The Polemics of Forgiveness

By Tripp Hudgins 09-25-2011

temple mount, gate of forgiveness
The Gate of Forgiveness, Jerusalem. Photo by Deror Avi.

In the wake of Troy Davis' execution last week, social media was inundated with comments about our nation's justice system and whether or not it had, in the end, failed him.

Not surprisingly, our nation's various polemics about the death penalty could be charted through the same comment threads.

I don't have a problem with polemics in general. I think they are good for us. I would simply like to remind us that Jesus proclaimed his own polemic.

Jesus proclaimed a polemic of forgiveness.

"But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses," Jesus reminds us in Matthew 6:15. It seems Jesus was pretty serious about forgiveness. He wanted us to change, to repent, and the only way for humanity to do that, he said, is to forgive.

Our personal and political polemics often fall apart when we're asked to forgive -- truly forgive -- something terrible. Nevertheless, that's what Jesus asks us to do.

Jesus was working to show us a restored creation, a Kingdom of God. He was trying to show us a polemic that would transform and honor us. All of us.

In the midst of the reports about Troy Davis, CNN reported that "Lawrence Russell Brewer has been executed for his involvement in the murder of James Byrd, who died while being dragged behind a truck in Texas 13 years ago."

Byrd's murder was a horrifying example of racism and cruelty. There's no question. Still, I didn't see much more about Brewer's execution than the fact it had occurred (and that his extravagant last meal request has since led to a ban in Texas on all special "last" meals for death row inmates.)

I saw no one crying out for Brewer's right to life. No one asked for forgiveness for our shared culpability as participants in an imperfect justice system when it came to Brewer's execution. No one spoke of how the state should not have the right to end the life of one of its citizens if that citizen was Brewer.

Perhaps I was just standing on the wrong corner of the Internet. But somehow, I don't think I missed millions of Tweets demanding Brewer's life be spared.

It is hard to forgive. It is hard to switch from prosecuting a murderer to then protecting that same murderer from the deadly power of the state. Jesus knew this, too.

Crucified by the state, he knew this.

Resurrected through forgiveness, he shows us a polemic that can move us forward. Forgiveness is meant to create a space for truth telling and transformation. Forgiveness is meant to be the way forward.

We need a healthy polemic that won't allow us to forget. We need to forgive.

Christ had a lot to say about many things. He never shied away from the polemical. The polemics of Christ, however, are always founded upon forgiveness. The polemics of Christ always lead to the salvation of all people who care to join him. The polemics of Christ never deride.

Yes, they challenge. Yes, they judge, but they never fail the person to whom they are directed. They always communicate God's love, grace, and desire for people to be transformed...together.

There are no scapegoats in the Kingdom of God. Yes, this includes the state government of Georgia and the U.S. Supreme Court. To enter into the Kingdom of Heaven and embody it here and now, means we'll have to forgive.

We'll have to forgive when we hurt and are hurt by one another. We'll have to forgive when we disagree and call one another names. We'll have to forgive the criminal and murderous impulses -- and people -- that exist in human communities as well.

We'll have to find ways through the morass of human frailty to the place where God is calling us: The Kingdom.

Forgiveness is the path.

Forgiveness is the polemic.

tripphudginsTripp Hudgins is a doctoral student in liturgical studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., and associate pastor of First Baptist Church of Palo Alto, Calif. You can read more of his writings on his longtime blog, "Conjectural Navel Gazing; Jesus in Lint Form" at

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