Thursday, April 17, 2008

Are Forgiveness and Justice Incompatible?

Consider the following propositions:
(1) We should always treat others justly.
(2) We should always forgive others for their wrong-doings.
(3) If we forgive someone, we do not treat them justly.
Each of these propositions seems intuitively correct, but they also seem to form an inconsistent set. (1) and (3) entail the denial of (2); (2) and (3) entail the denial of (1). It seems we can only accept at most 2 of the 3 propositions.
Let's call the acceptance of (1) and (3) RETRIBUTIONISM.
Let's call the acceptance of (2) and (3) ANTI-RETRIBUTIONISM.
Do either of these two view seem attractive to the Christian? Retributionism implies that we should not forgive people when they wrong us or others. Everyone, all the time, should reap what they sow. Anti-retributionism implies that we should always forgive people when they wrong us or others. Wrong actions should never be punished and justice is an out-dated, draconian concept. Neither of these seems wholly satisfying.
Can we somehow reconcile the three propositions? Let's call the acceptance of (1) and (2) the HARMONY VIEW. Now two questions arise: (a) does this entail the denial of (3)? and (b) does this commit us to a logical contradiction or at least an incoherence?
Let's look at the first question. Does the conjunction of (1) and (2) entail the denial of (3)? It does if we define 'justice' in a certain way. The common sense understanding of justice seems to be 'returning like with like," or "treating equals equally and unequals unequally." But perhaps justice is a richer concept than this and refers instead to a way of always treating people in the appropriate way. There are two ways we could go at this point: (i) we could say that the just person knows how to respond to each person on a case-by-case basis -- sometimes retribution and sometimes absolution; or (ii) we could say that forgiving someone of their wrong-doing does not preclude the prospect of punishing them. It seems that (i) won't work, because the conjunction of (1) and (2) demands that we always forgive and always act justly. It simply won't do to say that we may sometimes do one or the other. What about (ii)? This seems the most promising way to harmonize forgiveness and justice.
Consider an illustration. Smith has assaulted Jones and injured him. Smith is apprehended by the authorities, and brought before Jones and a judge. Smith decides that, in order to obey the command of Christ, he must forgive Jones and give up any moral claim against him. However, Smith also believes that the best thing for Jones would be to spend time in jail in order to help him face the consequences of his actions and see his need for change. (Is this too naive?) So, Smith may will both forgiveness and justice (in the legal sense) toward Jones.
So this kind of proposal suggests that the Harmony View does not entail the denial of (3), which answers our first question (a). It also seems to give a felicitous answer to the second question (b) and avoids any logical incoherence. (This is because justice, as defined above, does not preclude forgiveness.)
Whether or not this works, it seems that there should be some way to harmonize (1) and (2), because I think Christianity contains both of these principles. As followers of Jesus, I think we have strong intuitions in both directions. Perhaps my proposed harmonization is a good starting point for this project. Are there passages of Scripture that would provide insight? (I'm sure theologians have written tomes on this topic, but I'm new to it.)

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Anonymous Curtis said...


My take on this situation is that we are to always treat others justly, but also expect to be treated justly in turn. But because of Christ's payment for sin, we can forgive while still being just.

Take this analogy...if Bob borrows $100 from Tom, Tom has a right to demand that money back from Bob. But if Joe comes to Tom and hands him $100 saying this is for Bob's debt, Tom no longer has the right to demand the money from Bob. Christ gave us the ultimate gift of washing away our sins through His death, freeing us from the debt we owed him. However, as recipients of this gift, we were paid just like Tom was for any debts we have from anyone else.

One scripture to look at would be in Philemon. In verses 17-19 Paul instructs Philemon to put whatever debt Onesimus may owe on Paul's tab. Then Paul quickly reminds Philemon the great debt Philemon owes himself to Paul. This, to me, is a great analogy to this gift of salvation Christ has given and the forgiveness He expects on our part.

Another scripture to find is Jesus' parable about the debtor who was forgiven a great debt, then turned around and demanded his debtors to pay him. I didn't have the time to find the reference yet.

We can demand suffering and death as justice, but Christ comes to us saying that He did it already. So, we have nothing else to do but forgive.

Wow, I always write long winded responses on your blog. Well, here's another one for the archives.

12:46 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

I always appreciate your thoughtful responses, Curtis.

10:50 PM  

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