The Politics of Forgiveness

Published in The Third Way, c.1979

There is, at present, a great and growing interest amongst Christians in this country in political matters. They feel responsible and concerned. This is a good development – a waking up to reality. But all that we do is not well: the man struggling out of deep sleep goes through confused moments in which he sees the world in a jumble of surviving dreams and disjointed fragments of the mundane. His judgement is not to be trusted – at least till he has put his head under the cold tap. We have yet to do that. We are still wrapped in our dreams, in particular our religious dreams. It is not enough, for us as Christians, to care about the world: we must know how to think about the world in a Christian way. There we have much to learn.

That our assurance of understanding is largely illusory is confirmed for me repeatedly when I am in Christian groups – more or less expert – discussing a Christian approach to political and social matters. For example, we show ourselves quite unable to handle the partisan forms in which political issues are articulated for us. We may try to keep party politics out of the discussion – and yet, in the substance of discussion, we divide ourselves according to our inclination to one party or another. We are partisans, in fact, but as Christians we do not like to admit it and we do not know how to make open party conflict compatible with the unity of Christian fellowship and Christian quest for the Truth, which, we say, is the answer to the world’s needs. Or, reacting against this non partisan self-deception, some Christians commit themselves to a party and claim that that party is the most appropriate, even the only acceptable, vehicle for Christian action in the given situation. In the past, the Conservative and Liberal parties have been regarded in that way by some Christians; of late, the best example of this approach is probably to be seen in the ‘Christians for Socialism’ movement. Now in these ways, the structuring of our political understanding is dominated by the existing political – and that properly means ‘party’ – situation. In one case because we fear the party system, in the other because we think we can find a party that is more nearly Christian than the others, our political decision as Christians is made for us, not by theological enquiry into the gospel, but by the party political system and our perception of it. How greatly are our thinking and practice determined by our political hopes and fears; and how little has the lordship of Christ freed us from the dominance of given political categories. ‘the powers that be’.

A theology of politics, then, is necessary for thinking Christians as an aspect of faith in and love for God, confessing him as lord of the world, which includes the political life of human beings. A theology of politics is prostituted if it is simply an instrument of political persuasion, ie an ideology useful in winning the support of the religious sections of the electorate.. A theology of politics would be useful to Christians – and to non-Christians, perhaps, not because it offers a designed political programme, but because it might enable us to arrive at a description of politics as it is under divine judgment and promise. Such a description would enable us to take responsibility in making programmes in such a way that the whole political activity would become transparent in its dependence on and service to God without depriving human being of created independence and responsibility. We are responsible not simply to do God’s will (I.e. fulfil his programme) but for the basic description of God and his will which we discover. What we get to know or choose to know about ourselves and the world and God is as much a part of our political activity as what we try to accomplish in making differences in society. 

So many Christians – not only evangelicals – assume that they know the truth about God, and so the question of politics is simply a matter of doing what is right. Many evangelicals are emerging from what they call ‘pietism’ – a kind of faith that has no interest in the world, engrossing itself with ‘saving souls’ – but this emergence often seems to me to consist more in adding some ‘doing’ to a given faith, than in thinking and perceiving faith afresh and thereby seeing ourselves and the world in a fuller light. Insofar as this is so, it is not surprising that work towards a theology of politics is still somewhat neglected. For theology only proves to be necessary when we acknowledge that we are not in possession of a sufficient understanding derived from a simple, apparently self-evident gospel. This neglect of theological enquiry is one root of the unthinking pragmatism so common amongst us, which threatens to turn our theology from enquiry and confession of faith into ideology. More positively put, we cannot engage in a theology of politics expecting to get new light on politics alone: we will also get new light on theology itself. Thinking theologically in the political jungle (instead of, for example by the introspection of the self or in philosophical speculation or in the history of book-theologies), may make theology come alive with a meaning and relevance it has never had for us before. It will bring us to theological self-examination, revision and repentance. A theology of politics – of this kind – will be resisted by those who believe they are in possession of the truth (whether political or theological), but for others it may be a way by which we find out what it means to be upheld by him who is true. 

‘The true one’ – this brings us to the heart of the matter. A Christian theology of politics must be won from the centre of the gospel, from Jesus Christ the lord and servant and from the New Testament witness to him. At this point, which evangelicals may feel goes without saying, we need to be very careful. For it is possible to search the New Testament for political texts (Romans 13.1 ff., 1 Peter 2.17, Mark 12.17, and now, popularly, Luke 1.52; 4.18, 19) and yet fail to read it from its centre, Jesus Christ. All kinds of mosaics of texts, ideas and prejudices can be put together plausibly from the New Testament, without the crucial question of their relation to the centre, to the gospel, being critically asked. But it is the answer to that question which justifies a theology as Christian. No treatment of politics in New Testament terms can ignore Romans 13 but this difficult text should not be our starting points or basis – as it has been often enough through the centuries with very confusing results. In relation to the centre, it must be seen as peripheral. (Peripheral here means simply ‘peripheral’ – not ‘worthless’, not ‘forgettable’.)1‘Towards a theology of the State’ 1979 ….

One reason why Romans 13 has not generally been seen as peripheral – apart from its usefulness to the ‘powers that be’ – is that the centre of Christian faith seems so unpolitical. So it is commonplace to say the New Testament gives us very little help on politics and we must go to the Old Testament or elsewhere to find it. This is a basic mistake by which we lose both the challenge of the cross and the hope of the resurrection for politics. Of course, it may be that we decline to take as the good news of Jesus Christ as central for politics is because its implications for our perception of and action in politics are disturbing. 

Because I wish to work from the centre of the gospel to the reality of politics, I have been thinking for some time about what is coming to be known as the ‘politics of forgiveness’. The phrase often confuses or provokes people. Many think politics and forgiveness will not mix. If so, let us draw the proper conclusion. There can be little doubt that ‘forgiveness’, together with its cognates in the New Testament, like ‘pardon’, ‘justification’, ‘atonement’ and ‘reconciliation’ is close to the centre of the gospel. The ‘new creation’ in Christ is necessarily bound up with the reality of the forgiveness of sin – because sin is the power and ‘love’ of the old world. If forgiveness and politics cannot be brought together, if the one does not and may not illuminate the other – as may be the case – we must at least accept the consequences. Politics will go on apart from the gospel and the gospel will cease to speak of the life and salvation of the world: we shall be locked in what is now called ‘pietism’. 

There is not space here to expound forgiveness as a political concept at length. There ought to be no need to convince readers of the New Testament about its importance in the gospel. Here I will try briefly to indicate its possible significance for politics:

  1. Forgiveness is a dynamic concept of change: it implies transition from a bad to a better state of affairs. In forgiveness, the bad is recognized and marked out as bad, not condoned. 
  2. Forgiveness is a specific sort of change – change as the overcoming and removal of guilt. And guilt still marks the ultimate limits of political acceptance and co-operation. To overcome it is a political necessity (eg in Northern Ireland, and what Northern Ireland signifies for Anglo-Irish relations.)
  3. Forgiveness involves not condemning and setting about destroying the bad. Rather it aims to make the best of it, to bring good out of evil, to achieve freedom from and power over what is bad without colluding with the bad. Politics which does not work with the material and opportunities that are given or can be opened up in any situation is unrealistic and unhopeful. Any politics that insists on destroying what is in order to clear the field for what is to come is inhuman. This is the kind of change forgiving works at. 
  4. While forgiveness is about making the best of what is available, it is not necessarily gradualistic, and does not necessarily exclude violence. Forgiveness is not tolerance of everything, nor does it involve peace at any price. Forgiveness comes by the cross – out of suffering and violence – but also, out of the cross, comes forgiveness. The cross of Jesus is not like most of the crosses inflicted on people in the world, crosses of rejection and destruction: the living and suffering of this cross was steadfastly aimed towards forgiveness: Behold the Lamb of God, who bears away the sins of the world, the good shepherd who gives his life a ransom for many. The gospel does not save us from violence: it involves us in the attempt as the creative hopeful and loving discrimination between kinds of violence.
  5. The key point of the application of the idea of forgiveness to politics is not where people are in conflict and are already committing sins hard to forgive, but in the making of political systems. For instance, today, if we speak of politics in South Africa in terms of forgiveness, it is not to persuade the blacks to strain themselves to forgive unacceptable oppression. (What does that mean? To have a loving attitude to, to submit to, the Afrikaner regime? – surely not.) It is rather to point to the kind of system that is humanly desirable and sustainable given the realities of human situations. The desirable system is one which can be worked by ordinary people, who are prone to corruption, selfishness, cruelty, stupidity. We are all weak enough, so that if we were in power we might well cause – directly or indirectly – disasters. A good political system and practice is one that can be worked by such people – there are no others available – setting them free to realise their good creative powers, and protecting them from possibilities of corruption, as far as possible. That is to say, the political system itself mediates and actualises forgiveness, because it sets people free in some measure from their actual and potential sin, which if left unchanged would mean that they could never be trusted with power.

So forgiving makes it possible even for them to be useful. 

It is clear from the foregoing that ‘forgiveness’ is never a mere verbal form of absolution: to achieve or mediate forgiveness requires action, modifying human relations, giving a certain structure to the human-moral world. Any Christian formula of absolution, with its ‘through Jesus Christ’ points to this goal: Jesus Christ is not merely a sacred name but reminds us that God has , restructured the world and made forgiveness its foundation through that life, death and resurrection . II Cor 5

  1. It is also clear that ‘forgiveness’ understood in the light of the gospel and in terms of political systems calls us to think and trust prevenient grace. God is, so there is a forgiving initiative which is the power of recreation – without it we are lost. It is therefore not quite true that ‘repentance is the condition of forgiveness’ even though the long history of Christian legalism has taught us to feel that the only thing about forgiveness we can really be sure of is that it is conditional on repentance. Unless there is a credible offer (promise) of forgiveness, repentance has no power, because it reaches into the void of our failure and weakness, instead breaking open the way into a real new and better future. The offer of forgiveness is not a verbal conditional offer, it actually consists in the coming and enactment of forgiveness, a forgiving power, altering the situation so that the penitent is responding to a real gift, not reaching out to a conditional possibility. So Mark 1.15 is not to be understood as though repentance is a condition for entry to the kingdom, but the kingdom is the enabling presupposition encouraging and enabling a turning towards what is being given. For what is the kingdom that draws near in Jesus? One of its most signal elements is the forgiveness of sins, given freely, with power. (Mark 2.8 – 12). Jesus did not always pronounce forgiveness after repentance – he enacted forgiveness when he sat with publicans and sinners and, on the basis of what he had done, he interpreted it as forgiveness in a way that invited and inspired penitence. (See especially Luke 19.5 – 10.) So the gospel does not make forgiveness the result of penitence – we are to see it as the power of God’s sovereign grace and generosity which cannot be nullified by human sinning, but in fact conditions, shapes and persuades sinners caught in sin towards salvation. Our sins are forgiven less on condition that we forgive others, but when we participate in the generous grace of God that expresses itself in the initiative of forgiveness. (Matthew 18. 12 – 35.)
  2. Unless forgiveness can be seen this way, there is little forgiveness, for human beings will continually be bound by the conditions they makes for themselves, and theology will leave God standing helplessly by. That may be good anti-antinomian commonsense, the calculation of the moral market place, but it is not the gospel of the free gift of God in Christ. 
  3. At least the trace or glimmer of forgiveness is thus to be found in the structures of political society wherever they aid frail human beings to make the best of themselves for the common good. Concern for the common good is not a matter merely of good intention (which may be inspired by faith – and thus is often regarded as the point where theology and politics meet) nor is it a question of imposing a higher law on politics. It must be embodied in actual processes, in institutions. Forgiveness cannot be actualised simply in intention or verbal form: real forgiveness is politically inventive, in order to be actual. Therefore, if we look for forgiveness in politics at all it must be in the way politics actually happens, what is actually done, and in the shape of the institutions and structures which enable – or encourage – one thing rather than another to be achieved.
  4. Forgiveness is the only theological category adequate to politics unless either we can get a political order where forgiveness is redundant – where politics no longer involves conciliation, by making the best of faulty people, limited resources and distorted and distorting heritage from the past, and dealing with trivial and monstrous sin – or we are prepared unfeelingly to acquiesce in continuing suffering and injustice, accepting any state of affairs.

The bearing of forgiveness on politics cannot be made clear unless we go beyond a theological sketch in bullet points to actual examples. A fairly recent book by Bill Jordan, Freedom and the Welfare State (Routledge, 1976) enables us to explore such an example. Jordan writes about a contemporary and complex political issue: what understandings of freedom are powerful in our society, how do they illumine the crises in our welfare state, and what way forward can we see? Jordan’s analysis and prescriptions are, doubtless, not beyond controversy, but I do not think that makes his work useless for our purpose. Any criticism of his work must at least equal it in its breadth of interest and sympathy, in its constructive and adventurous spirit, and in its ability to handle complex issues. The significance of forgiveness as a category for interpreting politics reveals itself in several distinct but interrelated ways in Jordan’s work.

Forgiveness in the definition and interpretation of a political issue

Jordan identifies three traditions of thinking about freedom and the welfare state: firstly, the liberal tradition of J.S. Mill, now taken up by the new conservatism, which emphasises the value of citizenship; secondly, the libertarian traditions, anarchist, Marxist, and now feminist, which see the state (organised society) as the necessary enemy of the personal liberty they seek; and, thirdly, the tradition of welfare state paternalism, which regards state intervention as essential for helping people, and runs the risk of accepting at least a reduced notion of freedom.

As far as I can judge, Jordan describes each position sympathetically but criticises them sharply. He does not, however, simply reject any. He sees positive potential in each and is concerned to save it. His analysis is not impartial – but it is not partisan in the sense that his loyalty is given from the start wholly to one position or another. He sifts and evaluates them all, he learns from all, and he proposes a course of action designed to realise the good elements in each vision of humanity and society. To interpret existing embattled ideologies with such sensitivity and purpose is a form of forgiveness. It frees them (and so, implicitly, those who hold them) from their errors, their short-sightedness and inherent inaccuracies and makes them the means of opening up a new and better future.

This kind of assessment of theoretical or ideological options in politics is more than ever needed in a time like ours when polarisation takes on increasing viciousness and when it cloaks itself in the popular argument against coalition and co-operation, viz. that working together means fudging issues. Jordan’s style of analysis shows, in my view, that unless we do work together we shall never perceive the depth and complexity of the really urgent issues, and we shall waste our energy fighting polarised battles which will never benefit the community, whoever wins, because they are the wrong battles. This working together, to learn from one another the real problems, to respect the truth from whatever quarter we may be taught it, not merely requires a spirit of forgiveness towards those we regard a priori as dangerous heretics – it is itself a partial working out of forgiveness which makes further forgiveness possible.

Forgiveness is the anthropological horizon of politics

Forgiveness is the clue to the nature of humanity as politics must work with people. The word ‘horizon’ is used here because people come in all shapes and any generalised anthropological concept may be falsified by selected examples. But we do not work purely by induction or the empirical compilation of examples: we interpret examples by placing them within some general concept. Political options may be compared by reference to the anthropological horizon they imply, theoretically or practically. And here most obviously some link with Christian understanding of human being may be looked for.

Now one popular, easily credible anthropological horizon is that implied in a doctrine of original sin. That will explain much of the rotten appearance of politics, but, by itself, it encourages fatalistic acceptance of evil. Against it there arises the protest of a position Jordan discusses at length – the libertarian belief in the natural goodness of men, whose true self conflicts with the distorting demands of social order. Implicit in libertarianism is an horizon of perfect or perfectible humanity. The theorist of original sin talks too much as though there is no forgiveness for political people; the libertarian looks to a person set free from society who does not need forgiveness. Jordan is free from the conservatism of the one and the utopianism of the other, and without using the word he sets us on the path to a politics of forgiveness. Forgiveness is the anthropological horizon for politics because human being in the last analysis is a creature made for and by forgiveness (p. 211).

Jordan points out how stern is the libertarian attitude to people who do not demonstrate the natural freedom and benevolence as persons attributed to them by this theory. Because the whole social existence of humanity is despised, as a hopeless incubus, libertarians come very easily to the point of forcing people to be free. A free community is hard to blend with a forceful elite, and Jordan shows how ‘therapeutic communities’ without qualm resort to techniques like brainwashing. Where the anthropological horizon is perfectionist, freedom is hardly allowed – for what which is imperfect is unnatural, has no right to be (pp. 25 – 62, 208ff.).

Jordan by contrast shows a sensitive respect for people in their actual imperfection. He will not quench the smoking flax, but has a hope for people that is prepared to trust them, to envisage bearing with their mistakes; and so he resists the temptation arrogantly to interfere in order to protect them from themselves, in the paternalist state’s version of forcing them to be free. Thus he provides us with a vision of social work which actually incorporates forgiveness continually: ‘The paternalistic concept of welfare underestimates the value of freedom and the dangers of harming people by trying to help them… It ignores the extent to which people’s lives are fragile constructions, which hang together by threads of pride, obstinacy, secret hopes and small pleasures…’ (p. 169f.). To be able to recognise this truth about how people live, and to argue that the would-be helper must act towards them in ‘perfect respectfulness’ is to show what forgiveness as an anthropological horizon means. And that horizon has all kinds of consequences for policy. It means, for instance, that ‘The state has to learn to trust its citizens, to help them unconditionally. It has to learn that a few will always make a mess of their lives, and that it cannot hope to prevent this from occurring, however it makes provision. It could well be that state social work services are, as a general rule, best provided at the point where people have experienced failure, breakdown or crises, and are at the stage of having to reconstruct their lives. Social work may perhaps be best as a compassionate rather than a preventative service, giving recognition to some tangible distress, and support to the client’s efforts to overcome his problems and build afresh, rather than drawing anxious attention to the possibility of outcomes which may never occur.’ (p. 214. Cf. also pp. 36, 52, 67, 169, 211.)

Forgiveness is constitutional: it is to be embodied in constitutions, systems or structures which set the general conditions within which men live

Two examples of this dimension may be found in Jordan. The first is in his criticism of the liberalism of, say, Sir Keith Joseph, because it is associated with an economy which may be seen to exclude forgiveness systematically at crucial points. As Jordan describes it, it does this by insisting both that idleness must be discouraged by being made unpleasant and that long-term economic growth requires the toleration of high levels of long-term unemployment. Some, then, must be idle to help the economy, and yet ‘their’ idleness will be made painful to persuade them to work (p. 207). I am aware that this is at least a controversial way of describing contemporary Tory economic strategy, and it is a part of Jordan’s argument where the partisan edge does not add to its weight, in my view.2Now in 2023, after experience of the last forty years, I am more inclined to go with Jordan than I was then. But that does not alter the value of the example, that wherever a society works like this, it builds in systematic unforgivingness. It creates guilt which it cannot and will not pardon: and that is the sign of a constitutional disorder.

The second example arises from his discussion of the conditions which make meaningful intervention in the lives of others in social work possible. Only a shared sense that client and social worker are fellow citizens, parts of the same social order, can sustain it. ‘Both the duty and the right to intervene in other’s lives rest ultimately on some notion of shared participation in a social order.’ (p. 92) He shows how today, clients tend to be outsiders, and social workers feel driven either to be outsiders with them or are co-opted into the machinery of social control which effectively deprives the client of his citizenship. In order to have a society where helping relationships are possible and are nurtured, it is necessary that all people are equally recognised members of the community. That is a constitutional or systematic presupposition, and given the present adverse condition, it requires forgiveness to be embodied in structural changes if the presuppositions are to be provided. This is more than a matter of goodwill towards other people. Jordan argues, for example, that our effective exclusion of the deprived from citizenship will not be overcome unless there is a guaranteed income as of right to all, simply as citizens (p. 197). Instead of using income as carrot and stick to get people to work, it will be assured as a sign to all that they are included in community. He himself recognises that this is a difficult proposal – but at least one exciting aspect of it is that it forces on us the question of what practical systematic changes are necessary to include all in the community, to forgive the ‘unworthy’ not after the event but effectively, constitutionally, before it! How does the whole community eat with those it reckons sinners? What constitutional changes can help to save our society from harbouring the miserable resentments that express themselves in attacks on social security ‘scroungers’? Such unforgiving persecution is not a sign of a healthy society; it is not to be dampened by mere words; forgiveness – by which the deprived are included and those tempted to persecute are freed from fear and envy – must have constitutional structural realisation.3 Now I think the situation is even worse: witness our national policy towards asylum seekers, and the way we deem their ways of coming to our shores ‘illegal’.

Forgiveness must be unending social policy

This must be so, if our two previous points are not to prove incompatible. There is no constitutional embodiment of forgiveness which can change people so that they no longer need forgiveness. The anthropological horizon remains the same. Between constitution and horizon there must be a politics of repeated forgiveness – seventy times seven. The passage from p. 215 already quoted expresses Jordan’s understanding that if the paternalist state’s desire to prevent evils before they happen cannot be fulfilled, or can only be fulfilled at the cost of destroying people and their fragile freedom, then we must be ready for continual crises and repeated forgiveness. What he sees to be in the nature of social work can be extended to politics generally. While there are occasions when a political deed or decision is once-for-all, or once for-a-long-time, most politics are humdrum, repetitious. That is why we so often resent politics. It so often seems to be going nowhere. Perhaps we are looking in the wrong direction. Certainly we have no assurance that forgiving one another will ever become unnecessary. But any one who knows what a happy marriage is like will not regard a society where daily we ‘forgive as we are forgiven’ as either boring, aimless or worthless.

Forgiveness as personal practice in society for social ends

If the need for forgiving will go on, and if it cannot be done for us completely by constitutions and institutions, even the best state will depend on creative individuals and groups whose conduct will be a revealing mediation of forgiveness. Such a person Jordan sees in the Victorian social worker like Octavia Hill, represented in fiction by Edith Summerson in Dickens’ Bleak House. He quotes A. E. Dyson’s description: ‘She is highly observant.. and extremely intelligent… She is also given a high degree of self-knowledge and unusual gifts of self-sacrifice… Her instinctive sense that there is something wrong (with others) co-exists therefore with suspended judgement, and a willingness to let them speak for themselves. In all this, Esther’s tone is entirely without malice…’ (p. 67)

This knowledge and suspense of judgement is the presupposition of her power to establish others in self-respect. She is fitted to mediate forgiveness. She does not condescend – and so she does not exclude the deprived even while she attempts to include. But nor does she sentimentalise and deny reality.

Jordan is well aware of the dangers besetting such mediatorial work – a veritable via crucis. ‘If we are sincere in our offers of ourselves to people, we will be at risk, and there will be desperate and unscrupulous people who will draw us into situations and feelings which will be uncomfortable or much worse; which will lead us to question our motivations, our principles, the whole bases of our existence. We have to be willing to experience tensions and contradictions, to behave oddly or badly and willing for our clients to recognise this; and then we have to find the strength to recover with them, and in finding our own way back, to help them to find others.’ (p. 169)

I read that passage as an unconscious but illuminating modern commentary on Pauline passages such as Corinthians 4. 7. 18. 6. 3 – 13. where Paul describes what being an apostle of Jesus Christ preaching reconciliation in God’s new order involved for him, held as he was between God’s commission and the tangles of his relations with, say, the Corinthian Christians – his ‘clients’. He carried the dying of Jesus in his body, so that the life of Jesus might be made clear. In Paul, then, we come upon a fundamental point of connection between the gospel of Jesus Christ and the demands of modern social work and political life. Politics is the mediation of forgiveness unendingly.

In any Christian understanding of politics in terms of forgiveness all these dimensions may be discerned, and in all of them appropriate action is called for. I have not tried here to prove that a Christian theology of politics must be expressed in terms of forgiveness; I hope I have shown that it is plausible and worth exploring. At least we have to be ready to think afresh about the basic categories in which we, as Christians, interpret politics.


  • 1
    ‘Towards a theology of the State’ 1979 ….
  • 2
    Now in 2023, after experience of the last forty years, I am more inclined to go with Jordan than I was then.
  • 3
     Now I think the situation is even worse: witness our national policy towards asylum seekers, and the way we deem their ways of coming to our shores ‘illegal’.

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