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Newsletter for March 2003

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SMCanal-s.jpg (6880 bytes) Pre-emptive action and forgiveness

Pre-emptive action stirs up many reasonable fears in those who are not doing it.  Our mistrust of pre-emptive action makes it harder to celebrate one priceless form of pre-emption - active, unconditional forgiving.


  1. The problem with initiators - we tend to prefer helping to being helped, victims to fixers 
  2. An active force for good - the overlooked shock of seeing examples of Jesus at work, forgiving
  3. The threat to maintaining power - rather than risk initiating, institutions tend to restrict themselves to the power to respond
  4. Conclusion

1  The problem with initiators

We live in an international culture where sympathy and even the moral high ground now lie with victims.  As Gregory Jones observed:

The modern American cogito might be better phrased, ‘I am a victim; therefore I am.’  Whoever can claim the status of victim with greater authority wins, because that status projects an image of innocence over against which all others are somehow guilty. (Embodying forgiveness p 46)

This also means we are usually ready to help or listen to a victim or a passive person; but we feel uncomfortable with initiators.  In part this is - very understandably - because we sense they might take the initiative towards us, in ways we cannot control!

Taking pre-emptive action is also identified by negative expressions like 'precipitant,' 'arrogant,' 'messianic,' 'imperialist,' even when the initiators seem to be smiling rather than brutal.  Offences are offensive ... unless, that is, we can manage to claim to be going on the offence in order to better defend our family or our nation. 

To return for a moment to the issue which presently dominates all our minds: to initiate a war on terrorism seemed justified because after 9/11 it was defensive, and the US found itself a loved victim; whereas a war on Iraq does not, though US and British leaders may claim it is simply a response to wrongdoing.  Little wonder that the New York Times recently commented, after the arrest of Al Qaeda senior operative Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, that

Pakistan's pivotal role in the seizure is one more demonstration of the importance of working in concert with other nations in the fight against terrorism.  The United States cannot defeat Al Qaeda without the help of dozens of other nations.  The same principle applies to Iraq. 

President Bush may be able to win a military victory against Saddam Hussein without broad international support, but he won't be able to rebuild Iraq, much less change the political and economic dynamics of the Islamic world, without a great deal of foreign assistance.

But in this e-letter we want to ask: Is all pre-emptive action - initiated without consultation or partnership with others, including those people on whom we act - now morally and spiritually devalued?  Even President Bush's stated desire to impose democracy on Arab states?

It seems to me that the discrediting of pre-emptive action as precipitant, arrogant, messianic, imperialist, etc., is why the most important and astonishing form of pre-emptive action - active, unconditional forgiveness - is so little understood. 

2   An active force for good

To assess 'pre-emptive forgiveness,' there is only one place to start: examples from Jesus' teaching and ministry.  We are looking at Jesus here not in order to advocate - or exhort to - Christian religion, but simply to learn afresh from the example of a truly great practitioner of forgiveness; and to reflect a little on how his followers adapted his example. 

Firstly we need to be clear that Jesus certainly lived out the active and external or public aspect of forgiveness.   He viewed forgiveness as a power – an active force for good which he could bring into the situation. 

Mark’s Gospel records early on how, when he was asked to heal a paralysed man, Jesus initially responded by saying to the paralytic, "Son, your sins are forgiven."  In his ensuing dialogue with the scribes he asked what was clearly a vital question for him: "Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take your stretcher, and walk’?  But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins," – he said to the paralytic – "I tell you, get up, take your stretcher, and go to your home." (Mark 2.9-11)

Here we see how he forgave a man who had not wronged him, and who was not even repentant

Many aspects of this story are usually overlooked.   We may assume forgiveness is a response by a victim towards the offender - yet there is no sense in which Jesus had been wronged by the man.  We may assume that forgiveness cannot be unconditional, and can only be given to those who repent - yet the paralytic makes no repentance.  Neither do his friends. 

Jesus' forgiveness – and/or God’s power in him – was not a reaction to being wronged. He forgave the man because he wanted to bring about a transformation – a dramatic improvement – in the man’s life.  Healing, yes, but as a capacity for new depths of relationship, not merely as a physical improvement.  We so often tend to long for the past things to be restored, whereas a deeper spiritual engagement with forgiveness directs us towards an increased freedom in the general way we relate with others.

Elsewhere he reveals forgiveness as a gift to be given unconditionally, though also as a gift which the forgiven person has to live out, in a changed way, or the gift will be lost:  the parable of an unforgiving servant, whose lord "took pity on him, cancelled the debt and let him go" (Matthew 18.27): to the adulteress, "Neither do I condemn you ... go and leave your life of sin." (John 8.11)

For a fuller exploration of the implications of passages like this, and their implications for healing and transformation, see The power to initiate forgiveness #3-4  and Should forgiveness be unconditional? #3.

3   The threat to maintaining power

Few of us have this kind of freedom and power in even one or two situations, let alone the many that Jesus entered.  Indeed some of Jesus' more church-filtered teaching does present forgiving as conditional upon repentance (e.g. Luke 17.4 - "rebuke him, and if he repents forgive him") - when his followers have to do it.  And today, in most of our one-to-one, domestic situations we do not have the kind of power and authority to make it happen - society and culture exert increasing pressure on us to behave as one among equals.  

But sometimes we do.  ForgivenessNet includes examples of such objective, compassionate forgiving, which are normally exercised by people with power  - in international debt forgiveness (Bono, Clinton), a judge's mercy (Compassion), prayer (Spiritual Midwife), a community's leaders' care of its children (Trondheim), or South Africa's (Mandela's) initiative of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The aims of forgiveness - freedom, empowerment, love - could perhaps seem to justify military intervention, as they clearly do to the Bush administration in their desire to impose democracy on Arab states.  But a pre-emptive, aggressive attack does not prepare the attacker for this kind of compassionate and mutual freedom ... it makes him even more controlling.  Indeed, the Financial Times recently described how Dennis Hastert, the speaker of the House of Representatives, was orchestrating anti-French feelings; and now also towards Mexico.  Forgiveness, in contrast, can only achieve its aim by also making the initiator more open, free and ready to interact mutually.

Jesus did not view his power to forgive as unique to him - he conferred it on his followers.  By revealing the power to forgive as a human activity, he implicitly made the biggest threat of all to religious authorities, who held that God alone can forgive and that their religious role was merely to call adherents to penitence.  Indeed, he expected his followers to live out initiated forgiveness, commissioning them with the breath of the Spirit and the command to forgive others (John 20.23 - a passage more fully explored in The power to initiate forgiveness #7).

How have his followers - or the rest of us - fared in the light of this commission?  Historically, the Christian churches - viewed as institutions, rather than as lots of different people - have not really done this.  (And the status of religious institution which overtook them is no more ready to risk initiative in other main religions).  Over time religions develop a primary pastoral role, which is invariably reactive: a response to need, rather than an initiatory step.

It has been much safer for the churches to present forgiveness as a conditional response to penitence (in the more catholic traditions), or to faith (for evangelicals).  Donald Shriver, former dean of Union Theological seminary, said:

The Christian problem is that we have so often relegated forgiveness to the secrecy of a church sacrament or to sins of one person against another ...  Both Catholics and Protestants have too much closeted forgiveness inside the church.  Since forgiveness is such a well-known doctrine in Christianity, secular people have assumed that forgiveness has little to do with ordinary, collective human relationships. (The forgiveness we need p12)

4   Conclusion

When you initiate, you are likely to be seen as a threat, a cause of change, and the assertion of power which may undermine any power the rest of us presently have.  When you initiate forgiveness, to the extent that Jesus did, religious authorities will have this response. 

Historically, restricting forgiveness to a penitential response protected the church qua institution (and indeed other world religions emphasising forgiveness) from such criticism, and also allowed it, particularly through the medieval period, to maintain power and social standing.  Yet by doing so the church not only masked the real authority of initiated forgiveness to others, but also obscured it to themselves; a legacy we still carry today.

Andrew Knock

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