Jesus’ Conditional Forgiveness
“In a Christian life,” German theologian Siegfried Leffler stated in 1939, “the heart always has to be disposed toward the Jew, and that’s how it has to be.” Yet, he goes on to argue, as a Christian one must also follow the laws of the state and, as such be prepared to kill him: Even if I know “thou shalt not kill” is a commandment of God or “thou shalt love the Jew” because he too is a child of the eternal Father, I am able to know as well that I have to kill him, I have to shoot him, and I can only do that if I am permitted to say: Christ. As Susannah Heschel demonstrates in her devastating account of German theology before, during, and after the Third Reich, such sentiments were common, systematic, and not limited to avowed Nazis. Prefiguring the “final solution,” the attempt to dejudaize Christianity institutionally and theologically “effectively reframed Nazism as the very fulfillment of Christianity,” making the killing of Jews appear to be both morally acceptable and divinely ordained. One would hope that such a deplorable combination of the love commandment with a concomitant obligation to kill particular people on God’s behalf would be anathema to Christian theology, and indeed to all theology in general, but unfortunately it would appear that theologians and Bible scholars are not immune to fomenting the kind of hatred that makes violence possible, whether or not they participate in actual killing.In Christian circles, one solution to this problem has been to invoke God’s unconditional love, conclusively demonstrated by God’s self-emptying in the incarnation and Christ’s willingness to accept “even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). Imitating Christ’s example, Christians are to let go of hatred, put aside vengeful anger, and forgive, graciously, generously, and without expectation of return. When victimized, they are to imagine themselves in light of the divine victim, forgiving anyway, loving anyway, and wishing the best for the offender and the enemy. As Irenaeus of Lyons explained to his second-century audience, when persecuted, Christians must exhibit the long-suffering patience, compassion, and goodness of Christ, who prayed for those who put him to death, saying “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Adversus haereses 3.18.5 [Luke 23:34a]).
- Ancient Forgiveness: Classical, Judaic, and Christian
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International Standard Book Number 13 (ISBN-13)
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