The Economy of Forgiveness: Part III

This post develops, and relies upon, arguments in Part I and Part II. In particular, it refers to two characters – Lester and Betty – of the novel All Hallows’ Eve, by Charles Williams, that is quoted in Part I.


When we intercede for a sinner in prayer, we implicitly forgive him our little portion of his moral debt to the rest of creation. A murder injures the whole City, not just the victim and his family. This is why the whole City executes judgement upon the murderer, and exacts payment (the same dynamic is at the back of feud and revenge, and vigilante justice). When we intercede for the murderer in prayer, when we beg for his redemption, we effectually forgive our own portion of his debt to the City. We eat that bit of his debt, and suffer it ourselves.

And, intercessory prayer can be supererogatory compassionate suffering. It can be vicarious forgiveness. I.e., when I pray for the murderer, I may possibly forgive, not only my little portion of his moral debt to the cosmos, but more. I may take upon myself some of the suffering that would otherwise be borne by other members of the community on account of the murder. This sort of supererogatory assumption of the wages of sin is accomplished, not by the direct medium of exchange between the intercessor and the injured beneficiaries of his prayer, but by substitution – the other great category of coinherence that Williams notices. In exchange, Lester and Betty confront each other directly. In substitution, the exchange in which, e.g., Paul suffers for the Church is mediated through the economy of Heaven. We address our intercessory prayers to Heaven; and the Heavenly exchange (like a telephone exchange) directs them to their proper account in this world; for, in the Book of Life is recorded the worldly “address” (the spatio-temporal locus) and causal balance sheet (ontological assets and liabilities, of the moral, aesthetic, and physical sorts, plus perhaps a few more sorts) of every creature. Indeed, the spatio-temporal locus of a creaturely event, and the role that it plays in the causal order – these being two ways of characterizing the same thing – just are its causal balance sheet. The causal balance sheet of a creature is the summation of its state vectors, the superposition of its fields; are, i.e., its form.

And, in the final analysis, even direct exchanges, such as took place between Lester and Betty, are mediated in Heaven, which is the supratemporal causal nexus and Receptacle in which the occasions of this world, in their various relations to each other, all take their original place. Another way of saying this is that everything happens in and through the divine pleroma. Analogously, the stock exchange is the market, and provides the language and physical mediation, the code of mutual significations, by which transactions take place, whether Betty is trading with her friend Lester who sits in the same room with her, or with some faceless unspecified stranger on the far side of the world. So likewise is it with Heaven and the physico-moral transactions of our world. The difference, then, between the coinherence of exchange and the coinherence of substitution is that in the former, Lester and Betty address the transaction to each other knowingly, both of them participate therein knowingly, whereas in the latter, Paul addresses the transaction to the Church, or to Timothy, or to Apollos, but not with their knowledge. Both sorts of coinherent transactions are effected via the Heavenly exchange.

And so, obviously, are the transactions of prayer. All transactions, of any type, are prayers answered. All transactions have the form of a request, a seeking, on one side, and a grant, an admission – or a refusal – on the other. In the language of the market, every exchange is preceded by an “ask” on one side, and a “bid” on the other. The effectuation of a transaction is an agreement of things, and discovers at least two newly minted facts: the beings who are now parties to that novel agreement.

In forgiveness, the forgiver retains the debt as his own forever, swallows it – this is what it is to be a sin-eater, a scapegoat. As Christ suffered for us vicariously, and forgave our sins, swallowing them up in victory, so may we, in lesser degree, forgive and suffer for each other.

The suffering of intercessory prayer is quite attenuated, to be sure, but it is suffering nonetheless. When we pray that the suffering of another might be eased, there is only one way our prayer can be effected, and that is by taking such suffering upon ourselves. To relieve suffering in one part of the system, it must be shunted around to some other part of the system. And to pray for someone is to suffer with him; for even to be aware of the suffering of another, is to share in it. Only thus may we understand the suffering of another as suffering.


And here we come to an answer to the question, where did Betty get the moral resources, the ontological resources (these are two ways of saying the same thing) to forgive Lester? The energy of forgiveness, like the energy of intercession, comes from Heaven. If forgiveness is to be effective, or if intercession is to be effective, it must be by virtue of the forgiving or interceding spirit’s orthogony to, and transcendence of, the merely creaturely moral economy of this world. Betty’s forgiveness, and my genuine intercessory prayer, are both fueled from Heaven, just as Paul’s supererogatory suffering for the Church was fueled from Heaven.

This is obvious when you think about it for a moment. Take forgiveness. Say that I have wronged you. So long as you are attached to the wrong, as to an asset in your books, you cannot forgive it; for it is precious to you. It is an asset. You deserve to be paid back. But note that there is this key difference between having been sinned against, and being owed money. If someone owes you money, and they repay you in full, with interest, then you are made whole. There is then no problem. But if someone injures you, the injury is a fact that cannot be erased from history. You cannot be made as if you had never been injured, no matter how many nice things your debtor does for you to make up for the injury he has done you. E.g., if his negligence has cost you a foot, you’ll never get your foot back again, no matter how much money he pays you. Your injury is permanent. So, there is no way you can tick off his debt to you as having been paid in full. Because, there is no way that you can in fact be paid in full. There is no adequate compensation for the loss of a foot, or a marriage, or a friendship, or even a quiet happy afternoon.

So far as the economy of this world is concerned, then, there is no way your friend who accidentally cut off your foot can compensate for his negligence. The only way his debt to you (as distinct from his debt to God) can be wiped off the books is if you forgive it. But so long as the only assets you have are this-worldly, you can’t have the wherewithal to forgive that debt. What, are you going to unmake and do-over the history that led to the loss of your foot? Nothing less would suffice.

So, if you are going to forgive the debt created by the loss of your foot, you can only do it to the extent that you are no longer limited to the economic resources implicit in the ontology of this world. To forgive the loss of your foot, you must have at your disposal some assets that are superadded to those of this world. You must, i.e., be a participant in the economy of Heaven, as well as that of Earth – at least a little bit.

This is rather like tearing your attention away from worldly idolatries and worshipping God only. Or rather, that’s just exactly what it is. When you are yourself overflowing with the grace of God, you can then afford to forgive the loss of your foot.

It is that same superfluity of ontological grace that ennobles the willing victim. To forgive, then, is to sacrifice. So, forgiveness of the sins of others against us is just exactly what we do in approaching the altar of the Eucharist, when we offer up our own sins to God, and make ourselves his willing slaves, to be ourselves sacrificed if need be, a reasonable, holy and living sacrifice.

“Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them, that trespass against us.” To enter into the divine forgiveness just is to forgive the trespasses of others, to let them go. The two movements are one act.

So, if you still nurse a grudge, you are not yet salved. You are still Hell-bound; bound for Hell, bound by Hell (again, two ways to say one thing).


Continued in Part IV.

3 thoughts on “The Economy of Forgiveness: Part III

  1. Can we talk about forgiveness and not talk about Love?
    There are no transactions in love. No assets and no debts.
    So how to talk about forgiveness in the language of love?

  2. Pingback: The Supremacy of language, heaven, god, and society « power of language blog: partnering with reality by JR Fibonacci


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