But then, how can a man be virtuous without God? That’s the snag and I always come back to it.
Mitya in Fyodor Dostoevsky, Brother’s Karamazov1
Can you imagine a culture that does not teach the virtue of forgiveness? Actually, I found one conducting my doctoral dissertation research in 1994-95. While interviewing educators from Russia and Ukraine who had taught communist moral education and were now learning Christian moral education, I asked the teachers to compare the two ethical systems. Of course, they noted similarities, such as “be kind, be friendly, don’t try to offend, don’t kill, don’t be cruel, don’t kill your brother, or something like that” (personal interview, 4/26/95). That is what natural revelation gets you in an ideologically corrupt country.
Yet, repeatedly, interviewees shared about important differences. One startling truth they shared was that communist ethics never taught them about the redemptive virtue of forgiveness. For example, Larissa claimed, “Communist ideology never taught us to ask for forgiveness.” Olga echoed this point: “We weren’t taught to forgive; thus, we never knew what forgiveness is or never knew how to forgive. Christianity is based on that” (personal interview, 10/24/94). This new teaching had a profound personal influence upon teachers. Katerina recalled:
I have learned to forgive people. I have been taught to forgive people. It’s a very good feature. When you forgive people, it’s a process. In Russian language we have such phrase as a stone fall down from yourself—I don’t know if you have such an expression in English. You feel such a relief when you forgive. And I study and I learn to forgive only in my Bible study classes. I wasn’t such a person before I become a Christian. Shame upon me, but I got revenge before becoming a Christian. I got revenge. And now I can’t do this. (personal interview, 9/15/94)
Teachers perceived that this unique virtue of forgiveness made a difference in other ethical areas. Under communism, as a teacher from St. Petersburg described, the fear of making mistakes and being punished penetrated the system to such a degree that people lied to cover their mistakes:
Christian morality admits that each person has the right to make the mistake of sin, but the point is how she or he will live after this sin. Will she or he admit this or confess, or will [he or she] keep on in this sin? So Christian morals, as opposed to communist morals, doesn’t state the necessity of lying. You don’t have to lie, either to yourself or to anyone. If you make a mistake, be open about it, admit this, and try to correct it rather than hide it or wait for punishment or hide it with new mistakes or sins. (personal interview, 12/10/94)
This teacher believed that the lack of an ethic of forgiveness contributed to communism’s culture of lies.
The westerners teaching these educators about Christian ethics also noted the absence of teachings regarding forgiveness. Here are common examples from four different Western individuals:
- One of the most memorable moments of my experience was when the idea of forgiveness dawned on a woman in my small group. She said, “You mean I can be forgiven?”
- One teacher was amazed at God’s forgiveness. “Will God forgive anything? No matter what? I don’t believe it. That is too great for me.” This followed a discussion of the parable of the prodigal son.
- At one point in my small group, we were talking about the curriculum and its topic of forgiveness when one asked, “What is forgiveness, and what do we need to do to get it?” I was amazed that this group was inquiring about this.
- A beautiful, young teacher in the small group said after, “But I don’t see how God could possibly forgive me for all the wrong I have done.”
Alasdair MacIntyre noted that “at the centre of biblical religion is the conception of a love for those who sin.”2 Such a conception was missing from the communist narrative. Certainly, the conception of a God who both loves and forgives those who sin was completely absent. A culture that sought to bury the Good Friday story as a relic of its past found itself without a culture of forgiveness.
Teachers also shared about the difficulty in teaching forgiveness to their students who resisted the idea. Tatyana recalled:
I brought these materials, and I shared with my students about forgiveness. . . . I just told them about the problem and used this text from the curriculum, then assigned them some questions. Why is it good to forgive? It is interesting to confess some of the boys shared that it is not good to forgive. Not everything should be forgiven…. And of course, I shared about myself. It is good to forgive because you have no pain inside, and you don’t eat your heart out. (personal interview, 6/01/94)
Another teacher from Vladimir recalled experiencing similar opposition, “They say, I can’t forgive this person, I must take revenge” (personal interview, 10/24/94).
Nevertheless, once in a while the lesson of forgiveness would break through to the students. Maria shared:
I remember one lesson, . . . I ask[ed] everybody, what value is most valuable to you. What feature of your friend is the most valuable for you, . . . and most of them said, I will never forgive a betrayer. . . . It was the most [common] definition of a good friendship. One small boy, his name is George, he said, “I can forgive if he’ll betray me. I can do it, because if he’s my friend, I can do it.” It was so touching. And I said, “You George are like Jesus because Jesus forgives. Peter betrayed him three times and he did forgive, because if you are a good Christian, you can try to forgive even your friend.” That was a very special moment in our classroom because they did understand something. (personal interview, 9/23/94)
It is interesting to note how the students shared an Aristotelian conception of friendship as opposed to a Christian understanding of forgiveness. As MacIntyre wrote, “Aristotle in considering the nature of friendship had concluded that a good man could not be the friend of a bad man.”3 Thus, Aristotle’s moral universe omits the conception of love for the sinner. In contrast, the Christian narrative celebrates it, as did this Russian teacher who had recently converted to Christianity.
Although Americans might like to think of themselves as better than those godless former communists and their communist moral education, in reality, American democratic education is not any better. When I and a co-author undertook a study of character education laws in the United States a little over a decade ago, we discovered state laws, combined, listed a total of 64 different virtues that were taught to students.
Over three-fourths of the states with such lists taught respect, honesty, and responsibility. Yet only one state (Arizona) listed “forgiveness” among their stated virtues (joy, gentleness, humility, love, faith, and hope were completely missing from the list). Perhaps not surprisingly, the Democratic Metanarrative—like the Communist Metanarrative—does not foster a focus on forgiveness; it is not central to its narrative. We are now seeing the results of a democratic culture that lacks forgiveness in our public life and the university.
For Christians, we understand forgiveness as one of the most glorious virtues—one that is central to our narrative, as Good Friday reminds us. On that dark day, according to Gospel of Luke, Jesus’ final acts involved forgiveness. He prayed, asking God, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34a). Immediately after, we read about Jesus’ promise to the repentant thief who is not one of those crucifying Him. He requests “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” to which Jesus replied with glorious words of forgiveness, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:42-43).
May we also celebrate this magnificent day by remembering and acting out the words from Ephesians 4:32, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”
Part of this blog post is adopted from my book, The Quest for Russia’s Soul.