On Forgiveness and Majesty

All human life is constituted by forgiveness. Such forgiveness is both costly and difficult – for both offerer and receiver. Costly, because the telos is not to be drawn into a situation of truce but reconciliation, trust and love. Difficult, because two estranged parties are moved from a place of dissatisfaction and what has often become a strange comfort of calloused survival towards a place of new vulnerability, raw tenderness and tentative hope.

‘If forgiveness lies in the memory of wrongs suffered’, writes Miroslav Volf in The End of Memory, ‘it must lie more in what we do with those memories than in the memories themselves. And what we do with our memories will depend on how we see ourselves in the present and how we project ourselves into the future’. I was reminded afresh today in this podcast of the value for human community of Volf’s theological reflections on remembering rightly, on forgiveness, and on truthfulness as a form of justice.

I was also reminded of those haunting words from Simon Wiesenthal’s pen in his significant essay, The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness: It is clear that if we look only to retributive justice, then we could just as well close up shop. Forgiveness is not some nebulous thing. It is practical politics. Without forgiveness, there is no future’ (pp. 267–8).

One, of course, cannot stop there; but must proceed to inquire after the fountain – or source, or justification itself – of such forgiveness. Such asking will bring us – even if it takes eternity to do it – face to face with the true nature of divine majesty which is neither material vastness nor the majesty of force, neither the majesty of mystery nor the majesty of thought. The true majesty of God is his mercy. The true majesty of God is that he did what we would never have done – he had mercy on all flesh. His greatness is not in his loftiness, but in his nearness. God is great not because he is above feeling, but because he feels as none of us can. The majesty of God is completely saturated through and through with his forgiving love, which comes out most of all in his treatment of sin … his treatment of those who would wish him dead.