The Justification of the Godforsaken, by Jürgen Moltmann

We Believe in the Forgiveness of Sins, But Who Justifies the Victim?

Mockingbird / 4.14.21

The following first appeared in Comfortable Words, a collection of essays in honor of Paul Zahl, edited by John D. Koch and Todd Brewer. Now on sale in the Mockingbird store, this book also features writing by Jonathan Linebaugh, Susan Eastman, Ashley Null, James Dunn, and Mark Mattes (among others!), as well as a stirring postscript from Paul himself.

We Believe in the Forgiveness of Sins, But Who Justifies the Victim?

For my friend Paul Zahl for his 60th birthday. During his time in Tübingen, Paul immersed himself deeply in Ernst Käsemann’s Doctrine of the Justification of the Ungodly. This text concerns the Justification of the Godforsaken (Gottverlassenen).

In 2010, the instances of sexual abuse by members of the Roman Catholic Church in the Odenwald School and other educational institutions were brought to light. Today, we in the churches and in the public know how to deal with the perpetrators, but we are speechless in light of the suffering of the victims. The victimizers are called out by name while the victims (and their sufferings) remain mostly anonymous. We speculate and wonder how the perpetrators could have committed such ignominious acts, but for fear of bringing their shame and disgrace to light and thus further injuring them, the victims are left alone. Thus, in our general public, the nature of our society is that we remember the perpetrator and forget the victim (täterorientiert und opfervergessen).

The reformation doctrine of Justification by Faith developed out of the Middle Age Sacrament of Penance because, at their core, they are both intimately concerned with the forgiveness of sins. When we speak of “sin” we are talking about the power of evil, and today we speak of the forgiveness of sins through the grace of God by faith alone. This is altogether correct; however, it is only a half-truth. While the forgiven “sinner” is the perpetrator of evil, the question remains, what about the victims? In the justification of the sinner we have only our trespasses for which we pray in view, but where is the sacrifice for the victim to whom we are guilty? Both the Lutheran and Roman Catholic Doctrines of Justification and Grace concern only the perpetrator of sin and not his or her object; they concern only the victimizer and not the victim. The Roman sacrament of Penance and the Reformation’s Doctrine of Justification are, like the Roman law itself, uniquely oriented towards the perpetrator.

This is already the case in the Apostle Paul’s teaching on sin and grace. In Romans 7, he formulates it so: “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do — this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it …“ (Rom 7:19-20). Why is he not concerned with those whom his unwanted evil has harmed and to whom he has failed to do the wanted good? Why is he so concerned with himself? Comparing his statement — “the sin that dwells in me” — with the Jesus of the Gospels, it is important to note that when he first sees the multitudes of the sick, the poor, and the outcasts he “had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless …” (Mt 9:36). He did not see sinners and perpetrators, but rather victims of injustice and violence. To these victims, he brings the message of the Kingdom of God, that it belongs to them and heals them and accepts them as part of his community (Gemeinschaft). To those who have no future place “in good company,” he opens the expanses of God (den weiten Raum Gottes). Therefore, the Gospel of Jesus initiates a wholesale reevaluation of values, a revolution that was presaged by Mary in the Magnificat, “He has brought down rulers from their thrones, but has lifted up the humble” (Lk 1:52).

When we read the Old Testament Psalms, we see that God’s justice is always on the side of the poor and the weak, the victims of injustice and violence. “The LORD works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed” (Ps 103:6). God’s justice is a kingdom of creative justice. God’s kingdom is not limited to establishing the conceptions of good and evil, one that operates on a generally accepted system of retributive justice; rather, God’s kingdom creates justice where injustice is revealed. First and foremost, he focuses on the victims of sin and frees them from their humiliation, and only then will his justice for the perpetrators be rightly established; justification means the creation of justice first for the victims of evil and only then for the perpetrators.

We will want to keep this relation in mind as we seek a more accurate picture of victim and perpetrator. We will begin with the perpetrators, not because they are more important, but because there exists a well established, timeworn ritual for addressing their crimes, but none such ritual exists for the justification of the victim. This ritual involves three steps by which the perpetrators of sins — the transgressors — will be brought to justice through the sacrament of penance and the forgiveness of their sins.

The first step takes place through the confession of sins of both commission and omission, both committed and allowed: confessio oris, the confession of the mouth. This first step is always the step out of the darkness of repression and concealment into the light of truth. Whoever confesses his sins to another stands over those sins and takes away the power of that sin that “dwells in him” and which over him had dominion. This is not easy, because the public recognition of guilt always comes with humiliation. For the perpetrators, for the murderers and torturers — as was seen in the South African Truth-Commissions — there is no way of avoiding this. They need, therefore, a sheltered place — a sanctuary. This can be the confessional and its sacramental seal, but it must in any case be a place where the forgiveness of sins by God is assured. Only on account of the assured forgiveness of God can the sinner confess his or her sin; without this forgiveness, there is only self-destruction. This is the great protestant insight: we recognize our sins through the law and confess them honestly in light of the Gospel. However, because both perpetrators of evil and those who fail to do good have short memories, they easily forget. Therefore, on account of their forgetfulness, they must be reminded of the effects of their sin through the eyes of their victims in order to bring about true self-awareness. Victims, on account of the scars on their souls and the wounds on their bodies, do not easily forget.

The second step is the change — contritio cordis — the movement away from the ways that have allowed the perpetration of evil or omission of the good and towards the love of life and the doing of good. Today, the personal aspect of this movement is also very important, because only a changed person can (and will) change a bad situation. Today, knowing that we cannot live at the expense of the poor, we can affect a break with the dictatorial systems that perpetuate evil and injustice in the world. We know that we can no longer enjoy our lives at the expense of our planet and weaker fellow creatures. This new orientation of the heart affects a change in both our personal and political lives.

Lastly, if all of the pain and damage has been addressed, the third step is the restoration of the perpetrator to a new and rectified community with his or her victim. This is called “restitution” — satisfactio operum. Although, it must be said, we all know that nothing that has been done can ever be truly undone. One can “deal with” his past evil, but nothing that has been destroyed by injustice and violence can be fully restored anew. But every act of restitution is the realized and hoped-for beginning for a new and righteous community between perpetrator and victim, a community that must be always sought after and established by good deeds. In criminal justice, this is known either as “perpetrator-victim-compensation” (Täter-Opfer-Ausgliech) or, as is more commonly the case, “restorative justice.”

For the sinner, the Roman Catholic Church developed the sacrament of penance. To the sinner, the Reformation proclaims the forgiveness of sins in justification by faith. Both ways compliment each other, but both are oriented towards the perpetrator. What happens to the victims of these sins? We have a ritual and a sacrament for the justification of sinners, what we need is something similar for the justification of sinner’s victims.

The first step. The victims of injustice and violence must not only bring to light their pain, but even more so the humiliation they have endured. For the victims of sexual violence, the shame and desecration they have endured silences them, it forces them into hiding where all they want is to forget and remain anonymous. Therefore, they need freedom and acceptance in order to cry out about what was done to them. They need open ears to hear their cries, because this will allow them first to rediscover their self-worth. While the guilty plea of the perpetrator can help give this back to the victims, they do not have to wait for this confession in order to be freed from their bondage. In God, the one who “executes justice for the oppressed” (Ps 146:7a), they can rediscover their indestructible self-worth which no one can corrupt or steal. Those who have not been so victimized must learn not only to hear the confession of the perpetrators but also to take seriously the cries of the victims so that their tongues will be loosed and they will be freed from their unbearable memories. Therefore, they need a protected space of great love in order to hear and be heard. Break the shackles of your shame! What you have endured has not affected your soul! Forget any public or secret self-pity! The sharing with and the participation of others is the first step into the light of truth. Only the truth can free the victim. These victims of the aforementioned sexual abuse by members of the Roman Catholic Church endured over thirty years of oppressive silence before even the first word was uttered.

The second step is, then, the lifting up of the humiliation itself and offering it to God. But not only the humiliation, but the victims themselves need a reversal where their own humiliation is brought out of the depths of shame and into the affirmation of life. This is the experience of a life that is loved rather than one experienced as oppression and pain.

The third step may then lead to a situation where the evil is not repaid with the same evil, but rather the evil is overcome by good. This is difficult, but liberating. Each person who has suffered injustice has dreams of revenge. This one who is inflicting this pain on me, he thinks, will someday experience the same and then we will be even and poetic justice will be restored. We think that it does not matter whether we call this revenge, retaliation, or justice, because as long as the offender is punished, we are happy; however, this type of “justice” realized often leaves a stale taste.

The Apostle Paul was right when he said, “Do not be overcome by evil …” (Rom 12:21), but also do not repay evil with evil: Get rid of the evil! Get rid of the humiliation and shame you have experienced! Do not lower yourself to the same level as those who have harmed you! He or she who repays evil with evil does not experience anything more sublime than other perpetrators of evil. The person who murders a murderer is himself a murderer. Free yourself from that evil that has unwillingly invaded your life.

“But overcome evil with good,” continues the Apostle Paul. When we forgive “those who trespass against us,” we do not only forgive them, but also we do something good for ourselves. We overcome that evil that has invaded our lives. Forgiveness not only allows the perpetrator to turn from his or her sins, but also frees his or her victims. Forgiveness frees a person from hate; it frees the victim from the need for revenge and the shame that forces him to incessantly dwell on those who have committed evil against him.

It should be pointed out, however, that the forgiveness of sins that have actually been committed is not a form of self-help, as is the case with much modern psychotherapy. There can be healing benefits to forgiveness, and that healing can be understood as a way of grace, but self-help is not the primary goal of the forgiveness of sins. If it were, then the victim would be trapped in a closed circle of his or her own self and would not be free. On the contrary, the victim’s freedom rests on the forgiveness of the sins of those who have trespassed against them; the freedom for the victim is in the forgiveness of his or her victimizer. But this forgiveness must not be understood as a sign of weakness, but of strength because it is the exercise of sovereignty over the pitiful slaves of evil. Whoever is sovereign does not react, rather creatively acts and makes the first step. One can learn this type of sovereignty by studying the example of Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” that called upon the descendants of slavery to have compassion on the souls of their hateful, fearful white neighbors. Also, one can learn from Nelson Mandela, who spent more than 25 years in prison on Robben Island and, nevertheless, returned to South Africa with a free and sovereign soul and helped free his country from the evil of apartheid.

Just as the sacrament of penance has proven cathartic and healing for those who have committed sins, so we need a similar sacrament for the victims of injustice and violence, one that rests on the resurrection of Jesus, himself the crucified victim of injustice and violence. Then, the one-sided orientation towards the perpetrators in our justice system will be changed in favor of one that is concerned with the justification of the victims of crime. So far, judges can sentence the perpetrators to psychological help, but there is only private help like “the white Ring,” or “Innocence in Danger,” for the victims. The public justice is not served by perpetuating a system that leaves the victim alone and privileges the perpetrators: the perpetrators can hope for amnesty, but not the victims. These people are not only victims of evil, but of public forgetfulness.

Translated by John D. Koch, Jr.