.

Freed to move

We are all deeply loved and deeply in need of forgiveness. We can’t know “whether we have done any good,” or “whether we are in the right.” “We can tell neither by the commandments we have obeyed nor by the outcomes of our actions. We have no knowledge of good or evil.” This isn’t an easy truth, but that doesn’t make it any less true. The truth of it makes me appreciate the Prayers of the People from The Book of Common Prayer that I get to say every week I go to church (italics mine):

Have mercy upon us, most merciful Father; in your compassion forgive us our sins, known and unknown, things done and left undone; and so uphold us by your Spirit that we may live and serve you in newness of life, to the honor and glory of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

This is followed with absolution, which we get squeamish about until we need it ourselves, when it can finally be heard the way it’s meant to be: a lifeline handed down to us by “the endless reach of God’s love.”

Potts makes sure to note that forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting or undoing the wrong that’s been done. It’s not the caricature of easy erasure that many people rally against. That in fact, “it is precisely because forgiveness refuses the retributive fallacy of fixing the past that it is freed to move—slowly, painfully, even perhaps like Christ with permanently open wounds—into the future.”

Making all things new

Potts also helpfully engages the work of Hannah Arendt, who wrote that: “Forgiving … is the only reaction which does not merely re-act but acts anew and unexpectedly.” The creative nature of forgiveness, the fact that it acts “anew and unexpectedly,” proves to me that it comes from God. We humans are a reactive bunch. Without God’s help, we wouldn’t be able to access “the freedom contained in Jesus’ teachings of forgiveness, … the freedom from vengeance.” We’d be stuck, “both doer and sufferer in the relentless automatism of the action process, which by itself will never come to an end.” 

Forgiveness is the only thing that can break cycles. Other actions may alter them slightly or for a time, but they won’t really result in freedom and newness. Christian forgiveness is different. It is a gift directly from God, available to all, and that’s why we shouldn’t abandon it or hide it under a bushel. Forgiveness isn’t a cold system to implement, or a static set of rules to follow. It is not just our best attempt at something. Forgiveness, like Christian faith, is rescue, it is newness, it is a breaking-in of the divine, a healing of our broken lives and crooked hearts.

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