Naming Questioning Forgiving

Rev Dr Geoff Broughton reflects on the challenge of forgiveness and the importance of naming and questioning in the process.

Cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without repentance; it is baptism without the discipline of the community; it is the Lords Supper without confession of sin; it is absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without the living, incarnate Jesus Christ  it is costly, because it calls to discipleship; it is grace, because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ [emphasis retained][i]

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s famous dictum about “cheap grace” highlights the importance of repentance, confession, forgiveness and absolution as disciplines in the Christian community. Jesus’ modelled such conversational practices in the events leading to his death: naming, questioning and forgiving wrongdoers. Conversational discipleship practices begin with naming (or judging) wrongdoing and are expressed by the wrongdoer as confession, by the victim as testimony and by the community through transparent lives.The next conversational practice that I would propose is questioning. This is highly controversial. Why? Because, in the aftermath of wrongdoing, the victim will often hide, the wrongdoer can be increasingly deceptive and the community will become cautious. The right kind of questions will unveil the victim’s experience, unmask the wrongdoer’s excuses and unsettle any complacency within the community.

Miroslav Volf rightly argues that the essence of forgiveness is its giftedness.[ii] Forgiveness is a gift for the victim to offer, for the wrongdoer to receive and for the community to nurture and celebrate. Why should a victim be asked to offer a gift to their wrongdoer, particularly when the gift of forgiveness is “the gift of existing as if they had not committed the offence at all?” Yet, the articulation of three words “I forgive you” can potentially restore the fundamental human relationship between “I and Thou” described by the philosopher Martin Buber.[iii] The possibility is entirely dependent upon the word “forgive” being spoken within relationships fractured by wrongdoing. Desmond Tutu’s proclamation that there is “no future without forgiveness” is more than just preacher’s rhetoric. It reflects the wisdom of a pastor-theologian who knew that the only way to restore relationships in his broken and divided nation was through forgiveness. The reconciliation he envisioned transcended both Charles Taylor’s religious outlook of “my enemy is to blame” and the therapeutic outlook where “no-one is to blame.” I believe that the victim’s desire to forgive needs to be nurtured. It is articulated first as a prayer for God to forgive the wrongdoer. The prayers of Jesus (Luke 23:34) and Stephen (Acts 7:60) indicate that God’s readiness to forgive precedes that of the victim (Luke 6:36). But what conversational discipline enables a victim to offer the gift of forgiveness? A wrongdoer’s confession makes forgiveness easier but the wrongdoer’s repentance is not essential for the gift of forgiveness to be offered by the victim. Indeed wrongdoing must be properly named before forgiveness is offered. The victim’s testimony grounds the practice of forgiveness in actual people and concrete events. Beyond all these preparations, forgiveness remains first and foremost, a gift. It cannot be demanded, processed or earned by hard work.

Forgiveness when understood as a gift is also an intimate act of grace. It is also a resurrection act. It is God’s way, I believe, of breathing new life into dead relationships. Forgiveness is experienced as a lifeline to wrongdoers who desire this gift of new life. It brings hope to those who long to exist as if they have never committed the offense. But what conversational disciplines are needed for such a gift to be offered and received? The disciplines of imagination prepare the wrongdoer to receive the gift of forgiveness rightly.

What language is adequate for receiving the gift of forgiveness? In Luke’s account of the wrongdoer crucified beside Jesus, or his description of Saul on the Damascus road with the risen Jesus, no words of forgiveness are exchanged. In both instances forgiveness is implied rather than spokenThis demonstrates that the “language” for receiving forgiveness actually transcends verbal exchanges. Saul’s forgiveness is received in silence, through baptism, as recovered sight and in an apostolic life of suffering for the name of Jesus. The “language” of forgiveness received is the transformed life of the wrongdoer and his or her acts of repairing justice.

The role for the community is to nurture and celebrate this gift of forgiveness. The difficult task of giving and receiving forgiveness should not be an overwhelming burden for victims and wrongdoers. Forgiveness brings new life between victims and wrongdoers and within the community as well. Forgiveness is a resurrection act and communities have always nurtured and celebrated new life. The community of God’s people in both the Old and New Testaments remembered God’s forgiveness through celebratory meals: the Passover and the Lord’s Supper.[iv] Forgiveness fails if it is merely implied. Even the utterance “I forgive you” might not be able to restore every broken relationship. There is pointer here to the reality that imagination and conversation are insufficient by themselves. The practices of the restorative Christ must ultimately be embodied in action.

This reflection is drawn from the newly released book 'Restorative Christ: Jesus, Justice and Discipleship' by Rev Dr Geoff Broughton who is Deputy Director of St Marks National Theological Centre and Lecturer in Practical Theology, Charles Sturt University Australia. He is an ordained Anglican minister in the inner city of Sydney, Australia.

[i] Bonhoeffer, DBWE 4:44.
[ii] Volf, Against the Tide, 172.
[iii] Buber, I and Thou. See also Bonhoeffer, DBWE 1, 54-57.
[iv] Volf, The End of Memory, 108-112 explores the kind of remembering constitutive of both meals.


Reflections on The Lord's Prayer