Seminary doctoral candidate Andrew Peterson, MDiv ’15, is in Germany on a prestigious Fulbright scholarship, completing the research on his dissertation which explores Christian accounts of sacrifice and forgiveness. We asked him about his research and its implications in today’s world.
What is the role of forgiveness in our society?
Christians have a rich intellectual history of thinking about forgiveness – about what it is, what conditions must be met for it to be offered, and what work it accomplishes. My research investigates how the forgiveness offered by way of Christ’s loving sacrifice makes justice between humanity and God possible. But from this theological work, it’s important to tease out the implications for ethics and politics. Christians can reflect on how Christ’s sacrificial love enables them to pursue just communities from the local to the national level. But Christian reflection on forgiveness can help us see that forgiveness is an essential means that we have for surmounting the wrongs which plague all of our relationships— whether familial, collegial, ecclesial, or political—and restoring justice, trust, and mutual good will.
Can you apply your findings to the present political and cultural atmosphere in the U.S.?
When we notice the distrust and division in our political communities, we are also acknowledging that our communities are fragile, flawed, and marked by long histories of injustice. The problems we face are particular and vary, though we’re especially pressed at the moment by racial injustice, class inequality, and partisan division. In each, past and present wrongs foster distrust, division, and alienation from one another. So too with our relationships with God. All of our social and political relationships need work, though some are in states of serious disrepair. And in order to put forward our best efforts, we need to understand both what these relationships should be like, how to repair them when needed, and who—because of their greater failings in the history of a relationship—needs to spearhead the reparative work.
You’ve mentioned that your work also investigates the theme of sacrifice. Do you see that as also relevant to our current situation?
The sacrifices we’re willing to offer one another mediate our social and political relationships. These relationships are established, at least in part, by participation in relationships of mutual sacrifice and burden bearing. And these relationships are sustained over time by the losses one party is willing to make for the benefit of another, and by a willingness of that other person to offer a return in kind.
What matters most is our mutual recognition of one another’s sacrifices, which identifies their reality and significance. And in times like ours, when injustices provoke widespread suspicion and our trust of one another wears thin, then our relationships are healed—suspicion overcome, trust rebuilt, and reconciliation generated—by the sacrifices one or more parties willingly makes for the sake of the relationship.
What are some of the conceptual puzzles you’re trying to untangle in your research?
I have a few driving questions that resonate with the theological, ethical, and political concerns I have. So, for example, can forgiveness be offered even before an offender takes responsibility for his or her injustice? Can it be offered even if an offender never takes responsibility? And why think forgiveness is better, especially in the worst cases, than harboring anger and wishing for retribution? Many object that Christians tend to forgive in such a way that lets offenders off the hook because Christianity recommends servility. And yet many of us think of forgiveness as an indispensable moral ideal. So, what should we say in response? It’s important work to do because, as is almost always the case, Jesus raises the stakes. Jesus doesn’t commend forgiveness; rather, he commands us to forgive a seemingly infinite number of times (Matt 18:22) and warns that those who do not forgive are not themselves forgiven. That sounds awfully important to me, though as is often the case, getting clear on what that means practically often takes some work.
Read more about Andrew Peterson at https://ptsem.edu/news/andrew-j-peterson-receives-fulbright-award.