June 2, 2022

The Archbishop of Canterbury has the worst job in the world because the better he does his job the less he is admired. This is especially true when it comes to talking about forgiveness. Forgiveness may not be unique to the Christian faith but it is arguably more central to it than it is to other faiths. “Love your enemies” and “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who have trespassed against us” are among the most well-known phrases spoken by Jesus.

So when the Archbishop this week suggested Prince Andrew is “seeking to make amends” and encouraged people to be more “open and forgiving”, he was not going out on some fashionable theological limb. He was doing what he was supposed to be doing: proclaiming the faith.

But however often Christians say the word in church, forgiveness has always been a profoundly unpopular idea, and is increasingly so in a post-Christian society. Look at the reaction to the Archbishop’s comments. People are aghast and angry. Why? Because the very idea of forgiveness can be extremely hard to reconcile with the much simpler and more popular idea of justice.

Justice means people getting what they deserve. Wrongdoers facing punishment: an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Punishment has to be proportionate to the wrong done. The scales of justice cry out to be balanced. It is a debt that has to be paid. Yet the greasy and featherbedded Prince Andrew has obviously not paid his debt — so how dare the Archbishop speak about forgiveness? Bloody establishment, they all look out for each other.

This is where justice can take us. It was Nietzsche — no friend of the Christian faith, of course — who famously suggested that even the justice of the courtroom can have a highly persecutory tone, a mob desire for the blood of the perpetrator camouflaged by wigs and gowns. Consider also that common set-up at the beginning of the trashy American revenge movie: a crime is committed that allows us to see the various acts of response, however gruesome, as a form of moral restitution. The idea of justice allows violence to be understood as morally acceptable, unavoidable even. Justice becomes the moral word for winning. And Americans like to be thought of as winners. It is, of course, their least attractive side. And their most foolish.

At its worst, this logic of justice can perpetuate violence ad infinitum. It can create an unstoppable cycle of vendetta — one act of justice/violence inviting another. Feuds between families can perpetuate this drama over generations. Justice is the engine of revenge. Violence is mimetic. What most frightened Desmond Tutu about post-Apartheid South Africa was the prospect of justice driving a death cycle of violence — with some never-ending response and counter-response sending his beloved country into perpetual civil war. “No future without forgiveness,” he wrote. Forgiveness was a way of breaking the cycle of tit-for-tat violence. Peace could only be established by holding back on the justice bit. Forgive your enemies. That, for all its faults, is what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was seeking to model.

In complete contrast to Tutu’s “No forgiveness, no peace”, Black Lives Matter protestors regularly chant “No justice, no peace”. One way of reading this is that we won’t give you peace unless we have racial justice. It can be heard as a moral justification of ongoing violence.

As well as perpetuating discord, the justice tradition has another related weakness: it invariably imagines that the person calling for justice is in the right. When Hamlet appeals to Polonius to treat others better than they deserve, he observes: “Use every man after his own desert and who [of us] should escape whipping”. Or in other words: if we all get justice, we are all in trouble. In the same vein, Martin Luther came to realise that he hated the phrase “the justice of God” because all of us — sinners that we are — are condemned. Only through God’s forgiveness can we be saved. OK, this is church speak. But the equivalent secular point is that all of us require forgiveness. Justice language — unqualified by mercy — points the finger at us all in the end. This is why social justice warriors end up consuming each other in an orgy of recrimination.

The Jubilee is a perfect time to think about forgiveness. This is when we try and think of ourselves as a national community, reconciled for a few hours of cake-eating and tea-drinking. The street party is a powerful way of neighbours, who may have fought for years over the garden fence, to put “being right” aside. I am an enthusiastic monarchist because I think of the crown as holding the community together in a way that is beyond political contestation. The Queen has sought to do this for 70 years. It’s part of her priestly role as it were, it’s what she was anointed for. Thank God for her.

Jubilees seek to restore something broken or lost. At the turn of the millennium, many of us came together to lobby for the forgiveness of the financial debts that the developing world had built up over years. Jubilee 2000 asked that we wipe the slate clean. It drew upon the Biblical idea of the Jubilee — that every 50 years debts would be redeemed. It is very telling that the Judeo-Christian tradition often uses financial language – debt, redemption – as ways of talking about salvation. Back then it was the right that complained about the forgiveness of debts. These days it is often the left. Both insist upon the iron logic of pay-back, justice.

Forgiveness is not sentimental slush. It’s not being overly nice or gullible. Properly speaking, it is about the refusal to respond to wrongdoing in kind — those last two words being very important. It is not a refusal of the criminal justice system. It is a recognition that you do not get punishment proportionate to the crime — a murderer does not get murdered, a perpetrator of sexual violence does not get molested. Even more, it is a denial of the satisfaction that comes with payback. As Tutu was right to point out, forgiveness is a way of giving the community back a future, a strategy of restoration.

The reason being the Archbishop of Canterbury is the most impossible job in the world is that he has to try and say something like this within a public culture that believes forgiveness is fundamentally mistaken and wrong. It requires messy compromises. It might let people off the hook, smirking as they slink away. It might leave some victims unsatisfied, bitter that justice has not been properly dispensed.

But the alternative is a kind of endless cultural war. “No justice, no peace” is a terrifying slogan. For often, justice is the desire for revenge by another name.