Forgiveness costs. Forgiveness costs dearly. Some theories of atonement say that Christ paid the price. His death appeased God's wrath and satisfied God's justice. That way of putting it appeals to biblical witness and venerable tradition, and no doubt contains great truth. Yet for many in the past and at present that way of speaking poses great problems. The subtlety of the theory is overwhelmed by the cartoon picture of an angry Father who demands the death of his Son, maybe even kills his Son, in order to appease his own wrath. In its vulgar form-which means the form most common-it is a matter of settling scores, a drama vengeful and vindictive, more worthy of The Godfather than of the Father of whom it is said, "God is love."
And yet forgiveness costs. Forgiveness is not forgetfulness; not counting their trespasses is not a kindly accountant winking at what is wrong; it is not a benign cooking of the books. In the world, in our own lives, something has gone dreadfully wrong, and it must be set right. Recall when you were a little child and somebody-maybe you-did something very bad. Maybe a lie was told, some money was stolen or the cookie jar lay shattered on the kitchen floor. The bad thing has been found out, and now something must happen, something must be done about it. The fear of punishment is terrible, but not as terrible as the thought that nothing will happen, that bad things don't matter. If bad things don't matter, then good things don't matter, and then nothing matters and the meaning of everything lies shattered like the cookie jar on the kitchen floor.
Trust that child's intuition. "Unless you become as little children," Jesus said, "you cannot enter the kingdom of God." Unless we are stripped of our habits of forgetting, of our skillful making of excuses, of our jaded acceptance of a world in which bad things happen and it doesn't matter.
This, then, is our circumstance. Something has gone dreadfully wrong with the world, and with us in the world. Things are out of whack. It is not all our fault, but it is our fault too. We cannot blame our distant parents for that fateful afternoon in the garden, for we were there. We, too, reached for the forbidden fruit-the forbidden fruit by which we not only know good and evil, but, much more fatefully, presume to name good and evil. For most of us, our rebellion did not have about it the gargantuan defiance depicted in Milton's Paradise Lost. Most of us did not, as some do, stand on a mountain peak and shake a clenched fist against the storming skies, cursing God.
But, then, neither were Adam or Eve so melodramatic. On a perfectly pleasant afternoon in paradise, they did no more than listen to an ever so reasonable voice. "Did God really mean that? Surely he wants you to be yourself, to decide for yourself. Would he have made something so very attractive only to forbid it? The truth is he wants you to be like him, to be like gods." The fatal step was not in knowing the difference between good and evil. Before what we call "the fall" they knew the good in the fullest way of knowing, which is to say that they did the good, they lived the good. They knew the good honestly, straightforwardly, simply, uncomplicatedly, without shame.
Some thinkers have argued that "the fall" was really a fall up rather than a fall down. By the fall our first parents were raised, it is said, to a higher level of consciousness in the knowing of good and evil. Now they know no longer simply and directly, but reflexively; now they know in the consciousness of knowing. This, however, is but another conceit of our fallen nature. It is as though a paraplegic, marvelously skilled in the complex maneuvering of a wheelchair, were to despise the healthy as belonging to a lower order because they walk simply, in blithe ignorance of the complexity of movement that the paraplegic knows so well. The conceit is that our complicated way of knowing is superior because it is ours.
If good would have come from eating of the Tree of Knowledge, God would not have forbidden it. Nor, contrary to popular myth, is the fatal knowledge the knowledge of sexuality, although God knows how large is the part of sexuality in our glorying in our shame. Yet the fall was not a fall into sexuality. Adam and Eve were created as sexual beings, and the Genesis account leaves no doubt that from the beginning they knew what this meant. "Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed."
The shame came later, when they reached, when they overreached, for a different kind of knowledge. The Hebrew verb "to know," yada, is rich in meanings. In connection with what we call the fall, to know good and evil is to reach for a universal knowledge, to be unbounded by truth as it is presented to us, to aspire to create our own truth. I say we were there in the garden when humanity aspired to "be like gods" by knowing good and evil, by reaching to know the power to define what is good and what is evil.
This page of Genesis is rewritten every day in the living out of the human story. Each of us has been there when we, godlike, decided that we would determine what is good and what is evil-at least for our own lives. Perhaps we shied away from the godlike pretension of making a universal rule that applies to all. Modestly-or so we said-we limited ourselves to deciding "what is good for me" and "what is wrong for me." "I can speak only for myself," we say. We would not think of "imposing" our judgment upon others. Under the cover of modesty, we deny the truth about the good and the evil that does not require our permission to be true. Thus we would evade the truth of good and evil that brings us to judgment. The truth is that we do not judge the truth; the truth judges us.
And so the questions come at us. Who told us we are naked? Who so complexified our existence? From where did we get this reflexive knowledge so that we no longer simply know, but know only our act of knowing? How did it happen that the simplicity of loving is now displaced by unending complexity over the meanings of love? And why are we ashamed of our nakedness, a nakedness that was once the sign of immediacy to the beloved but is now a sign of innocence lost, of ludicrous vulnerability in the face of our pretension to be our own god, a sign of our sad ending up as our own best beloved? Where are you, my prodigal son Adam? Into what distant country have you gone?
The questions come at each of us. Were you there when they reached for an alien knowledge, turned away from the light and hid themselves in shame? Of course we were there. Not once, but many times we have been there, hiding from the voice of the waiting Father who calls in the night, "Where are you?"
The First Word from the cross: "Father, forgive them." Forgiveness costs. Whatever the theory of atonement, this is at the heart of it, that forgiveness costs. Any understanding of what makes at-one-ment possible includes a few simple truths. First, like the child, we know that something very bad has happened. Something has gone very wrong with us and with the world of which we are part. The world is not and we are not what we know was meant to be. That is the most indubitable of truths; it is beyond dispute, it weighs with self-evident force upon every mind and heart that have not lost the sensibility that makes us human.
The something very bad that has happened takes the form of the long, dreary list of history's horribles, from concentration camps to the tortured deaths of innocent children. And it takes the everyday forms of the habits of compromise, of loves betrayed, of lies excused, of dreams deferred until they die. The indubitable truth is illustrated in ways beyond number, from Auschwitz to the shattered cookie jar on the kitchen floor. Something very bad has happened.
Second-and here I simplify outrageously, but our purpose is to cut through to the heart of the matter-we are complicit in what has gone so terribly wrong. We have problems with that. World-class criminals, murderers and drug traffickers, if they know what they have done, may have no trouble with that, but for many of us it may be a bit hard to swallow. I mean, we haven't done anything that bad, have we? Surely nothing so bad as to make us responsible for the death of God on the cross . True, the writer of 1 Timothy called himself "the chief of sinners," and St. Paul did do some nasty things to the Christians in his earlier life as Saul of Tarsus. But then it would seem that he made up for it with an exemplary, indeed saintly, life. Chief of sinners? There would seem to be an element of pious hyperbole there, perhaps even an unseemly boastfulness, a reverse pride, so to speak.
It is difficult to face up to our complicity because the confession of sins does not come easy. It is also difficult because we do not want to compound our complicity by claiming sins that are not ours. We rightly recoil from those who seem to wallow in guilt. The story is told of the rabbi and cantor who, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, lament their sins at great length, each concluding that he is a nobody. Then the sexton, inspired by their example, laments his sins and declares that he, too, is a nobody. "Nuh," says the rabbi to the cantor. "Who is he to be a nobody?"
Contemporary sensibilities are offended by what is dismissively termed "guilt tripping." Some while ago I was on the same lecture platform with a famous television evangelist from California who is noted for accenting the positive and upbeat in the Christian message. According to this evangelist, it is as with Coca-Cola: Everything goes better with Jesus. He had built a huge new church called, let us say, New Life Cathedral, and he explained that during the course of the building there was a debate about whether the cathedral should feature a cross. It was thought that the cross might prompt negative thoughts, maybe even thoughts about suffering and death. "Finally, I said that of course there will be a cross," the famous evangelist said. "After all, the cross is the symbol of Christianity and we are a Christian church. But I can guarantee you," he declared with a triumphant smile, "there is nothing downbeat about the cross at New Life Cathedral!"
St. Paul said the cross is "foolishness to the Greeks" and a "stumbling block to the Jews" and seemed to think it would always be that way. Little did he know what gospel salesmanship would one day achieve. In the eighteenth century, Isaac Watts wrote the hymn words: "Alas! and did my Savior bleed, / And did my Sovereign die? / Would He devote that sacred head / For such a worm as I?" A worm? Really now . A contemporary hymnal puts it this way: "Would he devote that sacred head / For sinners such as I?" Surely "sinners" is bad enough. Similarly with the much beloved "Amazing Grace." "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound / That saved a wretch like me." "Wretch" will never do. That is cleaned up in a contemporary version: "That loved a soul like me."
Examples can be multiplied many times over. Groveling is out, self-esteem is in. And if self-esteem seems not quite the right note for Good Friday, at least our complicity can be understood as limited liability. Very limited. Perhaps the changes in Christian thought are not all bad. There have been in Christian devotion excesses of self-accusation, of "scrupulosity," as it used to be called. Wallowing in guilt and penitential grandstanding are justly criticized. And yet . We cannot just take the scissors to all those Bible passages that say he died for us and because of us, that they were our sins he bore upon the cross. Yes, Christianity is about resurrection joy, but do not rush to Easter. Good Friday makes inescapable the question of complicity.
I may think it modesty when I draw back from declaring myself chief of sinners, but it is more likely a failure of imagination. For what sinner should I speak if not for myself? Of all the billions of people who have lived and of all the thousands whom I have known, whom should I say is the chief of sinners? Surely I am authorized, surely I am competent to speak only for myself? When in the presence of God the subject of sin is raised, how can I help but say that chiefly it is I? Not to confess that I am chiefly the one is not to confess at all. It is the evasion of Adam, who said, "It was the woman whom you gave to be with me." It is the evasion of Eve, who said, "The serpent beguiled me." It is not to confess at all, and by our making of excuses is our complicity compounded.
"Forgive them, for they know not what they do." But now, like the prodigal son, we have come to our senses. Our lives are measured not by the lives of others, not by our own ideals, not by what we think might reasonably be expected of us, although by each of those measures we acknowledge failings enough. Our lives are measured by who we are created and called to be, and the measuring is done by the One who creates and calls. Finally, the judgment that matters is not ours. The judgment that matters is the judgment of God, who alone judges justly. In the cross we see the rendering of the verdict on the gravity of our sin.