A World without Forgiveness
In March of 1881, the great Russian philosopher, mystic, and sophiologist Vladimir Solovyov gave a speech following the assassination of Czar Alexander II. In the speech, Solovyov, a young academic at the time, insisted that Alexander’s son and successor, Alexander III, should forgive the murderers in the name of Christian justice. In the highly controlled society that was pre-Revolution Russia, Solovyov knew this was career suicide, and soon after resigned (a rather mandatory resignation) and, in his own words, “abandoned my professional career forever.”1 Solovyov’s gesture may have been bad politics, but it was good Christianity. Then as now, taking Christ seriously was not sound public policy—which speaks volumes about Christianity and its relationship to “this world” (and by “this world” I do not mean Creation. Far from it).
Like Solovyov, the visionary poet, painter, and engraver William Blake was intimately familiar with his own conscience and its relationship to Christian truth. And forgiveness was especially significant in the expression of this truth. On the first page of his magnum opus, Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion, he describes this ethos:
“The Spirit of Jesus is continual Forgiveness of Sin: he who waits to be righteous before he enters into the Saviour’s Kingdom, the Divine Body, will never enter there. I am perhaps the most sinful of men: I pretend not to holiness; yet I pretend to love, to see, to converse with daily, as man with man, and the more to have an interest in the Friend of Sinners.”2
From Solovyov, we learn the importance of communal forgiveness; from Blake, the need for personal forgiveness. The Christ of the Gospels gives witness to both.
How often does Jesus say, “Your sins are forgiven” in the Gospels? Better, when does he not say it? One of my favorite examples in from Mark’s telling of the healing of the paralytic. The paralytic’s friends lower him through the roof and set him before the Master. Notice how He never asks anyone to explain the case. There is no confessional cross examination, no scholastic disputatio. Nope. “When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralyzed man, ‘Child, your sins are forgiven’” (2.5). The episode of the woman taken in adultery is also worth recalling. We all know the story, but it bears repeating:
‘Teacher,’ they said to Jesus, ‘this woman was caught in the act of adultery. The law of Moses says to stone her. What do you say?’
They were trying to trap him into saying something they could use against him, but Jesus stooped down and wrote in the dust with his finger. They kept demanding an answer, so he stood up again and said, ‘All right, but let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!” Then he stooped down again and wrote in the dust.
When the accusers heard this, they slipped away one by one, beginning with the oldest, until only Jesus was left in the middle of the crowd with the woman. Then Jesus stood up again and said to the woman,“Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?”
‘No, Lord,’ she said.
And Jesus said,‘Neither do I. Go and sin no more.’ (John 8:4-11)
Here, again, there is no cross-examination. There’s no “Well, I hope you learned your lesson!” He hardly speaks.
Forgiveness is not a part of our cultural fabric. Instead, we have condemnation, ridicule, and shaming, the world of Thomas Hobbes and Machiavelli. There is no room for Christ in such a world, nor is their room for forgiveness.
Indeed, so proficient are we at the art of unforgivness that we have perfected the art to the point of not forgiving people for sins they didn’t commit (Kafkaesque, I know). Social media, in particular, is rife with demonic accusation, angry mobs carrying stones (or bricks) to punish sinners, real or imagined. René Girard called this a “scapegoat mechanism.” “All such victims,” he writes, “are what we now familiarly call ‘scapegoats,’ innocent targets of a senseless collective transference that is mimetic and mechanical.”2 “Mimetic,” of course, means “imitated,” the internet has made this kind of mimesis almost instantaneous. Certainly collective.
For Girard, the event on Golgotha disables this mechanism. “Forgive them, Father, they know not what they do.” Jesus is the Friend of Sinners, but that doesn’t mean we should persist in our sins.
For those of us who follow the Master know that forgiveness is the only way. “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained” (John 20.23) is not simply a mandate to the priesthood; it’s an accurate description of the psychology of forgiveness. To forgive is to transform; to retain forgiveness is to invite disease, dis-ease.
Blake describes this succinctly in “A Poison Tree”:
A Poison Tree
I was angry with my friend;
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.
And I waterd it in fears,
Night & morning with my tears:
And I sunned it with smiles,
And with soft deceitful wiles.
And it grew both day and night.
Till it bore an apple bright.
And my foe beheld it shine,
And he knew that it was mine.
And into my garden stole,
When the night had veild the pole;
In the morning glad I see;
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.
Michael’s latest books are an edition of The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz and Transfiguration: Notes toward a Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses.
1. Sergey M. Solovyov, Vladimir Solovyov: His Life and Creative Evolution, trans. Aleksey Gibson (Eastern Christian Publications, 2000), 227. Sergey Solovyov, a Russian Byzantine Catholic priest, was the nephew of the elder Solovyov.
2. “To the Public” in Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion.
3. René Girad, I See Satan Fall like Lightning, trans. James G. Williams (Orbis Books, 2006), 1.