Jon Coutts. A Shared Mercy: Karl Barth on Forgiveness and the Church. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016. See here to purchase the book.
Jon Coutts teaches theology and ethics at Trinity College, which is in Bristol, England. A Shared Mercy is about theologian Karl Barth’s views on interpersonal forgiveness.
Not surprisingly, Barth’s views on interpersonal forgiveness are Christocentric. For Barth, Christians’ forgiveness of others is based on Christ’s forgiveness of human beings, which is what actually frees them to forgive others. Barth rejected the idea that Christians should simply enjoy God’s forgiveness by themselves, for Barth held that being a Christian entails being a part of a Christian community and extending forgiveness to other people, both inside and outside of the church.
Barth’s Christocentric view on interpersonal forgiveness can inspire questions. For example, what about secular justifications for forgiveness, such as the idea that forgiveness has the therapeutic value of making the wronged person feel better, or the idea that people should try to empathize with other human beings, even those who hurt them? Coutts, who largely agrees with Barth, does not dismiss the value of psychological insights on the issue of forgiveness, but he believes that they should be employed within a Christological context. For Barth and Coutts, the Christological context is what provides a deep well for forgiveness, as well as hope when forgiveness appears absurd. By themselves, secular justifications for forgiveness are problematic. Forgiving for its therapeutic value is self-serving, and forgiving out of empathy for the offender is rooting forgiveness in similarities between two people, as opposed to loving those who are different.
The first chapter of the book was rather difficult in that it sought to resolve debates about the implications of Barth’s thoughts, while also summarizing a difference of opinion between Barth and von Balthasar. These discussions may have been important to the book, since it is an academic treatment of Barth’s views on forgiveness, but they were rather arcane, in my opinion. The chapter did have a fascinating quote by Rodney Petersen, however, about the marginalization of interpersonal forgiveness within “Christendom.”
While the first chapter was rather daunting, the rest of the book was lucid. It largely focused on articulating Barth’s views, while also allowing Barth’s views to contribute to larger discussions about forgiveness. Coutts interacted with challenging questions about interpersonal forgiveness: Does forgiveness trivialize evil? Does needing to repent to receive forgiveness mean that forgiveness is not a free gift? Do love and forgiveness entail reciprocity, or should they be unconditionally extended to people, even if they do not reciprocate? On the last question, Barth believed that Christians should extend unconditional love, but he also thought that the end of such love should be Christian fellowship within the community, which is reciprocal. Coutts’ attempts to resolve this apparent tension in Barth’s thought, among his other discussions of complex issues, was what made this book fascinating.
A theme that appears throughout the book is that there are wrong ways to extend and receive forgiveness. People can forgive or publicly apologize in order to promote themselves, which is unhelpful. There are shallow forms of forgiveness and repentance, and Barth discussed the latter in his interaction with the story of the Israelite spies in Numbers 12-14. Finding the right balance between personal introspection and communal dialogue and attempts at resolution can be a challenge.
On the one hand, Coutts’ references to these pitfalls can make one feel that one can never get forgiveness and repentance right. If forgiveness is a work of God rather than something that we try to muster by ourselves, as Barth argued, should we be heavily pressured to walk a fine line? On the other hand, Coutts does well to discuss these pitfalls, for they may help explain why people can be sincere Christians, yet fail so often at forgiveness and love. Plus, to his credit, Coutts does mention Barth’s emphasis on God’s continual mercy towards us, even when we stumble in our faltering efforts to forgive, and Coutts says that the Holy Spirit can use improper forgiveness, at least as a starting-point.
In terms of whether I like the book, I am giving the book five stars because it is deep and weighty. I did learn things in reading this book, such as Derrida’s view that interpersonal forgiveness is unrealistic, and the relevance of deconstructionism to his stance. The interpretation of Jesus’ parable of the unmerciful servant (Matthew 18:21-35) by Ched Myers and Elaine Enns also stood out to me in this book, as Myers and Enns argued that the king in the parable does not represent God but is another character in the story who wrongly embraces vengeful retribution.
Because I am someone who is socially-challenged and struggles with resentment, a book on interpersonal forgiveness that says that God that requires interpersonal interaction will make me angry, in places. I often greet the idea that people are supposed to be friends with each other in one big, happy community with “Dream on!”, and I had that reaction as I went through this book. I am still unclear about how exactly God’s forgiveness of humanity in Christ frees us up to forgive, or how it enables us to get rid of our insecurities and pettiness. Plenty of people believe in God’s forgiveness of humanity through Christ, or at least they think that they believe that, yet they still have ego! And, while Coutts criticizes methods of forgiveness that fail to value the other as other, does his, and Barth’s, approach truly do this? Forgiving others on account of Christ seems to place more emphasis on Christ rather than the others who would receive forgiveness.
Yet, Coutts does make important points. For instance, as Coutts, Barth, and even Jesus maintain, confrontation of others may be necessary for reconciliation to occur, so that the confronted can come to terms with how hurtful their behavior is. Yet, I would maintain that confrontation can also be very awkward and may even make matters worse, especially if people’s feelings get hurt or people nitpick from the standpoint of pettiness.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. My review is honest!