Monday, 22 April 2013


Then Peter came up and asked him, ‘Lord, how often am I to forgive my brother if he goes on wronging me? As many as seven times?’ Jesus replied, ‘I do not say seven times; I say seventy times seven.Matthew 18, 21-22

This text has often been used to encourage believers to become other people’s doormat. Alas for them, and perhaps also for their brothers, they have all too often accepted this interpretation. Yet I find it hard to believe that a wise teacher – which other sayings suggest Jesus was – would not realise that a perpetually uncomplaining and unconditional acceptance of someone else’s offences would inevitably lead to a morally and emotionally unsatisfactory result for everyone involved. If there is any sense in this saying, we will find it only after the doormat interpretation has been dumped.
                Clearly, Peter had made progress; he is not made to suggest the instant and equal response implied by old law of ‘an eye for an eye’. Instead he makes the generous offer to delay retaliation until his brother has wronged him seven times – and for seven we should understand ‘quite a few’ rather than some fixed number. In a sense Peter was not that far wrong. We now know that the approach which leads to the most satisfactory outcome is to retaliate provided ‘quite a few’ is pretty low but above one. We can run computer simulations using complex game theory, and the outcome which minimises the total number of offences in the long run is the one in which the general rule is to retaliate for the second offence. If a limited number of followers were to take the advice attributed to Jesus literally – and again seventy times seven must mean ‘never’ – it would in fact increase the total number of offences. Surely a teacher like Jesus could have sensed this result and would not have desired it. Yet some teachers certainly do promote the doormat interpretation, and it has its attractions. It relieves indecisive people of the need to accept the responsibility of managing their relationships; they have a simple rule which they can simply obey. Sometimes, those who teach this approach promise recompense in an afterlife, and even encourage an unhealthy glee at the thought that the offenders will be commensurately punished hereafter. This teaching is surely of doubtful spiritual value, even if you believe in an afterlife. Other teachers mysticalise undeserved and patiently borne suffering, including that caused by other people. It is said to have a salutary effect on the perpetrators of the suffering, making them reconsider and change their behaviour, and indeed examples can be adduced in which this has apparently occurred. But we know that the most likely response to one who promises always and unconditionally to ‘turn the other cheek’ is another slap, then a punch, then a kick and so on. If people have aggressive tendencies, for their own sakes they need positive encouragement to control them rather than carte blanche to indulge them.
                Sometimes the doormat view seems to owe something to good parenting technique. Punishing or scolding bad behaviour in a child is much less effective in helping the child behave well than generally ignoring bad behaviour and praising good. The same approach can work when applied between adults. But it is not unconditional. There are limits. A competent parent is not a doormat. What is unconditional in the parent is, or should be, care for the child and its long-term well-being. Tantrums may be ignored, more serious misbehaviour may be calmly challenged, really bad behaviour may be appropriately punished – but the child is never rejected, made to feel an unwanted failure. I’m encouraged to think that this is what the saying is getting at by the fact that the person Peter is dealing with is his ‘brother’, not necessarily using that term literally, but certainly implying some kind of fairly close relationship. Perhaps we are being encouraged, even after we have made some kind of retaliatory response to a second offence, to try to re-establish the underlying relationship on the basis of a combination of genuine warmth and the realisation that there are limits to acceptable behaviour.
                This is hard. Most of us find it a lot easier to retaliate and leave it at that, or even to go on accepting offensive behaviour, than to retaliate in some way and then make the first approach to try to rebuild the damaged relationship. To encourage the use of this approach every time is asking a lot, but it is not going to create either a band of doormat-people or a mob of uncontrolled people who know no limits. It is likely instead to enable all of us, offended and offender alike, to deepen and enrich our humanity. Such an interpretation allows this saying to fit into the context of the rest of Jesus’s teaching. Peter’s proposal does not suggest that he had any idea of why a wholly new approach was needed. By contrast, Jesus saw that the strict keeping of the law could never make people happy; some risk-taking and rule-breaking was inevitable and necessary. But then the question arises of how the consequences are to be dealt with. Clearly if people could never get over being hurt by other people’s risk-taking and rule-breaking, there must be a complete social breakdown. The solution Jesus proposed was that we should learn to ‘forgive as we ask to be forgiven’, or as the petition in the Our Father puts it, ‘Forgive us our offences as we forgive those who offend us’. Such reciprocity is near the heart of Jesus’s teaching.
                Jesus’s teaching is aimed at people in their personal lives, not at governments dealing with crime. But it turns out that the ‘respond, then try again’ approach is generally the best at that level too. The effort to enable criminals to participate as best they can in the life of the community is one which is worth making: it affirms not only their value as human beings but also the individual value of those who do not break the law. This is really a side issue though. The point of the seventy-times-seven saying is to challenge us to deal with the conflicts and disagreements we all face in ways that build human relationships and allow room for all-round human flourishing. Human doormats do not flourish, and neither do those who wipe their feet on them.        

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