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Posted By Subaltern Queer

Creolization as Cultural Creativity

Improvising Jazz

At what point does jazz become 'jazz', rather than the blues or ragtime, out of which it clearly grew? To the extent that we can meaningfully speak of a 'beginning' of jazz, we must immediately acknowledge that it is improvised from the start out of two types of alterity—musical and ethnic. On the one hand, there are striking similarities between jazz and ethnic European music. On the other hand, jazz contains distinctly African-American and African elements, such as syncopation and call-and-response patterns. African music tends to negate precisely the regularity sought in European music—such aspects as steady pitch, timbre, vibrato, and directness of attack—as does jazz. More important for our concern here, jazz operates musically by way of alterity or heteronomy. Multiple voices in jazz do not necessarily produce a 'polyphony' based on harmonious counterpoint but a 'heterophony'. Although the ancient Greek term “heterophônia” literally meant the simultaneous performance of differing versions of a melody, in jazz heterophony is used more loosely to describe differing voices, dissonance, cross-rhythms, and multiple versions of melodies.

If improvisation takes place by using whatever is available, then what is on hand in the case of jazz are Black spirituals, ragtime, European folk music, and even opera. For instance, in an interview Louis Armstrong sings the beginning of “Serenade” from Romberg’s The Student Prince and then says: “That’s jazz. That’s the way I look at it. Anything you can express to the public is jazz.” The heterophony of jazz is due to its fundamental openness to heteronomy or alterity in which new improvisational possibilities are continually opening up. And the alterity within jazz is as much ethnic as musical. Although the history of jazz has usually been written in terms of black and white, there are at least three racial identities early on in jazz. It is this third category—Creoles of color or gens de couleur—that undermines the binary of racial opposition. Whereas Creoles musicians were often more familiar with the European musical tradition and thus better at reading music, Blacks were better at improvising. As Creoles and Blacks began to integrate (in the 1890’s), they began to influence one another musically, the result being a musical 'Creolization'. Creole culture serves as a metaphor for understanding the development of jazz. Musically, Creoles occupied a space somewhere between white European and African-American music—and that 'betweenness' helped open up a space for white musicians. While we think of improvisation in jazz as improvisation upon 'tunes', the improvisation on musical styles is both historically and ontologically prior—and key to understanding how jazz operates. Moreover, the development of jazz (including the improvisation upon tunes) is the story of continual improvisation upon itself.

Improvising Christianity

This sort of improvised beginning is remarkably similar to that of what we now call Christianity. Like the story of jazz, it’s hard to know exactly where to begin. Jesus appears in the midst of a heteronomous Judaism comprised of Sadducees, Pharisees, Herodians, and Essenes—all of whom took the Torah as their text but each with varying interpretations. Jesus himself takes no stand with any of these groups. Instead, demonstrating a keen knowledge of the Torah, he improvises upon the conventional readings of it. Of course, in so doing, Rabbi Jesus is continuing a long-established Jewish practice of textual improvisation. What distinguishes his improvisations is their radicality and the authority with which he speaks. Jesus’ voice does not merely join a polyphony of rabbinic voices but proves heterophonic. One of his constant refrains is “You have heard that it was said,” followed by “But I say unto you.” Even though Jesus qualifies these radical statements with the statement “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but fulfill” (Matt. 5:17), to his audience this would have sounded like a strange fulfillment indeed. And Jesus does not merely confine his improvising to the commandments of the Torah. He likewise appropriates its imagery for his own stories. The parable of the vineyard (Mark. 12:1-12), for example, is clearly based on the “song of the vineyard” in Isaiah 5:1-7. While there are important points of similarity, Jesus does not merely retell the same story. For Jesus’ version is primarily about himself. Thus, Jesus—a master improviser on Old Testament texts—inscribes a new reading within an old one, affirming both but transforming the old so that it can no longer be read in the same way. The improvisation that Jesus exemplifies could be described in terms of Derrida’s “iterability,” which he describes as “alterability of this same idealized in the singularity of the event, for instance, in this or that speech act. It entails the necessity of thinking at once both the rule and the event, concept and singularity.” The point of iterability is that citation is always at once repetition and transformation. In effect, Jesus repeats and alters. Such is the nature of improvisation.

The improvisatory interpretive practice exemplified by Jesus necessarily becomes part of the very fabric of Christianity as it grows. For, as Christ’s followers fulfilled the great commission of Matthew 28, the gospel spread to increasing wider and differing circles. Whereas Jesus had preached largely in the countryside and to peasant Jews, the fledging ekklêsia took Jerusalem as its center. With the conversions of Barnabas and Paul, the faith spread considerably wider. This expansion required a new interpretation of the faith and a new ethnic conception of who could be included in the ekklêsia. In effect, Paul served as the Christian 'Creole'—a Hellenized Jew, educated in the Torah, a Roman citizen, and a missionary to Greeks and Romans alike. It is this 'betweenness' of Paul and the conception of Christianity upon which he insists that makes it possible for many of us today to be included. In proclaiming that “there is no longer Jew or Greek” (Gal. 3:28), in effect Paul pushes for what has been recently called a “’kreolized’ identity—a revolutionary new cultural and social identity” (Fred Wei-han Ho, “’Jazz’, Kreolization and Revolutionary Music for the 21st Century,” in Sounding Off! Music as Subversion/Resistance/Revolution, 134). But this 'betweenness' is what made Christianity 'translatable' beyond narrow Jewish boundaries. As Lamin Sanneh puts it:

Christianity, from its origins, identified itself with the need to translate out of Aramaic and Hebrew, and from that position came to exert a dual force in its historical development. One was the resolve to relativize its Judaic roots . . . . The other was to destigmatize Gentile culture and adopt that culture as a natural extension of the life of the new religion (Translating the Message, 1).



Posted By Subaltern Queer

Kind of Blue Picture
Why Wright Gets Improvisation Wrong

Part Three

There are several reasons why Wright's improvisation metaphor fails. First, he is remarkably ignorant about improvisation, in at least three respects.

1) He assumes that he and musicians just 'know' what improvisation is. He writes: "As musicians know, improvisation does not at all mean a free-for-all where 'anything goes', but precisely a disciplined and careful listening to all the other voices around us, and a constant attention to the themes, rhythms and harmonies of the complete performance so far, the performance which we are now called to continue" (Scripture and the Authority of God, 127). When Wright published the article (1991) on which his later writing is based, many musicians knew precious little about improvisation. So "as musicians know" was simply incorrect, since many musicians didn't know and often still don't. Perhaps we could amend that to read "as precious few musicians know." Much of my published work has been designed to help people understand improvisation. Considering how many requests I still receive to contribute chapters and articles on the subject, improvisation continues to be studied.

2) Due to his ignorance, Wright provides a conception of improvisation that is incoherent. He is right about listening to all of the other voices, but that quotation from him continues with "at the same time, of course, it invites us, while being fully obedient to the music so far, and fully attentive to the voice around us, to expressionss, provide that will eventualy lead to the ultimate resolution which appears in the New Testament as the goal." This is a classic example of something that sounds lovely--until you look at it more closely. We are supposed to be listening to all the voices and to be 'fully obedient' to the 'ultimate resolution' as found in the New Testament. How is this supposed to work? What if not all of the voices are singing the same tune or are not fully in harmony? Wright does not provide an explicit way of adjudicating such disagreement, except by the vague ideal of the goal of the New Testament. What exactly is this goal? My worry is that here Wright has 'written' his particular part for the musical improvisation, which is that of telling us what that goal is. One cannot help but hear N.T. Wright trying to be the 'voice' of Paul and trying deperately to drown out all of the other voices. When Wright says he wants 'debte', that is correct. Unfortunately, debate is about spectacle, rhetorical tricks, and disingenuity. Argument is something different. Wright chooses debate over argument.

3) Wright has also used the improvisational idea of experienced Shakespearean actors being provided with the script of a play by Shakespeare that is missing the final act. They are called upon to 'faithfully' create that act. But it doesn't take much knowledge of the history of Shakespearean performance of plays that are fully written to realize that those performances vary remarkably. I believe that Wright is right to say that such actors could well improvise a final act. But he seriously underestimates the sheer scope for variation.

A second basic problem is that Wright wants to choose which aspects of improvisation he likes and ignore the rest--something related to ignorance. Establishing what counts as 'fidelity' is remarkably more complicated than it initially sounds. Given what we know about the different ways of defining 'fidelity' to texts that can be found in the history of performance practice of, say, Bach’s St. Matthew Passion or plays of Shakespeare, it is hardly surprising that the definition of 'fidelity' to biblical texts has been construed in various ways over the past two millennia. One can be 'true' to the letter or the spirit of a text. Sometimes they are one and the same, but often choosing letter or spirit is simply a choice, one that may have an exegetical basis but nothing like 'proof'. As I have argued elsewhere, disagreements between those in the 'authenticity movement' and 'mainstream performers have been precisely about the true meaning of fidelity. The problem here is that questions of fidelity can only be answered from within the interpretive community.

I have already written what I view as a rebuke to Wright. Since I was at that time still under the wary gaze of the Evangelical Magisterium, I couldn't put it quite as bluntly as that. Still, my chapter titled "Improvising Texts, Improvising Communities": Jazz, Interpretation, Heterophony, and the Ekklêsia" is designed as a way to subvert Wright's view. I do so by insisting on 'heterophony'. Given that jazz is the fusion of African and European musical traditions, it both accepts and subverts musical conventions. Jazz tends to negate precisely the regularity sought in European music—such aspects as steady pitch, timbre, vibrato, and directness of attack. More important for our concern here, jazz operates musically by way of alterity or heteronomy. Multiple voices in jazz do not necessarily produce a 'polyphony' based on harmonious counterpoint but a 'heterophony'. Although the ancient Greek term 'heterophônia' literally meant the simultaneous performance of differing versions of a melody, in jazz heterophony is used more loosely to describe differing voices, dissonance, cross-rhythms, and multiple versions of melodies.

In jazz, the result is that the very parameters of what counts as a 'faithful' improvsiation have themselves been altered and are constantly being improvised. The kinds of chords I regularly play--that include flat 5s, sharp 11s, 13s, and so much more--go far beyond anything Mozart could have conceived of as 'harmonious'. Wright is, I think, working with a notion of polyphony and he is attempting to be 'open' about its possibilities. But music advances harmonically when we start to hear notes that were once simply 'wrong' as creating new harmonic possibilities. Dixieland jazz is about as close as we get to 'original' jazz (since no one really knows what 'original' jazz sounded like, we can't be sure), but it's really boring. However, jazz gloriously develops over the twentieth-century to include swing, bebop, cool, free, fusion, and many things that don't really have a proper name. A very important aspect of that development involves African-Americans who have used jazz to protest and subvert 'values' that privilege white people socially, economically, religiously, and culturally.

Although Wright has only responded to the voices of LGBTQ+ Christians sporadically, when he does he tends toward the tactic of debate rather than argument. Let me conclude by focusing on two points he makes that seem highly problematic, both in themselves and when put together. On the one hand, he claims that marriage has always been (as in 'everywhere and at all times') heterosexual in nature. The convenience of such a claim should be clear: no one can argue otherwise, since no one knows what all cultures have thought of 'marriage' (or even whether all cultures have had this concept, which is dubious). On the other hand, Wright claims that Paul was remarkably astute regarding sexual relationships and understood all of the possible permutations thereof. Does that mean that Paul would have been able to envision gay marriage? If marriage has always been only conceivable heterosexually, then Paul would not have been able to conceive of same-sex marriage. Which means he cannot be seen as addressing it anywhere in his writings. Or else Paul could have conceived of such marriage, in which case his writings could be read (though not necessarily) as addressing it. But that puts the universal conception of marriage as being by definition heterosexual in question. As I say, both of these claims are highly problematic and unsubstantiated simply in themselves. However, there seems to be no way of putting them together.

As Ira Gershwin memorably puts it, "something's gotta give."

Posted By Subaltern Queer

Classical Conductor

Does Tom Wright Get Improvisation Wrong?

Part Two

To continue our discussion from Part One, we need to consider the distinction between performance and improvisation.

Let's start with Stephen Barton’s observation:

In recent study of the nature of NT interpretation, considerable attention in certain circles has been given to the possibility that there is one metaphor that is particularly appropriate for articulating what NT interpretation involves. It is the metaphor of performance.[1]

There are a couple of crucial implications to construing NT interpretation (and biblical interpretation in general) in terms of performance. First, to say that interpretation takes the form of 'performance' is to claim that scriptural texts are 'brought to life' by way of performance in the sense that do not fully exist except in the moments either of being authored or those of being read and understood. Without doubt, texts certainly exist apart form being read and understood. For our purposes here, I will take a text to be 'the putting into writing of an author’s intended meaning'. But 'un-interpreted' texts—while they exist—have only 'potential' meanings. It takes an interpreter to 'revive' their meaning (literally, 'bring it to life'). This ontological claim concerning the being of a text inevitably leads us to a second ontological claim, viz., that interpreters or readers are necessary not only for a text to have meaning but also for it simply to be in its fullest sense. If written texts are dependent upon both authors and interpreters for their existence as texts, then texts do not have an independent but rather a dependent existence—yet still an existence in which text and interpretation do not merely collapse into one another.

Second, in the same way that performance of musical or theatrical works can be characterized as having varying levels of fidelity, so biblical 'performances' have varying levels of fidelity. Some performances are simply more faithful to the text than others. However, establishing 'fidelity' is not quite as simple as it initially sounds. Given what we know about the different ways of defining 'fidelity' to texts that can be found in the history of performance practice of, say, Bach’s St. Matthew Passion or plays of Shakespeare, it is hardly surprising that the definition of 'fidelity' to biblical texts has been construed in various ways over the past two millennia. So the question is not just one of levels of fidelity but also one of kinds of fidelity. I think Frances Young is right in comparing disagreements in biblical interpretation to those in the 'authenticity movement' in music.[2] But, in making that comparison, we have not necessarily solved any interpretational difficulties. For, as I have argued elsewhere, disagreements between those in the 'authenticity movement' and 'mainstream performers tend to be about the true meaning of fidelity.[3] As we will see, questions of fidelity can only be answered from within the interpretive community.

While the metaphor of performance is undoubtedly helpful in thinking about the act of interpretation, it seems to me that it almost gets interpretation right—but not quite. In one sense, the idea of 'performance' seems appropriate for thinking about interpretation because 'to perform' is defined as “to finish making, to complete the construction of.”[4] Even though performance requires 'execution' of what is notated (whether in words or musical notes), performers clearly add something to whatever they interpret. In terms of musical pieces, performers may need to make decisions regarding tempi, attack, vibrato, instrumentation, and many other aspects.

Roman Ingarden describes this aspect of musical texts in terms of “Unbestimmtheitsstellen”—places of indeterminacy.[5] But it is not just musical texts that have such points of indeterminacy. Even E.D. Hirsch, Jr.—a strong advocate of construing textual meaning by way of the intent of the author—recognizes this point. Although Hirsch points out that any communication requires a certain degree of 'determinacy', he is all too well aware that such determinacy only goes so far. To quote him:

Determinacy does not mean definiteness or precision. Undoubtedly, most verbal meanings are imprecise and ambiguous, and to call them such is to acknowledge their determinacy: they are what they are—namely ambiguous and imprecise—and they are not univocal and precise.[6]

In regard to musical scores, musicologists often refer to this lack of precision as 'underdetermination'. That is, scores do not provide enough information to actually perform the work. One must know what to do with the notes on the page, and that knowledge comes only by being steeped in a performance practice or tradition. But the imprecision of texts—musical and otherwise—could likewise be construed by what I term 'overdetermination'. In other words, scores and texts generally provide more possibilities than could be realized in simply one interpretation. So a symphony can be performed with deep feeling or machine-like precision and a novel like Middlemarch can be read as a character study or a discourse on morals. The degree of 'over' and 'under'-determination, of course, is dependent upon the genre. Whereas writers of technical manuals attempt—as much as possible—to avoid both aspects, poets often exploit them. Yet interpretation always requires determination. Hans-Georg Gadamer points out that this need for 'determination' is particularly evident in translations. No matter how much the translator wishes to remain faithful to the original text, “every translation that takes its task seriously is at once clearer and flatter than the original.”[9] Similarly, we can say that every interpretation says both more and less than the original text.

So is interpretation inherently improvisational in nature? More to come...

[1] Stephen C. Barton, “New Testament Interpretation as Performance,” in Scottish Journal of Theology 52 (1999): 179.

[2] Francis Young, Virtuoso Theology: The Bible and Interpretation (Cleveland: Pilgrim, 1993),24. 

[3] See my discussion of differing notions of “fidelity” in the authenticity movement in The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue: A Phenomenology of Music (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), pp. 96-124.

[4] For the various definitions of “perform” or “performance” used in this and the following paragraph, see the OED s.v. “perform.”

[5] Roman Ingarden, Ontology of the Work of Art: The Musical Work—The Picture—The Architectural Work—The Film, trans. Raymond Meyer with John T. Goldthwait (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1989), p. 90.

[6] E.D. Hirsch, Jr., Validity in Interpretation (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1967), p. 44.

[7] Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, 2nd rev. ed., trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall (New York: Crossroad, 1989), p. 386.

Posted By Subaltern Queer

Improvisational Acting

Does Tom Wright Get Improvisation Wrong?

Part One


In an online interview, Tom Wright says the following regarding the issue of homosexuality and the church: “our problem at the moment is that we are not having a debate.” Instead, he thinks that people are simply yelling at one another. As a philosopher, I generally don’t think too much of yelling. I much prefer rational argument, which is not exactly the same as debate. My worry about ‘debate’ is that the goal of a debate is to ‘win’. It encourages one to use ‘rhetoric’ that suits one’s purposes. Plato was always suspicious of rhetoric and I confess that I have the same concern.

Before I go any further, I should note that Tom and I were colleagues until recently. He has now gone from St Andrews to Wycliffe Hall at Oxford, where he trained to become a priest. Unlike Tom, I am not a New Testament scholar, nor do I play one on television. Instead, I am a philosopher who has long worked at the intersection of biblical texts and philosophy (see my Graven Ideologies for an example). As a philosopher, one of my specialties is hermeneutics—the art of interpreting texts. A difficulty I have personally experienced in reading biblical texts is that, even if we are reading them in original languages, we can only conceptualize them as people who come at those texts with our own cultures, language, and history. There is no such thing as an ‘objective’ reader of texts. There is no way to ‘place’ yourself back in the Corinth or Rome of the first century. Nor is there any reason to think that there should be such a reader. If you could read a text purely objectively, it would have no meaning for you as a subject. Or, if you could read I Corinthians just as the original Corinthians could, then you would be unable to see how what Paul writes relates to us in the twenty-first century. 

Yet that realization means that, whenever we approach a text, we bring ourselves with us. I remember watching Dragnet as a kid growing up and hearing Jack Friday say “just the facts, ma’am.” Back then, I didn’t think that things could be any more complicated than ‘just the facts’. I still believe in facts and cling quite tenaciously to the belief that there is truth. But I have questions about how much our own perspectives can blind us. I am unable, for instance, to say that I am ever giving anyone ‘just the facts’, even though I strive to be as ‘fact-based’ as possible. Even science is never purely ‘fact-based’. Thus, I am very suspicious of anyone who claims to be giving us ‘just the facts’. In what follows, I will be considering what Tom (N.T.) says about homosexuality and improvisation, over the course of a few posts. 

Let’s start with improvisation and wend our way toward the topic of homosexuality. Tom suggests that one way of thinking about what it means to live out the biblical narrative in a faithful way is to think of the ekklêsia as improvising a lost fifth act of a Shakespeare play. Instead of simply writing out a fifth act, skilled actors—well versed in Shakespeare, the play itself, and acting in general—would “work out a fifth act for themselves” (“How Can the Bible Be Authoritative?”). This is a highly thoughtful and helpful way of thinking about how Christians carry on a tradition. There is no existing roadmap for the future. People sometimes say that all of the answers are in the Bible. But the Bible tells me nothing about whether I should live in Scotland or whether brushing my teeth now is a good idea. Of course, the very idea of “improvising” upon a text—particularly a biblical text—is likely to cause anxiety among those who view Scripture as sacred. Should one be improvising on holy writ? One might simply respond by pointing out that—descriptively speaking—that is what interpreters actually do (however much they might think or contend otherwise). That point is, as far as I’m able to see, 100% correct

But I hasten to add that the ‘spontaneous creation’ idea that often characterizes most people’s idea of improvisation is simply wrong. Instead of this romantic picture of improvisation, I have in mind what classical rhetoricians term ‘inventio’, which can be literally translated as ‘invention’ but not inaccurately as ‘improvisation’.[1] Inventio is both a repetition and a transformation, for it is the art of taking that which already exists and developing or elaborating upon it. As such, it involves imitatio but it goes beyond simple imitation. Likewise, this inventio is only inventive in a limited sense. Obviously, interpretations can be more imitative and less inventive or more inventive and less imitative. But there is neither pure imitation nor pure invention. Rather, the interpreter is situated between imitatio and inventio. Here I side with the classical rather than the romantic sense of improvisation.[2]

Brian Walsh has a chapter in the Festschrift for Tom that came out last year titled “Sex, Scripture, and Improvisation.” In order to situate Tom as an interpreter, Walsh writes: “Wright is a white, affluent, culturally privileged, heterosexual bishop of the Church of England.”[3] Walsh goes on to say: “None of this is said to dismiss his significant contribution, but only to situate that contribution and, yes, to provide some relativization of it as well. As Wright notes, we need to always be attuned to our own contextuality and the way it ‘predisposes us to highlight some things in the Bible and quietly ignore others.”[4] Personally, I have spilled a good deal of ink on the issue of highlighting things in the Bible we like and ignoring the rest.[5] What I find is that, even people who claim to be taking the Bible ‘purely literally’, are still deciding what they want to ignore. For instance, Jesus does not say ‘this is like my body’ or ‘this is a kind of remembrance of my body’. The Greek construction we translate as “this is my body” (Luke 22:19) uses ‘estin’ which means ‘is’. But Evangelicals clearly have a Bill Clinton problem with this verse: they question whether ‘is’ here means what it means in all of the other Bible verses.

What, then, does one do in improvising upon the Bible? I will consider that question in my next post.


[1] See, for instance, Quintilian, Institutio Oratia, Vol. IV, trans. H.E. Butler (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1922) book X. 

[2] As Gerald Bruns deftly contrasts them, classical improvisation works “with what is received, which it then proceeds to color, amplify, alter, or fulfill,” whereas romantic improvisation “begins with a blank sheet of paper.” See his Inventions: Writing, Textuality, and Understanding in Literary History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982), p. 147.

[3] Brian Walsh, “Sex, Scripture, and Improvisation” in One God, One People, One Future: Essays on Honor Of N. T. Wright, ed. John Anthony Dunne and Eric Lewellan (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2019).

[4] N.T. Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2011), 128.

[5] “‘You Are Not Far From the Kingdom’: Christianity as Self-Disruptive Messianism.” In Reexamining Deconstruction and Determinate Religion: Toward a Religion with Religion, ed. J. Aaron Simmons and Stephen Minister. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 2012.


Posted By Subaltern Queer

Sod Calm and Get Angry

Against Forgiveness: On Resisting ‘Forgiveness Oppression’

It has become a commonplace in western society that one should forgive. One finds this particularly among Christians, but it so widespread that it is hardly a ‘Christian’ thing at this point. We are constantly told that we should ‘just forgive’. In a later post, I will argue that what now passes for ‘Christian’ forgiveness is a fundamental distortion of what Jesus teaches. My attack here, though, is aimed at all of ‘preachers of the therapeutic value of forgiveness’—religious or otherwise. Many of these people proclaim forgiveness as having personal rather than any kind of specifically religious benefits.

My thesis is very simple: forgiveness is dangerous and you should be very careful about granting it to anyone. In many cases, you should withhold forgiveness from those who have hurt you. Instead of forgiving them, do whatever you need to distance yourself from those people. I moved to another continent. Something less drastic might work. And you should stand up to anyone who tries to force you to forgive, for they often are doing so for their sake, not yours. There is no reason to be victimized a second time.

Let’s start with the Christian forgiveness nonsense. Lewis B. Smedes published a book titled Forgive and Forget: Healing the Hurts You Don’t Deserve in 1984. Do you remember the significance of that year? It’s the name of Orwell’s novel in which everything is turned around. The Ministry of Truth writes and distributes propaganda; the Ministry of Peace is about war. It is this ‘turnaround’ that is important to see. You might wonder why I single out Smedes given that he is hardly alone in peddling therapeutic forgiveness. But he published another book (The Art of Forgiving: When You Need to Forgive and Don’t Know How) in 1996 and the 2007 edition of Forgive and Forget proudly proclaims that 400,000 copies of the book had already been sold by then. So it has clearly been influential not merely in religious but also in psychological counseling circles. Smedes’s books are full of strange platitudes that distort what forgiveness is about. Here’s one: “Forgiving is a gift, not a duty. It is meant to heal, not obligate. So the only good answer to Peter’s question is: Use the gift as often as it takes to set you free from a miserable past you cannot shake” (The Art of Forgiving, p. 161).

One might well respond: “but isn’t it a good thing to be healed and set free?” Probably, though the answer is going to depend on the context. The real problem with this quotation is that it makes forgiveness into a ‘self-help’ tool. It is something that you give yourself—the moral equivalent of making yourself a cup of warm cocoa and curling up near the fire on a cold day. On one website we find this: “There is, however, a great deal of scientific evidence that does exist on the health effects of depression, anxiety, and anger—byproducts of the hurt and betrayal felt when someone has wronged us. These include increased blood pressure, increased heart rate, the release of hormones that trigger our fight-or-flight reactions, headache, stomach problems, and sleeplessness, all occurring whenever we allow the painful episode to rewind and replay over and over in our minds.” So you need to forgive to escape from anxiety and anger that raises your blood pressure and leads to insomnia. Forgiveness is all about you.

Except it actually isn’t. One reason is simply that forgiveness always presupposes a communal context. It concerns your relation to the person who hurt you. Often, that relationship is bound up with relationships with other people, meaning that there can be many people involved. Whether we want to be involved or not, most of us find ourselves connected to hurts inflicted by other people that hurt us indirectly. Having a friend who has been a victim usually means that one shares in the pain. So forgiveness is never simply about you.

However, there is another sense of it not being about you that particularly worries me. Other people can try to make you forgive to suit their purposes. Robert D. Enright claims that “an offended person who refuses to forgive until certain contingencies are met suffers twice . . . . To forgive, then, is to show self-respect” (Robert D. Enright, “Counseling within the Forgiveness Triad,” p. 109). Enright’s argument is that allowing the other person’s harm to make us angry shows a lack of self-respect. But his more hidden agenda is highly coercive in nature: as a ‘good’ person, you should forgive. While it is true that allowing oneself to become bitter and resentful may not be good, one can certainly choose not to forgive without being consumed by anger. This is what philosophers call a ‘false dilemma’, the fallacy that only two extremes are possible. You may well decide that you won’t forgive but you have other things to do and so won’t spend much time thinking about the wrong done to you. Of course, you have the right to think about it as much as you wish. Other people have no right to tell you that you can't or shouldn't. Enright appeals to the victim’s own happiness: you’ll be happier if you simply forgive. But I think the simplest response should be: I’ll decide what makes me happy; I don’t need a psychological quack to decide for me.

But that is the least offensive form of forgiveness oppression. Stephen P. Garvey writes: “It is a moral failure . . . for victims to withhold forgiveness unreasonably from offenders who have done all they can do to expiate their guilt” (“Punishment as Atonement,” p. 1828). Perhaps the key lies in the phrase ‘done all they can’. Repentance is certainly the main expectation. But Enright thinks that even incest and rape victims should forgive without expecting repentance. As it turns out, so did the slave owners in the southern United States. The preachers of forgiveness say to us queers: ‘just forgive’. I want no part of that. If Jesus is simply saying ‘turn the other cheek’ so that you are continually oppressed, then I would have to say a big ‘no’ to Jesus. But I don’t think that’s what he’s saying. However, the message of forgiveness is truly a dangerous one. As a queer, I have absolutely no intention of ever forgiving any of the people who’ve hurt me. None of them have asked for forgiveness or shown repentance. If they come knocking, I'm open to considering it.

Desmond Tutu writes: “Not to forgive leads to bitterness and hatred, which, just like self-hatred and self-contempt, gnaw away at the vitals of one’s being” (“Foreword” to Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa Report, vol. 1, p. 18) But, again, we have a completely false dichotomy. But note that this is the later Tutu speaking. The earlier Tutu had agreed to the Kairos Document in 1985, which reads “no reconciliation, no forgiveness and no negotiation are possible without repentance.” Tutu changes his message in light of expediency. He praises those who forgive without repentance. 

Hold tightly to that resolution of the Kairos Document! Be very careful about forgiving anyone who does not repent.