In a recent essay, I made a case for the place of retribution in the Christian life. Because we are made in the image of God, I argued, we have a preternatural disposition toward requiting injustice in equitable ways proportionate to the offense, the protection and vindication of victims, and, ideally, the restoration of the wrongdoer. I wrote in response to another recent essay in which Wheaton College theology professor Esau McCaulley condemns America’s retributive impulse. McCaulley is writing specifically in reference to terrorist attacks against the United States and our allies. In place of retribution—he calls it “revenge”—he challenges the US to “meet hatred with forgiveness and even sometimes love.”
Curiously, this gets things exactly wrong. The Christian proposition ought to be that we always meet hatred with love and, sometimes, with forgiveness. I am, though many of my detractors might scoff at the claim, a love absolutist. The Christian, always, approaches others—including the enemy-other—in love. At a minimum, as Augustine asserted, this approach is pursued in the negative: we avoid implacable hate, we resist unnecessary cruelty, we do not wish our enemy to suffer per se. Always, we should prefer that our enemy was not doing the things he is doing so that the conflict was not necessary. We desire this, in the first place, for the sake of those the enemy is aggressing against—whether ourselves or others—but, in the second place, the well-organized mind desires that our enemy would not do the evil things he is doing for his own sake. Because it is not good for him. We wish he were not the kind of man who does wicked things but that he would instead honor his neighbor with the dignity owed to them and, thereby, honor himself in doing so. Sometimes it’s even possible that we achieve the ideal—that we vanquish our enemy in such a way that he is won over to the prospect of reconciliation.
The first part of the proposition is entirely incumbent upon us. We love unilaterally. However, the second element of the proposition, forgiveness, is largely up to our enemy—though there’s a caveat. I’ve written before on the idea that forgiveness is best understood as involving two steps. The first step is “forgiveness as compassion” and is one of the ways that love approaches the wrongdoer. Forgiveness as compassion requires the victim allow her resentment of the crime against her to be moderated by the acknowledgment of certain truths. One of these truths is that none of us ever stands opposite another human being as perferctly righteous versus unrighteous. We are all of us sinners. In each of us, our personal histories and our depraved or weakened wills marble together, leaving us more or less equipped than others to resist common temptations, pressures, fears, and appetites. Sometimes, some of us are fated to find ourselves trapped in situations where only a superhuman moral heroism could keep us from committing terrible abuses. This does not excuse the abuse. It only reminds us that we rarely know the entire story. We can—and must—respond to our abuser’s actions, but we cannot read their heart. This is love’s unilateralism: in our compassion, we wish the offender’s good, we prefer they would not cleave to their offense, we are open to the possibility of concord.
That this puts a certain—and sometimes extraordinary—burden on victims cannot be denied. But it does not ask the impossible. It does not ask that the victim actually try and reconcile with the wrongdoer, not yet. Instead, the second step of forgiveness, properly understood, now comes into view. “Forgiveness as absolution” is what we most commonly think about when we talk about forgiveness. It is the moment in which “I forgive you” is stated and reconciliation becomes possible. Forgiveness as absolution has everything to do, up front, with the offending agent and their own credible articulation of remorse, repentance, and an obvious and credible demonstration that they have turned away from their wrongdoing and have no intention of attempting further harm. If offered before the wrongdoer has repented, this kind of forgiveness is a profound violation of Christian love.
Why? Because, first, it is unloving to the victim of the wrongdoing—whether an individual person or a nation of people—by denying their right to vindication. Victims have a right to have their value accounted for—it is owed to them. To forgive a wrongdoer before the wrongdoer has even acknowledged his guilt is an offense against that value. Not even the very victim of the wrongdoing is free to offer absolution to his unrepentant offender. Why? Because every human being is loved and valued by God. As Christians we are to love and value what God loves and values. So, we are to love and value ourselves. We have no right to deny our own God-given worth by allowing offenses against us to be absolved without the wrongdoer repenting.
Second, to absolve an offense before repentance is offered is unloving to the offender. It risks short-circuiting that process by which the offender can—through the grace of guilt and sorrow—come into full recognition of the violation they have committed, acknowledge their sin, repent, and turn from their wrongdoing. To be sure, forgiveness as compassion can be a part of that process. But absolution can only ever be the culmination of that process.
Esau McCaulley is right if he calls us to meet hatred with forgiveness as compassion. But he is wrong if he believes this unilateral moral burden includes the extension of absolution as well. He has failed to put first things first.
He is also wrong when he suggests that “we have seen the fruits of a politics of revenge, but the politics of forgiveness and restraint remain largely untested.” The just war moral framework is all about restraint in the pursuit of justice. Because the goal of the just warrior in protecting the innocent, requiting injustice, and punishing evil is to help bring about the conditions that make peace possible, the just war is launched—in the long view—with reconciliation in mind. The just war, rightly understood, is a step on the path toward absolution.
McCaulley shouldn’t be entirely unfamiliar with this. He recognizes that there is a “long history…of Christian reflection on just war.” But adjudicating whether that tradition is correct is not his point. Instead, he wants to press “a more basic claim about our national instinct toward violence rather than forgiveness.” Unfortunately, until he does engage with just war morality, he may never understand how violence—or, better, justified force—and forgiveness need not be antipodal, but can go hand-in-hand.
McCaulley is more eager to engage with the fanciful notions of what we should do in response to tragedy—tragedy in this case being the Kabul airport attack that killed 13 Americans and scores of Afghan civilians and, prior to that, the 9-11 attacks. Instead of declaring war on the terrorists, we ought to declare war “on the human despair that is a breeding ground of terrorism.” This should be done, he insists, by steering “far more aid money and efforts to helping the poor.” This is a canard.
First, while there are multiple routes toward radicalization, it doesn’t appear that despair is a breeding ground for terror. If nothing else, we should recall there are despairing people all over the world, representing every religious group on the planet, most of whom neither fly airplanes full up people into crowded buildings nor blow themselves up in the middle of jam-packed streets. Even studies of the relationship between domestic crime and economics wouldn’t support the thesis. Instead, the available evidence suggests that while individuals are more likely to commit property crimes if they are poor or less educated, poverty is not an express lane to mass murder. It turns out that, rather than the poor, terrorists tend to draw on more educated people from privileged backgrounds. This shouldn’t be surprising; it’s built into the name: talib literally means “student.” The Taliban are recruited from among students educated in radical madrassas that that teach Wahhabism, a virulent and austere form of Islam.
There are operationally practical reasons for this. Terror organizations with the ambition of striking developed countries abroad will want to recruit educated fighters who can navigate a Western environment. So, no, poverty is not a significant cause or recruitment conduit of terrorism. Poisonous ideologies are.
It should also be pointed out that since 2001, Afghanistan has been the largest recipient of US foreign aid. While 70% of that has been military aid, economic aid alone has consistently eclipsed the total aid given to most other nations. Regardless, military aid for places like Afghanistan is a means of contributing to the prevention of “human despair” and to the cultivation of those security needs required for basic goods like peace, justice, and order to have any chance of taking hold. In pure numbers, America is the single largest contributor of foreign aid in the world. Some criticize us for giving a smaller percentage of our wealth than other countries give, but they have to remember that America also bankrolls the majority of the defense of the free world. Our security umbrella is a boon, allowing other nations to give higher percentages of their GDP to international aid.
The point here is that there would seem to be little that can be done to appease the terrorists. When the enemy will not desist, we must resist. McCaulley wonders aloud about what might happen if, in the wake of a terror attack, the American president were to offer our enemy an olive branch enemy instead of a sword. Though contemporary American sentiment might leave the case in doubt, I hope what would happen would be obvious: that president would be impeached and replaced by someone serious. In the face of reality and the dangers bad men pose to the innocent, we must not cease to be a serious people. In the last resort, when nothing else will do, whatever else our preferences might be, we fight. And we leave the prospect for forgiveness open.
Curiously, while McCaulley censures the American propensity for seeking justice rather than extending forgiveness, he gets the sequence correct when he focuses his attention closer to home. In the midst of last summer’s riots and protests, he wrote a rousing reflection on the Psalms through which he examined black rage. He rightly concludes that Christians ought to contend for reconciliation, but that no reconciliation ought to be attempted before justice is established. “Reconciliation,” he insists, “cannot come at the cost of black lives.”
No, it mustn’t. But as it is with our black brothers and sisters, so it is with victims of international terror and suicide bombs—forgiveness cannot come at the expense of the dead.