The Way We Live Now

Geoffrey Kirk reflects on
forgiveness and retribution.

The bishops of ECUSA have taken it upon themselves to give good advice to President Bush about the appropriate response to the recent atrocities in New York and Washington. Since moral guidance is one of the things that bishops ought to be about, the fact is wholly to be welcomed. But as always with bishops of ECUSA, there is a problem. It is a problem of conceptual confusion.

The bishops seem to be using the terms ‘revenge’ and ‘retribution’ as though they were interchangeable; as though they meant the same thing. There will be no clarity at all in America’s and the world community’s response to international terrorism until the fact that they are poles apart is apparent to all participants.

Revenge, says Byron, is sweet. But ‘A man that studieth revenge’, said Francis Bacon famously, ‘keeps his own wounds green.’ Revenge turns in on itself and is self- destructive (as Shakespeare shows us in the person of Othello, whose bloody thoughts, you will remember ‘ne’er ebb to humble love / till that a capable and wide revenge / Swallow them up’). Revenge has its origins, as often as not, in injured pride. When all is marriage and sweet content, the ridiculous Malvolio takes his cross-garters elsewhere, and ‘will be revenged on the whole pack’.

To respond to the tragedy which unfolded so recently in Manhattan in a spirit of revenge would be petty, and demeaning to the dignity of the lives of those who so senselessly died. Revenge often results in tragedy; but it is not itself a tragic emotion. Its natural home is comedy, for anyone who disproportionately allows the bitterness of outraged self-esteem to cloud reasonable judgement is an inevitable figure of fun.

But not so with retribution. At the heart of retribution is the idea of fairness and justice; its root meaning is a distribution of just deserts. There can be and is mutual retribution. The notion that in the afterlife good and bad deeds alike receive their appropriate reward, as Coleridge points out, is properly called ‘The Doctrine of Retribution’. Where revenge is an outflowing of the passions, retribution is an action of pure reason. It conduces in every way to human dignity, because it expresses a longing for justice and the primacy of law.

To seek retribution for the dreadful deeds of the Manhattan terrorists would be to honour, in the highest way, the lives of those who died; and to assert, in the most cogent way, the sanctity of all human life.

In rightly condemning revenge, the bishops should, then, have been careful not to rule out just retribution. But as Christian men, faithful but confused, I suppose they also wanted to say something about forgiveness.

For Christian people the world is no more nor less than the arena of God’s forgiveness. We long for justice – without at least the concept of which, our world would collapse into the chaos and confusion from which it came. But, for fear of justice, of righteous retribution, we need mercy. Nothing we ever do as Christian people should express a despair of God’s forgiveness, or so harden the hearts of others that they can no longer conceive or receive it.

Retribution and mercy, nevertheless, go hand in hand. The one who will come on the clouds of heaven at the sound of the last trumpet (who bears in his hands the marks of his love) is the awful and supreme judge. He brings both mercy and judgment, both forgiveness and retribution. It is the rational perception of the inevitability of retribution which excites repentance and makes forgiveness both possible and effectual. There is no cheap grace.

So what is the advice that the ECUSA bishops should have been giving to George W Bush? Surely it is this, that part of the dignity of mankind, made in the image of God, is to pursue justice and just retribution. But that the first requirement of true retribution is humility.

Until wiser counsels prevailed, the military operation in response to the terrorist atrocities was to have been code-named ‘Ultimate Justice’. Ultimate justice is what no man can deliver and no man should seek. It is one thing to act for God, it is another to act as God. It has been said that every Pope who walks beneath the dome of St Peter’s, with its golden inscription Tu es Petrus, et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam must at the same time murmur in his heart Vade retro, Satane. The one who acts as the Vicar of Christ must acknowledge how easy it would be to betray him.

In the same way, every President of the United States must repeat to himself daily, at the desk in the Oval Office, ‘Non haberes potestatem …nisi tibi datum esset persuper’.. (Or, in the case of George W Bush, words to that effect.) No Christian, that is, can assume an office of such power without acknowledging that there is a power over him which is ‘ultimate’ in a more ultimate sense.

What matters in the aftermath of the Washington and New York attacks is not national pride (hurt or otherwise); and it is certainly not the generation of feelings of national solidarity, worse still of loyalty to an administration which had difficult and shaky beginnings. What matters is justice, and the assertion of human dignity, the sanctity of life. Every body unretrieved, every life severed, every rescue worker killed, cries out for just retribution; for a measured, thoughtful and powerful declaration that such things are abhorrent. Such events are in every sense intolerable.

That will take time. More significantly, it will take patience and a measure (not often required of political leaders) of sanctity. Let us pray that George W Bush and Tony Blair can discharge the just retribution required of their office with that required sanctity; and without being sanctimonious. For, like Prospero at the end of The Tempest, they themselves will one day have to stop acting God. They will have to break the staff, drown the book and submit themselves to judgement.

… Now I want
Spirits to enforce, arts to enchant;
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon’d be,
Let your indulgence set me free.

Geoffrey Kirk is the Vicar of St Stephen’s Lewisham in the diocese of Southwark

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