The Losing Economy of Forgiveness

Originally published in The Forgiveness Issue of The Mockingbird magazine. Somewhere in North Minneapolis in […]

Originally published in The Forgiveness Issue of The Mockingbird magazine.

Somewhere in North Minneapolis in February of 1993, Mary Johnson received a visit from the police informing her that her only son, 20-year-old Laramiun Byrd, was dead. He had been shot and killed by a sixteen-year-old boy named Oshea Israel after a confrontation at a party. During the first months of grieving and into the trial period, Johnson said that she believed she had forgiven her son’s killer. In her court statement, she said this was because “the Bible tells us to forgive.” But then she realized she hadn’t really. “The root of bitterness ran deep, anger had set in and I hated everyone.” Because of his age, Israel was convicted of second-degree murder, with a sentence of up to twenty-five years.

Sometime within the years of bitterness, though, Mary came across a poem about two mothers: one was the mother of a killer and the other was the mother of the killer’s victim. To quote Mary, it was a poem “all about the commonality of pain, and it showed me my destiny.” At this point she began visiting her son’s murderer in prison, and miraculously, her hatred dissolved. In March of 2010, Mary Johnson and some Catholic nuns from the neighborhood welcomed Oshea Israel home with a big party. They are now next-door neighbors—Mary calls Oshea her “spiritual son,” and she carries a locket with a photo for each of her two sons on either side of the medallion.

Together, they have become the face of a healing and reconciliation organization called, aptly enough, “From Death to Life,” which works to end violence between families of victims and those who have caused harm. Oshea and Mary have shared their story on a national scale: they’ve been on The View, in the “Heroes Among Us” column of People magazine, on NPR’s StoryCorps. In a terrible scenario like theirs, and amidst a society fixated upon retribution, they have become a kind of crosscurrent emblem of the restorative power of forgiveness.


This story, and the few like it, tend to hold a disproportionate amount of real estate in the media. Amidst all the bad news we hear all week, of murders and eighteen-wheeler accidents and third-world atrocities, these stories become a therapeutic dose of hope on morning shows and weekend wrap-ups. They get circulated amongst Christian websites as a validating sign of hope. These stories express solidarity with the cause of Christ. Yes, we say, this is Jesus. Jesus forgave. And, look, there is real power in the forgiving way of life. We wish the news told more stories like this, of light coming out after the dark seemed to have taken everything. The characters in these stories seem to move beyond the dimension of crime and punishment.

As we know well enough, though, these kinds of stories are the exception and not the rule. Despite the fact that the Lord’s Prayer assumes forgiveness of our neighbors, forgiveness like this, in any scenario, is a miracle. For the most part, people just go on in unforgiveness, our spite cycles over into despair, and often the story ends there, without any further note of reconciliation. For every Oshea Israel in People, there are innumerable Oshea Israels who never get a second word. And for every Mary Johnson forgiving her son’s murderer there’s, well, you and me—the ones who have a hard time letting it go even when the FedEx man is late with our newest pair of shoes.

So this story is rare because forgiveness is rare, but this story is also rare because forgiveness does not always mean transformation. Call me Captain Obvious, but most stories of forgiveness are a bit messier than your sworn enemy becoming your next-door neighbor. And the messier stories rarely make the headlines.

The magnanimous moments of mercy, as seen in the instance of Oshea Israel and Mary Johnson, often cloud over the smaller—but no less heroic—acts of forgiveness that are demanded of people every day. Unlike the big ones, these acts rarely provide the kind of turnaround, come-to-Jesus reciprocations we long to see. There are no public festivities, no nonprofits formed in their wake; they often don’t even fit the bill as ‘forgiveness.’ They happen too repetitively and, frankly, too tediously to be newsworthy. And they seem to change nothing on the outside. An article in Aeon magazine called “Letting Go” by Amy Westervelt talks about the rise of forgiveness studies in psychology. She quotes Frederic Luskin, who runs the Stanford Forgiveness Project, as he talks about how people tended to think about forgiveness before it became an academic hot topic:

“Even the stuff that forgiveness was supposed to be good for—stuff like murders…it’s so rare,” he told me. “More important is can you forgive your brother-in-law for being annoying? Can you forgive traffic? Those things happen every day. Big things? They happen once in a lifetime, maybe twice…But forgiveness is really important for smoothing over the normal, interpersonal things that rub everyone the wrong way.”

While the heroic kinds of forgiveness turn the page for both the offender and the offended, the kind of forgiveness Luskin is talking about seems less capable of producing such a new state of affairs. Where is the return on investment for your brother-in-law? How can the 250 Bypass pay you back for your lost time? For these moments, the economy of forgiveness seems less like a new beginning and more like the acceptance of a lousy hand. You simply learn to operate at a loss.

There are reasons we hear less about these forms of forgiveness—they don’t seem to do much, at least with what’s visible.


If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them…But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked (Lk 6:32-36)

There is a “wet house” in St. Paul, Minnesota that provides a stark picture of this kind of forgiveness in action. St. Anthony Residence is a low-rent housing facility for chronic, late-stage alcoholics—you have to be an alcoholic to live there, and while drinking is not allowed on the premises, residents are allowed to continue drinking without reprimand. Most of the residents of St. Anthony have been through more treatment centers and recovery programs than they can count, and many of them will die in this home. The program manager, Bill Hockenberger, describes it like this in a editorial he wrote for CNN:

The people who live at St. Anthony aren’t the “functional alcoholics” who drink too much after work and come into work late. They are people whose disease is so severe that they cannot work. They have lost their jobs, their families and their homes…They never had the home with the car in the garage waiting for them. The majority of people who live at St. Anthony grew up in poverty or had families that moved frequently and were homeless.[1]

On the face of it, there is much to object to in this picture. Assisting alcoholics with shelter and a drinking stipend, in a home that consists of people with the same problem? Where is the hope here? How is this not exacerbating an already bad situation?


The “wet house” was covered in an episode of This American Life, and opinions were shared both for and against St. Anthony’s philosophy.[2] Another professional working in alcoholic rehabilitation, Nell Hurley, argued that this form of help was no help at all. Worse, she called it “total hopelessness”:

It seems like…giving up on people. Like, you’re not really worth fighting for. You’re not really worth recovery anyway. So, bottoms up…But there should be more—more of an attempt to rehabilitate or guide someone into recovery.

Hockenberger, a recovering addict himself, disagrees. Having a home, as opposed to “sleeping face down on the sidewalk,” allows someone the crucial sense of dignity we all have, regardless of our lapses and illnesses. On top of that, some people do get better at St. Anthony: In 2010, 29% of those who left St. Anthony went on to find employment and market-rate housing. Recovery is always the hope, but it is not a resident’s “admission ticket.”

That makes a startling difference. In a society rife with fine print and fixated on results, it is impossible to find an open-door policy of this degree. Think of a coworker not showing for a couple months and receiving this kind of welcome. Or think about a five-star college recruit failing to hit the same kinds of marks in the pros. This storyline subverts any rational paradigm for forgiveness. At what point do we finally pull away? When do we finally stop waiting for a bad investment to pay off? In a “wet house” economy, we leave the realm of fair exchange and reciprocation. Instead, everything available is given to anyone who asks, no matter what. This kind of forgiveness—an open-door policy to all the sick, lonely, and hurting people, and all the other debris that might blow in—is bound to spoil any likely results we’ve come to expect. But the forgiveness goes on unfazed, because it is literally un-conditional.[3]

In this way, forgiveness is terrifyingly risky. An open-door policy means that the door is open, for anything, even for more injury. In an economy that gives and never takes, there is no guarantee that the forgiven will one day ‘settle up.’ There is no guarantee the forgiven will do anything at all. In our world, this kind of operation is costly and stupid and damn-near impossible to follow. But this is because the operation isn’t made for our kind of world. Forgiveness is the going currency of the realm of grace, a realm which eschews predicates. Within the realm of grace, nothing is earned, but everything is given. As opposed to our world’s economy of justice, which enforces order with precautionary measures and eviction notices, the economy of forgiveness makes no rules but gives a promise: to “leave a light on for you.” And there are no internet passwords. There is, instead, free reign for continued trespass, until a home has all but become a hospital. As the saying goes, “Fool me once, shame on you…” Justice will not be fooled twice. Forgiveness, on the other hand, goes on living in shame.

The writer and theologian Robert Farrar Capon touches on this distinction between justice and forgiveness. He uses the story of the Devil’s temptation of Jesus in the wilderness to illustrate the point. In effect, the Devil’s prime challenge is a pretty reasonable request for intervention: “If you really are God, do something.” After all, a loving and all-powerful God ought to intervene, right the wrongs, demonstrate his power to halt the injustices of the world.

The human race adheres devoutly to the belief that one more application of power will bring in the kingdom. One more invasion, one more war, one more escalation, one more jealous fit, one more towering rage…The demonic style of power, the plausible use of force to do good, makes at least as much misery as the divine, if not more. The Devil in the wilderness offers Jesus a shortcut. Jesus calls it a dead end and turns a deaf ear. The great, even well-meaning challenge to the hands-off policy comes and goes, and God still insists on playing the Invisible Man, on running the world without running it at all. [4]

From Capon’s perspective, it is the “demonic style” of forcing a hand, not the style of leaving a hand open, that is the real dead end. This was radical for Jesus, and it is no less radical for us. Any well-meaning, virtuous community servant—given the option—would choose to exercise some organizational power to make things happen. But Jesus does have a point: with people, no matter the intentions, control and coercion simply do not work. We can lock up our enemies or try one more “tough love” measure, but not only will the measure fail us in the long run, it will eventually close off the roads to any kind of heartfelt reconciliation or hope. This is the near-sightedness of justice, what Capon calls “right-handed” or “straight-line” power. Justice may catch a thief, but it cannot make him anything more than a thief.

If you take the view that one of the chief objects in life is to remain in loving relationships with other people, straight-line power becomes useless…At some early crux in a difficult, personal relationship, the whole thing will be destroyed unless you—who, on any reasonable view, should be allowed to use straight-line power—simply refuse to use it; unless, in other words, you decide that instead of dishing out justifiable pain and punishment, you are willing, quite foolishly, to take a beating yourself.

So there must be an alternative form of power beyond justice. In order for any kind of ‘new life’ to occur, humans must be ‘wooed’ into relationship, not pulverized into submission. That only kills a person. And while forgiveness doesn’t promise a winning track record—it certainly did not extend Jesus’ preaching career—its record is bound to beat the goose egg that comes by way of right-handed power. The economy of poverty and loss doesn’t promise victory, but, as Capon says, “The only thing it does insure is that you will not—even if your chin has been bashed in—have made the mistake of closing any interpersonal doors from your side.” In a house full of ‘dead end’ cases like St. Anthony, this is the only thing that could possibly continue the conversation. Forgiveness is the only wedge for a door so intent on closing.

This is most certainly the economy of Christ’s love. While we bicker about last chances and the time or money or energy we’re hemorrhaging in our personal forgiveness policies, Christ’s ministry and parables tell a completely different story. Jesus is unhinged when it comes to forgiveness. He tells his followers to forgive everyone, for everything, an infinite amount of times. He repeatedly, publically gives his blessing to the prostitutes and urchins and brats of the world. And he seems appalled at the forms of power that tend persuade us: “Which is easier, to say: ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or ‘Get up and walk’?” (Lk 5:23). As if the kingdom he sees is a world we do not, he is fully convinced that this economy is the winning hand for making any changes. Maybe he’s on to something: “Man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Sam 16:7).

Unfortunately, much as we may concur with the Risen One, this alternative, invisible economy comes at a cost to ourselves. To forgive is to do a hard thing. As Luskin says, it means letting go of another ‘power’ we love to hold—our righteous anger.

Part of what makes the word—and practice—tough for people, in Luskin’s view, is that it requires a degree of selflessness. For me to say, “Even though you were a shithead, it’s not my problem; it’s your problem, and I’m not going to stay mad at you, because that’s you, not me,” that’s a huge renunciation of self,” he said. “And I don’t know whether it’s our [Western] culture or a human thing, but it’s hard.”

Maybe this strikes you as evasive or judgmental. That’s you, not me! But that’s not what Luskin is saying: instead, he means that forgiveness involves a dose of reality that we usually avoid at all costs. Forgiveness means surrendering the control we all too often pretend we have. Forgiveness, in this scenario, is not just absolution made for swindlers and murderers and cheats; it is absolution for all the innate objections and resentments we throw back at the hand we’re dealt. It is for our lopsided anger at a blemish on the Blu-Ray we rent, or for the saved slice of cake that goes missing in the fridge. Forgiveness, for Luskin, is the resignation of our collective rage at the injustice of living in the world. Most of the time, the victim of the injustices we care about is me.

Frederick Buechner talks about this sweet anger we love so much, and the unfortunate victim we find in our own victimhood.

Anger is fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll your tongue over the prospect of bitter confrontations yet to come, to savor the last toothsome morsel over the pain you are given and the pain you give back—in many ways [anger] is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.[5]

Our intoxicant anger is echoed in a Lutheran description of human sin, incurvatus in se: hemmed in by our anger, we become “turned inward on our own selves.” We hungrily justify ourselves against the world that’s caused us pain. We can contrive our lack of forgiveness as a kind of ammunition kept in reserve, but it is really only the arsenal of self-annihilation. Much of our unforgiveness stems from a longing for and resentment at a world that doesn’t exist.


All the while, God’s power—that losing economy of forgiveness—is the one that takes the world as it really is. Forgiving acknowledges the severity of the problem and surrenders its need to fix it. When we forgive, we free the problem from our own locus of control. Doing so loosens the cords of resentment within us and, because there’s nothing left for us to keep tabs on or feel responsible for, tends to allow us to be opened up again. The world is no longer our own personal villain, but an unpredictable place full of people like us. The emptying of our weapon store allows us to lift our heads up and look around with a new sensitivity to others.

Or not. Maybe it doesn’t fix much. But it’s certainly been known to provide a good number of surprise endings. And it certainly makes sense of Jesus’ argument, that “the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little” (Lk 7:47). Because if you grant the assumption that human beings are damaged goods, and you also grant the assumption that human beings are wired for love, then forgiveness is simply the only doorway in. There is a direct correlation, in Jesus’ mind, between knowing what it means to be forgiven, and being able to love someone. You cannot know love without forgiveness. Which explains why someone might be called ‘self-righteous,’ someone who seems to manage a great life without much to be sorry for; and it’s also good news to those of us who have needed to say sorry for quite a lot. This is an economy with an upside-down understanding of the haves and have-nots—the CEO is the closest man to the doormat.

Back at St. Anthony Residence, there is a deacon. This American Life asked him what he thought about his job amidst such a bleak reality. What does he make of recidivism, when a resident’s road to recovery leads them back to St. Anthony a few months later, bottle in hand? What does he make of his job in light of this continual failure? The deacon says this:

Yeah, it is hard. It is hard. But we care for them where they are. If they’re ready to move, if they’re not ready to move. That’s really not our call here. Our call is to love them.

From the story of St. Anthony house, it is hard not to recall the archetypal house of forgiveness—this time from the bible—in the Prodigal Son story. After years of frittering away his family inheritance, not only is the wily son allowed back into the house he formally renounced, but he gets in without any price of admission upon his return. There is no lecture, there is not a word about the “new ground rules.” When you think about it, it is a story of incredible restraint—all that hurt, all the wasted money, all the waiting. But none of that. There is instead only the embrace and the robe and the fatted calf.

Suppose, since the story ends that night, that the party ended early the next morning, and the boy left again, before anyone else woke up? Would the father wait again, forgive him again? And if so, how many times? Seven times? At what point does a jilted father claim the dignity to write him off?

The answer here, from Christianity, is never. As St. Paul tells Timothy, “If we are faithless, he remains faithful—he cannot help himself” (2 Tim 2:13). Certainly, we find hope and inspiration in the stories like Oshea Israel’s, of the powerful acts of forgiveness that set people free. But with repeat offenders for whom forgiveness fails to transform, with the sick ones who cannot get better, the “unfortunates” who will drink themselves to death, the faithfulness of the forgiver is the only door left open. We may (reasonably) lose hope in such an economy so bent on losing; but in the words of Bill Hockenberger, and in the cross of the Christ, “I’m certainly not one of them…I don’t want to ever give up hope. I don’t want to ever give up hope on anybody.” And so, with a forgiver who will never stop forgiving, the risk of forgiveness is no risk at all. Even while it appears to all the world a waste of time, in this forgiveness, there is always room for hope, even here.


[1] “Housing Chronic Alcoholics Makes Moral, Budget Sense,” by Bill Hockenberger. May 11, 2011.

[2] This story was featured in the This American Life episode called “Know When to Fold ‘Em,” Episode 432. It is also covered in much greater detail in my book, This American Gospel: Public Radio Parables and the Grace of God (Mockingbird, 2012). The book serves a guide through (some of) our favorite stories in the TAL archives.

[3] It should go without saying, and it’s another essay altogether, but an open-door house for all kinds of sick and hurting people brings another institution to mind—one that doesn’t often bring these characteristics to mind, sadly enough—and I’m not talking about St. Jude’s. I’m talking about God’s Church, the multifaceted, oft-times schizophrenic House of God and hospital for sinners. Especially in light of their vast differences, what does the wet house have to teach us about embodying certain Christian principles?

[4] The Third Peacock, Robert Farrar Capon.

[5] “Wishful Thinking,” Frederick Buechner.

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8 responses to “The Losing Economy of Forgiveness”

  1. David Zahl says:

    Beautiful, Ethan, just beautiful. And that Buechner quote – “the skeleton at the feast is you” – woah.

  2. John says:

    Remarkable. The meditation on messy, non-transformative forgiveness reminded me a lot of DFW’s “This is Water.” Beautiful work.

  3. Al Owski says:

    A really thoughtful article about forgiveness that recognizes that quite often forgiveness doesn’t provide closure nor does it always tie off loose ends. I recall a friend named Chris who was a homeless alcoholic when I met him. He came to our church’s community Thanksgiving and never left. Every Sunday he sat in the lobby during service. Some of us brought him meals or ran out to buy him food. He remained homeless through some of the most brutal winters and prided himself on surviving the streets. Gradually his alcoholism got the best of him and he alternated between hospital emergency rooms and jail. He had my phone number on a crumpled piece of paper in his pocket. From time to time I would get a call about Chris. Jail or hospital. I feared one day it would be the morgue. Over a period of four years, three of us from the church rotated taking Chris to court, rehab, or the doctor. After his umpteenth rehab, he was released. He started drinking within a week. But somehow, by week’s end, he decided he had enough and called the Pastor to get him into a group home. I went to visit him after he lived there a while. He wanted me to convey thanks to all at the church who help him despite his bad behavior. He died shortly after that, in a house, in a warm bed. I honestly didn’t think he would live six years after I met him, much less get clean on his own. But the persistent, amazing, and just insane grace allowed him to die in peace and not in the streets. This taught me something about the “economy of grace”. While there are amazing stories of individual acts of forgiveness, more often it is a group effort. The capacity to endure human failure is limited by the exhaustion of an individual. A larger, enduring grace can only be given by a community of people

  4. Michael says:

    The Wet House is the true church.

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