Thursday, August 31, 2006

Forgive & forget

Christian ethics ranges along a continuum, from theonomy, at one end of the spectrum—to Anabaptism, at the other.

In terms of confessional Calvinism, the Westminster longer and shorter catechisms take the Decalogue as their point of reference. The London Baptist Confession of Faith also upholds the Decalogue.

In practice, Calvinism often took in elements of the case law, including the penalties.

Some Christians reject OT ethics on theological grounds. In their view, OT ethics, in toto, is tied to the Mosaic Covenant, which is defunct.

Anabaptism is a classic expression of this viewpoint.

You also get this in traditional dispensationalism, although, with the advent of progressive dispensationalism, it’s harder to draw the lines.

For a mediating position, read Ethics for a Brave New World by the Feinberg brothers.

Whatever you think of these two positions, they are principled positions. They involve the larger question of how the OT is fulfilled in the NT.

However, many believers, as well as unbelievers, reject OT ethics, in whole or in part, for emotional rather than theological reasons.

They reject OT ethics simply because they regard it as excessively harsh, legalistic, and judgmental.

By contrast, Anabaptist ethics, with its turn-the-cheek docility, seems so much more loving and merciful.

ABC recently rebroadcast a special it had done on the Amish. Here’s a summary:


This week, "Primetime: The Outsiders - The Amish" looks at people who are radical believers. Elizabeth Vargas reports on a disturbing side of the Amish community and interviews Mary Byler, a woman who broke the Amish code by reporting sexual abuse to authorities. Byler became the center of the scandal that rocked her tight-knit Amish home in Wisconsin when she told the Sheriff's office that she was raped hundreds of times - by eight or nine men, including her own brothers, who did confess to the crime. According to sociologist Donald Kraybill, confessing in the Amish Church for wrongdoings is the key step to forgiveness, and the standard punishment for any infraction is banishment from church activities for six weeks. Byler, on the other hand, felt the punishment was not enough. "You're being grounded for six weeks," she says. "It's just really ridiculous punishment. The funny thing is that they view drinking alcohol until you puke as bad a sin as raping somebody." She also speaks out about what brought her to her final decision to go to the authorities and what life after leaving the Amish community is like. This report originally aired in December 2004.


Here we see, in very stark terms, the limits of compassion. The more merciful you are to the perpetrator, the more merciless you are to the victim.

Under OT law, her brothers would have been executed. Simple as that.

But in Anabaptist ethics, her brothers got off with a slap on the wrist (until she reported them to the police) while she was ostracized by the community—and, indeed, excommunicated—for being unforgiving and bucking the system.

The kinder and gentler approach to the assailant was decidedly unkind and uncharitable to the victim.

Frequently, justice is the most merciful course of action. Nothing is crueler than misplaced compassion.


  1. Steve wrote:
    Nothing is crueler than misplaced compassion.

    That reminds me of something one of my seminary profs once said. He gave the illustration of a young boy who is walking to his home during a spring snow storm. He hears chirping and sees a bird's nest that has been blown out of a tree and into a snowbank. Inside the nest is a baby bird.

    The boy feels great compassion for the bird and he "rescues" it. He takes it to his home and, because he loves the bird a great deal, he feeds the bird his favorite candy bar. Then he gives him a drink from his favorite soda and lavishes the baby bird with his favorite things.

    In the morning, the bird is dead. the boy is heartbroken, because he really loved the baby bird. But because he was ignorant of what the baby bird needed, he ended up killing the baby bird instead of helping it.

    The moral of the story is that compassion without knowledge is often worse than simply doing nothing.

  2. The law will always be a compromise between mercy and judgement. Where we draw the line is an important question.

    Clearly we cannot simply 'forgive and forget' in the context of criminal law. I remember in the aftermath of 9/11, many people in the UK were saying 'forgive' to the Americans.

    The state cannot forgive. That can only come from the heart of those who are wronged. And that has no part in the criminal process. The state does not punish a person until they are sorry, although remorse may get you time off for good behaviour. The state should look simply to the crime committed, and punish the crimnal accordingly.

  3. fly-by atheist9/05/2006 8:08 AM

    The moral of the story is that compassion without knowledge is often worse than simply doing nothing.

    Perhaps that's why God stands idly by and does nothing so often -- the Chap doesn't have compassion, or doesn't know what to do, or knows that having compassion without knowledge is worse.

  4. Thanks for the post. Spot on! I've linked it (below)