12.4.12

Forgiveness: A Hard Word From Luther

"Those who follow Christ grieve more over the sin of their offenders than over the loss or offense to themselves. And they do this that they may recall those offenders from their sin rather than avenge the wrongs they themselves have suffered. Therefore they put off the form of their own righteousness and put on the form of those others, praying for their persecutors, blessing those who curse, doing good to the evil-doers, preparing to pay the penalty and make satisfaction for their very enemies that they may be saved. This is the gospel and the example of Christ."
- Martin Luther (Quoted by Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge, pg. 161-162)

20 comments:

Anonymous said...

I find it difficult to square these statements against Luther's anti-Semitic writings.

Roger Hui

Andrew said...

I had similar comments on facebook.

I'm did not post this quote as a personal opinion on Luther, the rest of his life, or the sins which that life contained.

As a summary of the forgiveness Christians are called to, this is superb.

I am curious why many people feel the need to bring this particular issue in Luther to the fore.

Anonymous said...

It's like asking, other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?

Roger Hui

Andrew said...

While a very humorous example, I don't see the connection.

We are all mixed in that we are sinful and yet made in the image of God. All Christians are hypocrites, especially those who teach and lead (since they must set the high vision which they themselves fail to meet). And yet we can still hear good from, and be positively impacted by, such people.

Luther is no different. He utterly failed to live up to his own words, but as a vision of active forgiveness in the Christian life his words still have power, do they not?

Andrew said...

To put it differently: Do Luther's anti-Semitic writings negate everything he ever said? If not, why not and what is excluded? If so, why?

What sin is grave enough to cover over everything else in our life? And how would these principles work out for ourselves?

Anonymous said...

You are saying you can separate his statement on forgiveness from his anti-Semitic writings. I myself find this difficult, as I said.

For a more extreme example (forgive me), if some time somewhere Hitler had written something commendable, would you have quoted it and called it superb?

Roger Hui

Andrew said...

I see what you mean; it is more than fair to have trouble, on an individual basis, accepting a word from a man who did terrible things.

But, to your second question, shouldn't our answer be yes? Again to paraphrase, if Hitler had said something that I needed to hear, a valid correction and serious point of change that I needed to address, doesn't humility demand that I accept it even from such a source as him?

Again, I have trouble with the path of your thoughts not in that I disagree that it is hard to hear evil men. I get that. But we are all evil and the line between who I can hear and who I can't is totally subjective. Therefore it seems that, whatever the case is now, my goal out to be to discern truth and have the ability to hear it, in grace, no matter the source (assuming it is a true and good word).

Anonymous said...

I am quite frankly astounded. Were you in a hurry to go to a meeting when you wrote that? :-)

Hitler said on 1933-02-01,

> The National Government will regard it as
> its first and foremost duty to revive in
> the nation the spirit of unity and cooperation.
> It will preserve and defend those basic
> principles on which our nation has been built.
> It regards Christianity as the foundation
> of our national morality, and the family as
> the basis of national life.

What do you think would happen if an American politician, Rick Santorum, say, arguing for more God and more family values, quotes the above passage and calls it commendable ("even Hitler says ...")?

You could have chosen any number of quotations on forgiveness. But you chose one from Luther. Are there none from other writers that is suitable? Lest you think that I exaggerate my difficulties with Luther, let me quote/paraphrase from his On the Jews and Their Lies:

• Jews are a "base, whoring people, that is, no people of God, and their boast of lineage, circumcision, and law must be accounted as filth".
• Jews are "full of the devil's feces ... which they wallow in like swine".
• Their synagogue is an "incorrigible whore and an evil slut".
• Jewish synagogues and schools should be burned to the ground, and the remnants buried out of sight.
• Rabbis are to be forbidden to preach, and to be executed if they do.

So now how do I reconcile these with the passage you quoted,

> praying for their persecutors, blessing those
> who curse, doing good to the evil-doers,
> preparing to pay the penalty and make
> satisfaction for their very enemies
> that they may be saved.

There is another example, closer to hand and probably less clear cut. You may recall that in a Sunday sermon earlier this year the pastor quoted from Chuck Colson in a positive way. I happen to be alive and literate when Colson did his misdeeds, was convicted, and sent to prison. Since then, he has been "born again", helped many with his prison ministry, and has a sizeable following for his various social commentaries (which included, apparently, said pastor). So should we listen to Chuck Colson or not? He has expressed repentance and has done good since his earlier crimes. Christian doctrine says that he is forgiven.

Now I happened to be still alive and literate when Mark Felt was revealed to be "Deep Throat", a key factor in the unravelling of Watergate. At that time, Colson made comments critical of Felt that to me brings into question whether his repentance was real. I daresay many more people would agree with you if you quoted Colson than if you quoted Hitler. After all, Colson has 15 honorary doctorates, the Templeton Prize, the Presidential Citizens Medal, etc. etc. Nevertheless, I would never quote Colson in a positive way. (I'd expressed my misgivings to the pastor.)

___________________________

Allow me to offer a quotation on forgiveness and tolerance. The author is unknown, safely lost in the mists of time :-). It's only four words:

唾面自乾

It means, if anyone spits in your face, let it drip dry. It is amusing that it does "turn the other cheek" one better: you don't even wipe it off because it might provoke further anger.

Roger Hui

Andrew said...

Your response makes me wonder if I am understanding you. And I would like to understand you :)

So, may I make one request and ask a few questions?

My request is that we speak in principle rather than example, at least until I have a better grasp of what you are saying.

To that end, let me ask a question: Are you saying that there comes a point when a man's actions/words/thoughts (?) in the past, present, or future (?) make it proper to no longer listen to what they have to say? If not, what are you saying? If yes, can you explain more about what that point is and how it makes such a response appropriate?

(Note: I insert the bracketed question marks because those particular points may be things you want to clarify or choose between in some way)

Anonymous said...

> Are you saying that there comes a point when a man's
> actions/words/thoughts (?) in the past, present,
> or future (?) make it proper to no longer listen to
> what they have to say?

Yes. At least not in areas in which the person has demonstrated through words and/or actions that any advice they offer is suspect. Those areas are bigger for some persons than for others, and there are a few persons whose advice I would not heed in any area.

> If yes, can you explain more about what that point
> is and how it makes such a response appropriate?

I can not offer an algorithm for determining when person X is to be ignored in area Y. As a colleague once observed, if it were that easy they wouldn't pay us so much. I do know that I have a finite amount of time to process information, that amount of time getting smaller all the time. (I am unlikely to live beyond 100 years old ...) I therefore need to cull ruthlessly information from sources demonstrated to be suspect. The examples that I gave that I am not to repeat here have demonstrated (to me) their unreliability.

Since you are starting from principles, let me ask you this: does your principle accommodate the worst of the examples that I cited? Have you followed any advice from this unspeakable example? If you pull 10 "men off the street", do you think there would be even one man who would say yes, I adhere to Andrew's principle and I would listen to the unspeakable example's advice?

Roger Hui

Andrew said...

I'm still seeking to understand.

Of course you can't give an algorithm or draw a precise line; I wasn't expecting that. I just wanted more clarification on why you would draw the conclusions you do.

It seems, from your description, that your reasoning is wholly practical? That is, you are a limited person and therefore it is not worth the use of your limited resources in order to engage with someone who is suspect within a subject based on other parts of their life? Is this accurate, or is there more to it that you did not include in your answer?

To your questions: the fact that I said yes to the Hitler question should be an answer in itself as to where the principle leads (though I can't say I have spent any time studying Hitler or learning from him; my answer was, after, very specific in regards to the hypothetical situation in which such action would be required). And as for men off the street, I doubt one in ten would agree that you should love your enemies either so I am not sure of the relevance of that point.

Andrew said...

And just in case: I realize the world population of Christians who, technically speaking must agree that we should love our enemies, is around 30%. This statistic would lead to a 3/10 out of men on the street answer. It is of course wholly dependent on how honest they are being (for how many Christians actually love their enemies? Luther being a fine example of this) and on where you are. If one manipulates the circumstances enough you can find however many out of 10 people you would like to answer you want (after all, 9 out of 10 dentists recommend Crest and 9 out of 10 dentists recommend Colgate too). The point is that the truth/rightness of something is not dependent on how many people agree with you. And historically speaking there have been many times, in the church and outside of it, in which the teachings of Jesus are not popularly accepted.

Anonymous said...

I am a practical man and practical considerations led me to question advice from Luthor on forgiveness and advice from Hitler on anything. These practical considerations have led to actual differences in my words, thoughts, and actions.

You are apparently a principled man. So from principle you would take advice from Hitler. But so far you have not yet done so. Why not? What other principles have caused this not to have happened? If you believe in your principle then Mein Kampf should have equal chance at being read by you. Why don't you read it instead of the books in the "Currently Reading" list in this blog?

> And as for men off the street, I doubt one in ten would
> agree that you should love your enemies either
> so I am not sure of the relevance of that point.

On the contrary. According to the CIA World Factbook, Canada is 42.6% RC, 23.3% Protestant, and 4.4% other Christian, so Canada is 70.3% Christian. (I see you have a later message along these lines. You are beginning to understand me! :-) If you take 10 random person of the street 7 out of 10 would be Christian and would agree (or least, should agree, since they are Christians) that you should love your enemy. So I ask again, if you pull 10 "men off the street", do you think there would be even one man who would say yes, I adhere to Andrew's principle and I would listen to Hitler's advice?

(0) Your principle seems to lead to no differences in behaviour. (1) Possibly, your principle is too rigorous for most people (myself include) to adhere to.

Roger Hui

Andrew said...

You keep jumping ahead. The statistics about Christians in Canada now are still irrelevant to the point; it doesn't matter how many people agree or not.

If your principle is purely practical, then are there any situations in which practical considerations would make listen to someone despite their actions making them suspect on that subject?

All things being equal, with no other consideration than an abstract range of sources on a subject then I too would select those which have the best provenance. All things are, however, rarely equal. And so we must distinguish between practical reality and principle.

In principle, if the situation were 'right', then we ought to listen to someone, seek the good in them and in their words, despite their other failings. In practical reality we simply cannot do this for all people who are not suspect, let alone all the people who are. And so other reasons impinge upon these decisions.

So far, in my own life, no realities have pushed me to learn from Hitler, but in principle they could.

So, I half agree with you, but I cannot abide by a principle which dismisses people based on their failings. Don't we usually call this a argumentative fallacy anyway? "Ad Hominem"?

So, back to the question, are there practical circumstances which would push you to seek the good in and listen to the words of someone who has failed on the same subject?

Andrew said...

Also, if we are going to talk about 'ad hominem' then the question becomes which issues of personal character and such are relevant to an argument. My point at the beginning was that what he had to say was still valid, despite his own inability to heed his own words. Thus, I would say, on this point, that they do not have any bearing; the teaching is still good.

Anonymous said...

You can call it ad hominem if you like. I am not schooled in the art of rhetoric so calling me names (or calling my arguments names) doesn't scare me: out of ignorance, because I hardly knew what it meant; I had to look it up. But don't courtrooms have expert witnesses rather than any Joe the Plumber witnesses? If I am going to seek advice on forgiveness, I would not seek it from someone can and did write On Jews and Their Lies.

There are Christians today who seek to convert Jews, who go to Israel to do it. Perhaps you can suggest that they use the Luther passage on forgiveness to bolster their case. Just on principle, you can even put that passage side by side with the passages from On Jews and Their Lies. Hey look, his character failings have no bearing; the teaching is still good.

Roger Hui

Andrew said...

I was not intending "ad hominem" as name calling, but shorthand for a possible logical problem in what you were saying. I apologize that it came off as an insult.

We started with disagreement and I wanted to know why you have trouble hearing Luther. I believe I understand your difficulty and your reasons, so thank you for your patience and willingness to answer some questions.

Speaking personally, I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, logic, and conscience. Unless, or until, I am convinced otherwise by the same I can do no other than stand by my position.

May God bless you :)

Anonymous said...

> We started with disagreement and I w> We started with disagreement and I wanted
> to know why you have trouble hearing Luther.
> I believe I understand your difficulty and
> your reasons, ...

In retrospect, it was not a difficult problem. If you imagine that I was Jewish, then it would have been much more obvious why I would have trouble hearing Luther. But imagining that I was Jewish is not a big leap.

Roger Hui

Andrew said...

Lol. Of course it is not difficult to imagine scenarios in which you might find Luther difficult to read. I can think of many more than just you being Jewish. The question is which one is true; that, it seems, is much harder to get to. This is especially true considering the fact that I believe Christian teachings lead to the principle of hearing the good wherever we can.

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