Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Ethics and Violence: Forgiveness, Confrontation, and Limits

This continues our look at ethics and violence. I'll pick up with some of the comments on turning the other cheek and then move on to other passages about confrontation, forgiveness, and breaking ties with those who refuse to give up evil.

Turning the other cheek: follow-up
In the comments on the previous post in the ethics and violence series, there was mention of times when turning the other cheek enables the violence to grow worse. Of course, turning the other cheek was not meant as a guarantee of stopping violence. It was meant to undercut evil in a radical way, to confront, to startle, to risk doing good to those who hate us. It communicates a message to the wrongdoer: "I do not fear you. I have no hatred of you or wish to harm you." It may even send the message, "I have not given up on you," or even "I stand with you against the evil inside you." But it was never a guarantee of safety. In fact, it is the risk involved in turning the other cheek that makes the move so startling. Make no mistake: when you turn the other cheek, there is a very real chance that you will get pounded. To borrow a phrase from another context, count the cost before you do it. Our redemption depended very much on when Christ did the same for us.

I've spent a certain amount of time on turning the other cheek for two reasons: first, because some camps distrust it so much that they nearly deny its rightful place in Christian life and ethics; second, because some camps misinterpret it so badly that they take it for a permissive stance towards evil, which only results in evil run amok. Still, it would be a mistake to think that turning the other cheek is called for in all circumstances without exception.

Turning the other cheek is somewhere between difficult and impossible to apply in certain circumstances. For example, sneak attacks, anonymous attacks, or attacks organized by those in hiding are difficult to meet with "turning the other cheek" in the fullest application. This is because turning the other cheek actually involves a direct confrontation with the one causing harm. If the evildoer sneaks off before anyone recognizes him or hides at a safe distance, it makes it difficult to arrange a confrontation. Also, when Jesus discussed "turning the other cheek," he named an attack where no serious or lasting harm is done. I do not believe it would be a fair application of "turning the other cheek" to stretch it to obligate anyone to allow more serious attacks such as deadly attacks. For example, there is no hint in what Christ said that, if someone murders your son, then allow him to murder your daughter as well. First, we are not invited to offer up another person for attack. Second, there is a level of harm which we do not have the authority to knowingly permit; it crosses over into negligence. That much said, let's look at some passages about other ways of confronting evil.
Do not hate your brother in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in his guilt. Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your own people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD. (Leviticus 19:17-18)
In general, much of our response to evil can be summed up this way: ineffective. All forms of evil require a confrontation. Before we get to the part in this quote about rebuking evil, I'd like to point out the context. It is surrounded by commands not to hate but to love, not to bear a grudge, not to seek revenge. Of all the things we might need to hear when we consider facing down an evildoer or rebuking someone who has done wrong, these have to be the most applicable for a time like that. Too easily we tend towards arrogance, smugness, or superiority; the danger to ourselves is never greater than when we have caught someone else -- especially someone we dislike -- in a fault. Here is one of the most widespread abuses of religion: to pursue gleefully a chance to humiliate our enemies and at the same time pat ourselves on the back, descending into a morally nauseating pride, all the while convincing ourselves that we are holy. (If I ever found some of those odd chapters of Screwtape that appear on the 'net every now and then, I wonder if I'd hear Screwtape explaining his moral superiority to God. Would anyone here doubt that he is convinced of it?)

The Scriptures instruct us to rebuke evil frankly. If we do not confront evil, if we know what is being done but do not oppose it, we share in the guilt. Before a fuller discussion of that, I'd like to add one more passage to the conversation:
If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. (Matthew 18:15)
I will not quote this passage in its entirety because I expect that most of my readers are familiar with it. Here again we see that a Christ-like response does not mean ignoring the fact that there was an offense. Turning a blind eye to active, unrepentant evil is not an option. Forgiveness must not be confused with permitting evil or becoming complacent about it. So again, when there is an offense, we are called to confront it. And again, our confrontation is to be blameless in that it begins with a kind, private rebuke that does not have the goal of crushing, defeating, or humiliating the person who wronged us, but of winning back the one who is in the wrong. If this is not successful, we are instructed not to drop the matter but to escalate it. In this way the evil does not continue and the offender has a chance to reach repentance. Repentance includes recognizing the wrong and rejecting it. If a person returns to what is right, the number of times we are to receive him back is basically unlimited. But if a person is hard-hearted about the wrong and simply will not listen, Christ says that friendly relations are dropped after a few attempts. There is an end to the chain of our pursuing reconciliation with someone who does not want it, or does not want a relationship on just terms. There is a point at which, if the other person is neither listening nor responding, we are called to end our futile pursuits of a peace which the other person does not desire.

What is the difference between the person Jesus says we are to forgive 70 x 7 times and the person Jesus says we are to regard in the same way as an idol-worshipper or a tax collector? Both are sinners, just like we are. But the one we are instructed to forgive in such an open-ended way is repentant: he recognizes and rejects the wrong. The other is unrepentant: he neither recognizes nor rejects the wrong. The repentant person may be weak, he may fall into the same sin again, he may succumb to temptation, it may even be a habit; but he recognizes evil and fights against it, however imperfectly. The unrepentant person rejects correction, rejects the truth about being in the wrong, rejects the call to love God or love others.

There is a chance that the person is committing a sin in ignorance. A respectful confrontation will clear up things like that. But if it has become a matter of the person rejecting the right and choosing the wrong, there is no obligation to continue in a relationship with the other person. Some would say there is an obligation to break off relationship with the other person if they have become hardened in a willful sin.
But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. (Matthew 6:15)
We cannot afford to be hateful or arrogant. Even if we regard someone in the same way as an idol-worshipper or a tax-collector, that does not mean with malice. We all need forgiveness from the same judge who will judge us all. Jesus' teachings about forgiveness often assume that the offender is sorry, sometimes even begging on her knees with tears of regret. In light of what we are taught about forgiveness, I would not wish to say we can afford to withhold forgiveness. But we should remember that letting sin go unchecked, unconfronted, unanswered is itself a sin. The goal of forgiveness -- and confrontations -- is a restoration which is impossible as long as the sin continues. Leave it to us sinners that we can mess up anything. "Forgiveness" itself can be done badly if it glosses over the sin without restoring the sinner, if it makes no comment about the continued bad treatment of others. After such pseudo-forgiveness, the relationships are still broken, the evildoer hasn't given a second thought to his evil, and injustice triumphs. Again, this kind of "forgiveness" is less than justice, not more than justice. God's forgiveness is better: it confronts the sin and restores the sinner.


DugALug said...


Thanks for some great thoughts. I am really enjoying your (extended) series here.

Misplaced verus misdirected anger comes to mind when I am reading this. Proverbs reminds us to be slow to anger, it doesn't tell us not to be angry. But articulating the object of our anger can be difficult.

Am I alone here or does this make sense? I was wondering what your thoughts on this are.

Once again, thanks for the good posts.

God Bless

codepoke said...

Yeah. It's all too easy for me to allow evil to go unconfronted. And pseudo-spirituality makes it even easier to take pride in my cowardice.


Sharktacos said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Sharktacos said...

Hey WF,So here's a theory I have:

love of enemies is an absolute.
Turning the other cheek is not, rather it is a specific application of love of enemies in a particular situation (that situation being confronting the humiliating oppression of power).

If that is the case, then turning the other cheek can be appropriate in some situations (like how Martin Luther King used it) and inappropriate in others (for example in the case of police dealing with criminals). In the later police example I would propose that a better application of love of enemies would be for example rehabilitation for the perpetrators and restorative justice for the victims.

In other words, I think that we need to creatively apply love of enemies to each situation and that there are many creative ways to faithfully apply this, turning the other cheek being one (of many) examples that Jesus gives of how to apply this.

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Sharky

Thanks for the link. I'll be over to comment after awhile but am just doing a little pre-church surfing here.

I'd have to just in general agree with what you're saying. The reason I spent so much time on it is that there are people who would take "not always appropriate" into some sort of "always look for an alternative" and I think that would be going a little too fast; there are times when turning the other cheek is exactly what's called for. And then there are people who would say that it *always* applies, and I think that's not even Scriptural, plus has been abused to create an artificial prohibition against opposing evil, which, look where that's gotten us. (Once I did a post on how "judge not" has been similarly abused ... I mean, it's one thing to apply "judge not" to protect a person from being hated and ostracized, but it's another thing to try to leverage it to get to some imagined protection against the legitimacy of right and wrong.)

Take care & God bless