“Let us Forgive and Ask Forgiveness!”: The Possibility of Mutual Forgiveness

Well, since Todd’s sorry to hear that I planned to take a break, I’ll see what I can do (sorry – no promises).

Perhaps we can continue our discussion of mimetic desire. Once more, to borrow from Michael Kirwan, we can quickly define mimetic desire: “Instead of desire being a single linear relation (subject A desires object B – ‘Quixote desires to be a perfect knight’), we have three elements: A only desires B because C (in this case, Amadis de Gaul) has directed his attention towards it.”

We can observe one of the stranger instances of mimetic desire when we notice two people trapped in rivalry over “victim” status. Mutual accusations keep escalating when an Israeli and a Palestinian try to determine exactly who has been victimized and who has played the criminal. Perhaps we can imagine a Protestant and Catholic similarly arguing without end – when one brings up some gruesome account from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, he is immediately met with the martyrdoms of Thomas More and Edmund Campion. The argument can turn to violence, with both sides feeling absolutely justified.

As many of you will remember, on the First Sunday of Lent in 2000, Pope John Paul II movingly recognizedthe infidelities to the Gospel committed by some of our brethren” and suggested that we confess “our responsibilities as Christians for the evils of today” (my emphases). There is no clinging to an imagined “victim” status here. But then the Pope also noted, “Countless times in the course of history Christians have suffered hardship, oppression and persecution because of their faith.” What is going on? Was the Pope trying to somehow balance the uncomfortable recognition of the Catholic Church’s faults with a quick reminder of the Church’s sufferings, so that Catholics could subtly retain “victim” status after all?

That interpretation is incorrect. The Pope said, “Let us forgive and ask forgiveness!” That phrase originated in an apology made by Pope Paul VI to non-Catholic Christians at the beginning of the second session of Vatican II. As Nikolaus Wandinger of Innsbruck University wrote in an interesting paper at the 2006 Colloquium on Religion and Violence, the Pope was attempting to replace a “reciprocity of mutual accusation that could lead to escalating violence” with a “reciprocity of forgiveness, in the hope to kindle a process of reconciliation.” This “reciprocity of forgiveness” replaces a rivalry over “victim” status with a solidarity based on the growing recognition that everyone has committed sins and suffered from sins, including Catholics. Who hasn’t sinned? But who hasn’t also been the victim of sin? As Dr Wandinger points out, “Since sinners in the very act of sinning become themselves the victims of their own sins, all sinners are also victims of sin.”

Perhaps this seems abstract and unrealistic. How can the “reciprocity of forgiveness” replace the deadly “reciprocity of mutual accusation”? And what does it mean to speak of an escalation of forgiveness? Can we actually feel a mimetic pull towards forgiveness? Dr Wandinger points us to some biblical texts. Before I quote his explanation, I should mention out of caution that I don’t think that he means to set New Testament against Old Testament in a crude way. That said, here is Dr Wandinger – the emphases will be mine. (as always, tell me what you think in the comments box):


To begin with it should be noted that the NT places forgiveness and retribution as two possible opposite reactions to injustice – moreover as two reactions that tend to exert a mimetic pull by which they escalate easily. The God portrayed in Gen 4 tries to deter human violence by the threat of escalating retribution: After Cain had murdered his brother and was punished by God for that, he feared that other people might feel emboldened and kill him, copying his very own deed. God reacts by declaring: “Not so! Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance” (Gen 4:15). Thus, in order to prevent Cain from becoming the victim of someone who emulated him, God decides to emulate him, yet in an escalating manner. The threat of violence has to be increased to have any deterring effect. Limiting violence by violence easily leads not only to reciprocal violence but to a disproportionate increase in violence.

On first sight it seems to have succeeded, though, for the Bible records nothing about Cain being murdered; it actually says nothing at all about his death. Yet the logic of escalating revenge soon bears poisonous fruit. Only 9 verses later we encounter an offspring of Cain’s after six generations by the name of Lamech, who was obviously well reared in a whole family tradition of escalating revenge. He brags to his two wives: “I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold” (Gen 4:23-4).

It is probably against this escalation of revenge that Jesus counter-poses an escalation of forgiveness. When Peter approaches him with the question of how often he should forgive his brother and suggests himself that seven times would be a good measure (cf. Mat 18:21), we may assume that Peter had already chosen a suggestion that seemed to him quite generous (even if we leave out the highly symbolic character of the number seven). Jesus, however, in a reversal of Lamech’s logic, challenges Peter to forgive “not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times” (Mat 18:22).

The multiplication of retribution that occurs in the six generations from Cain to Lamech emphasizes how dangerous an instrument vengeful justice and the deterrence based upon it is. What is meant to limit violence can easily be transformed – by a kind of mimetic exaggeration – into a disseminator for violence. Jesus clearly wants to reverse that with a mimetic pull toward the opposite: a multiplication and escalation of forgiveness, which, however, at the same time does not provide the function of deterrence. This is clearly illustrated by the parable following these words to Peter, in which a king forgives his servant an enormous debt – for which there was no way of paying it back: exegetes tell us that the debt amounted to more that 190,000 years’ salaries (!) – and expected the servant to forgive his fellow servant a much smaller amount, namely one-hundred days’ salaries. When the king hears that the servant fails to do so, he reverses his decision and hands him over to be tortured until he would have paid his debt. And the king explicitly grounds that in the servant’s failure to emulate him: “Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?” (Mat 18:33). When the servant fails to emulate the king, the king reverses his judgment in emulation of the servant. This is the same reversal of model and imitator that happened in the Cain-story. But Jesus tries to correct the image of God: If God is present as avenger, emulating him leads to more violence, as shown in the figure of Lamech. If God is perceived like a generous king, as in the beginning of Jesus’ parable, then returning to imitate him means a reversal of the process of escalating revenge in favor of escalating forgiveness. This escalation actually materialized with Jesus’ way on the cross: here he prayed for forgiveness for his actual killers, which was an escalation of forgiveness by far of what Jesus had taught in the Sermon of the Mount. 


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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