Forgiveness figures so prominently in the Western Christian vision that it can be reasonably argued that it is the centerpiece — the fulcrum around which all its doctrines and religious practices turn. Whichever way you look, the fundamental energy for Christian life through much of the two millennia of its existence, has been the imputation of universal sin, the guilt and punishment that it entails for everyone, and the mechanisms exclusively controlled by the Church available for its forgiveness. Those of us formed in this culture are so accustomed to it that, unless we spend some time immersed in other traditions, it never occurs to us that there is any other way to think about religion.
But while the other “religions of the book,” Islam and Judaism, are equally focused on obedience to “God,” they trust “God” will forgive them. Christianity is unique in that it worries over finding mechanisms for forgiveness that are guaranteed to work automatically. In contrast with Hinduism, Buddhism or Taoism, which concentrate on the moral transformation of the personality in this world leading to the harmony of society, the Christian emphasis on sin and its punishment in the afterlife is so great that it gives rise to the impression that Western Christians thought of the moral code as something of a formality: a backdrop to the real drama. It was never expected that anyone would or even could comply with it, that all would necessarily sin, and that religion primarily had to do with what happens afterwards. Even Paul said the purpose of the “law” was to prove to us that we couldn’t keep it. It defined our relationship to “God” as beggars. The behavior that religion was concerned about was not basic morality, but how to act once you realized moral wholeness was no longer a possibility — how to live from day to day even though you were a moral cripple, out of sync with the Universe, alienated from God, saturated with guilt, and terrified of death because eternal punishment hung over your head like the sword of Damocles.
This emphasis on coping with the failure of moral living rather than finding ways to encourage its joyous and LIFE-expanding implementation, was given deep theological justification by Augustine of Hippo at the end of the fourth century. He claimed that the very purpose of the incarnation was to reverse the insult, guilt and effects of Original Sin — the disobedience of Adam and Eve — that hung over humankind, condemning every single human being to eternal torment, even the sinless, just for being born human. Jesus’ death on the cross was said to be an atonement for that primordial sin … a “sacrifice” in the literal ancient sense of the slaughter of a victim as a symbol of submission to “God” and was believed to “please” “God” and avert his justified fury at the human race. It created an infinite pool of forgiveness, which the Church managed and parceled out to Christians in accord with their compliance with the second great code of morality: the commandments of the Church.
This interpretation of the foundational events of the Christian religion was, along with others, merely theological speculation until Augustine articulated it in the most compelling and consistent worldview that Christianity had produced to date. The fact that this all coincided roughly with the establishment of the Catholic Church as the official (and exclusive) religion of the Roman Empire, and Augustine’s personal acquaintance and collaboration with the Western emperors in their century-old efforts to recover Imperial property (churches) from the Donatists, insured that, in the West at least, his view of things would prevail. And prevail it did. It dominated Western Europe through the middle ages and, due to its influence on Reformation theology and the Papal reaction, on into modern times. Today, despite a half century of alternative thinking since Vatican II and centuries of demurral by Eastern Christians, Augustine’s vision is still considered the official view.
Augustine and Rome
Augustine’s theology was Roman and it was retrospective. It looked back after 400 years of Christian history and re-interpreted both doctrine and practice in such a way that they became a perfect counterpart to the cultural and political imperatives of the Roman Empire. The background is that well before Constantine, during the first three hundred years of mostly unrecorded Church history, Christianity had been adjusting itself little by little to the cultural and religious mindset of Rome. The difficulties in achieving accommodation made it clear that there was an unbridgeable gap between Jesus’ message and the complex master-slave economy and the associated geopolitics of conquest that defined the Imperial Project. That dawning realization, and Christians’ desire to live a normal life as part of the Empire, gave rise to what I am calling the “cult of forgiveness.” And it was Augustine who gave it a theological rationalization.
This Christian embrace of Roman values had reached such a point by the early fourth century, that it made it possible for Constantine to choose Christianity as his preferred religion, despite Christians’ open refusal to worship the gods of Rome. For by that time Christianity no longer represented a change of lifestyle, only the replacement of one set of gods with another, something that was not that different from the traditional Roman practice of allowing its conquered people to worship their own gods. Exchanging Jesus for Zeus or Apollo was no big deal (especially after Constantine certified that Jesus was the high “God” himself); but freeing all the slaves, forcing the upper classes to shoulder the burdens of common labor, restoring conquered peoples their property and political independence, and disbanding the legions was not thinkable. Eliminating the slave economy, the class system it sustained and everything necessary to keep it all going was simply not going to happen. Anyone could see that fully embracing Jesus’ message would have demanded nothing less, and there was no way that Rome would do any such thing. Christians chose to live with the contradiction.
It is my contention that by accepting the conditions prevailing in the Roman Empire as unchangeable and binding themselves to live within it, Christians subconsciously conceded that they would never be able to commit themselves to the gospel invitation, and that they were institutionalizing a permanent repudiation of the kind of human community that Jesus envisioned. By accepting Roman life as it was, they had committed themselves to be permanently alienated from the will of “God” and full human self-actualization as individuals and as a community. The Church was subconsciously aware that it had consigned itself and its members to a “state of permanent sin” that required continuous acknowledgement of guilt and a continuous plea for forgiveness.
This had a number of concomitant effects. The first was that attention came to be focused almost exclusively on the afterlife, because life in this world was dismissed as irreparably immoral. There would never be justice, and therefore peace and happiness was not possible. Second, the class character of Roman society which was diametrically opposed to Jesus’ egalitarian vision, was introduced into the Christian community itself establishing the two-tier Church of clergy and laity, priest and people that it has had ever since, and it canonized male domination by excluding women from the positions of authority that they had once occupied in the very early Church. All this was in direct opposition to the explicit teaching of Jesus about the exercise of authority. It restricted episcopal offices to the upper class alone, a practice that became standard through the middle ages. Third, the sacraments shifted from being symbolic expressions of internal dispositions to magical incantations — spells cast by elite priest-wizards — that automatically dispensed the forgiveness that had become the daily addiction of this community of sinners. Baptism, for example, came to be considered a ritual that insured an automatic forgiveness of all sin. Christians not only postponed baptism until their deathbed (as Constantine did) to ensure “salvation,” they also started baptizing their infants, abandoning any pretense that baptism was a symbol of mature commitment, because they believed baptism was magic that would automatically save their babies from an uncertain eternity should they die. All this had occurred before Constantine and Augustine. Augustine’s theology of baptism, which he elaborated in the heat of the Donatist controversy and in which he maintained that baptism had an automatic and permanent effect (ex opere operato) of forgiveness, was in large part a way of justifying what was the current Christian practice of infant baptism. Augustine argued that infants who died without baptism, despite their innocence, went to hell for all eternity to pay for Adam’s insult to God. The people, he said, were right. But it also meant the Donatists had no ground for holding onto their churches.
Augustine’s theology continued to build the case for the endemic sinfulness of the entire human race. Snippets out of the scriptures that hinted at universal sinfulness were identified, taken out of context and promulgated as “doctrine.” Lines from the psalms, for example, that complained with obvious poetic hyperbole “that no one is good, no, not even one” had been quoted by Paul in his letter to the Romans. It was reminiscent of the fable about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah where not even one just person could be found to prevent the promised punishment.
By the late middle ages, Martin Luther gave it an articulation that summed up what had been its real effect throughout Christian history: the Christian, he said, was simul justus et peccator. The Christen was justified and a sinner at one and the same time. Forgiveness, he said, did not change the sinful, immoral, alienated state of the human being who remained corrupt forever; all that happened was that “God” promised he would not punish this one guilty person, even though he reserved the right to punish anyone else because they were all equally guilty, the forgiven and the unforgiven alike. You never stopped being guilty and deserving of eternal punishment; all you had to go on was “God’s” promise that you, personally, because of your faith, would not be punished. You never really became “God’s” friend. You just stopped being the object of his wrath. Wonderful.
If there were any doubt of the thrust of Augustine’s thinking, he capped off his theories with a unique doctrine of predestination. Augustine argued that since “God” is omniscient, he knew from all eternity that Adam would sin, plunging all of humanity into the cesspool of moral impotence. “God” permitted the drama in the garden of Eden to play itself out because he had also planned from all eternity to send his Son to die for helplessly sinful humankind thus displaying his infinite mercy. Augustine reasoned God gained greater glory in forgiving a morally corrupt mankind incapable of achieving salvation on its own and predetermined to create violent and oppressive societies. Thus the entire scene of selfish humankind in Augustine’s Roman Imperial mind was foreseen and predestined. Selfishness was inescapable and apotheosized: it was intentionally permitted by “God.” Augustine’s “God,” not unlike the Roman emperor, was self-absorbed in promoting his own “glory.”
The Monks in the Desert
At the same time that Augustine was elaborating his theories at the end of the fourth century , other Christians, recognizing the fatal complicity of the Christian Church with the Roman travesty, rather than abandon the promises of the gospel, walked out on the Imperial Church altogether. They found the most deserted places in the wastelands and forests that bordered on the civilized world and attempted to create their own societies dedicated to doing it right. They started as hermits and their gatherings became monasteries. They instinctively knew they had to get away from “normal life” because it was so compromised with the conquest, plunder, greed, violence, slavery and self-idolatry that was the very dynamic that Rome ran on.
It should be no surprise that these early Christian monasteries bore the greatest affinity to the religious programs of the eastern traditions, especially the Buddhist. Both groups were dedicated to “doing it right” and shared a common insight: that social transformation and individual transformation were two sides of the same coin. You could not have growth in authentic humanity and at the same time accommodate to a venal society, bound to a larcenous and violent economic system whose ultimate driving attractions were power and pleasure, without having your circuits jam. It was oil and water. Once you had opted for accommodation, the only thing “God” could do for you was forgive; “God” could no longer be understood as LIFE (the energy of moral transcendence) in this world. The pursuit of an authentic humanity focused on justice, generosity and compassion was not possible.
In all these efforts the alternative community was an essential part of the program; it was the antithesis of imperial corruption. Similarly, they were convinced of the importance of meditation, the interior awareness and confrontation with one’s own individual cravings and misperceptions — what each tradition identified as “demons,” terms that modern psychiatric treatment modalities continue to use metaphorically today — which were the antecedents of socially destructive behavior. The goal for all was individual freedom from mindless, knee-jerk, selfish, negativity — an individual freedom that bore fruit in the harmony of the community.
In the case of the early Christian monasteries, there was a stark contrast with the religiosity characteristic of the mainstream Church-in-the-world that they had separated from. For the monks there was little emphasis on the rituals of forgiveness, confession, or the mass as a conduit of “grace.” There was rather a strong reliance on understanding how the human mind and emotions worked and what was effective in changing one’s moral bearing. One of these practices of transformation, perhaps the principal one, was labor. Everyone worked. Later, in the middle ages, monks were divided into upper and lower class. That wasn’t true in the beginning. There were no class divisions or servants in the Egyptian desert.
The primary difference among the traditions was the Christian emphasis on a personal “God” who related to the immortal human soul. This tended to direct the Christian monk toward a psycho-erotic love relationship with the deity that seemed to require celibacy for its faithful fulfillment, and was consummated only after death. Early Buddhists, for their part, ignored the divine realm altogether and their doctrine of anatta or “no-self” is compatible with a cosmic materialism in which every entity, including the human organism, is only a temporary coming together of components which come apart at death and are recycled for use by other organisms. LIFE was had in belonging to the totality.
In the case of Christianity, the emphasis on the “nuptials” with “God” has tended to direct anyone thinking about personal transformation away from family-life and toward the monasteries. Perfection was thought impossible to married households and thus reinforced the inferiorization of the laity and where women as reproductive agents and authority figures had a prominent role. The pursuit of personal transformation tended to be effectively quarantined. These patterns dominated the middle ages. The resistance against them grew and eventually became part of the reform movement that divided Western Christianity into Protestant and Catholic. The family is the proper venue for Christian development.
Buddhism was also focused on the sangha, the community of practitioners, but encouraged people who were householders to put the program into practice in their work and family life. The point of Buddhism wasn’t forgiveness, it was the practice of the dharma — the basic morality that brought peace to the individual in this world and justice, harmony, generosity and compassion to the human community. The monastery was helpful but not indispensable in achieving this goal. The Indian society where Buddhism emerged had its problems with injustice and disharmony, but Buddhism did not justify it as inevitable and protect it from the influence of its transformative challenge.
The Christian displacement of religious life from social morality to forgiveness naturally tended to “normalize” the social immorality that it was impotent to change. Hence some form of slavery or another, eventually modulating into wage slavery in the modern era, has continued to characterize societies where theocratic Christianity has held sway. The acceptance of outright slavery and the effective enslavement of serfs and servants, women and children, convicts and debtors, wage workers and share croppers, is a hallmark of traditional Christianity. The rebellions within mediaeval Christendom that arose regularly against the status quo all had a revolutionary egalitarian, anti-slavery, anti-class aspect to them. They grew in number and intensity through the centuries until the established order was brought down, almost always by people who found they had to neutralize the institutional Church in order to achieve their objectives.
Theology reflects the prevailing social reality, and its rationalizations in turn serve to justify and consolidate the social order that gave them rise. There is no way that Christianity is ever going to energize anything but the institutionalized exploitation of the labor of the poor and marginalized by the rich and powerful unless its theology undergoes the kind of overhaul that this short reflection is suggesting. Christianity has to repudiate its ancient “cult of forgiveness” based on the acceptance of a thoroughly immoral social dynamic as occurred with the Roman ascendency. A new interpretation of the significance of the foundational events that launched Christianity must be elaborated and applied institutionally so that they carry beyond the lifetime of those who develop them. So long as Augustine’s vision remains the official teaching of the Church, calls for social morality for the sake of justice in the human community are meaningless and will be ignored. They make it unmistakably clear that the Church has other more important concerns: “saving the souls” of Christians after they die who while they lived were predestined to be complicit in the immorality of empire.