“Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” – Luke 23:34
The zeitgeist of COVID, vaccines, mandates, passports, and a seemingly interminable barrage of social media has led to a set of seemingly ever-increasing tensions throughout our society. Trolling, sealioning, bullying, and outright anger are splashed all over our media, and even for the calmest among us the temptation is strong to join in on the fight.
Much of this is natural. Our own psychological impulses are to identify with social groups, for it is through our social belonging that we derive significant positive affect—and positive affect is in rather short supply in 2021. Belonging to these social groups involves accepting and adhering to the norms of the group. But belonging also means rejecting the norms of other social groups. Psychologically we need to know who is in and who is out. Naturally this leads to conflict, especially as so much of our interaction is impersonal and mediated by a keyboard.
Into this conflict I am reminded of Jesus’ walking through the Levant, regularly in conflict with other groups, and gathering a small band of disciples. But constantly differentiating between people and positions. Indeed, the repeated teaching in the Matthean Sermon on the Mount is astounding in its resistance to our basal impulses. From an escalation of physical murder to psychological murder in the form of ὀργή (anger, 5:22), through to the explicit repudiation of the Lex Talionis—an eye for an eye—it ultimately culminates in the instruction to not only ‘love your neighbour’ (5:43) but to ‘love your enemies’ (5:44).
It is this radical ethic that Jesus would ultimately take to the cross, forever enabling what is outside of our intrinsic nature. Uttering those words that we could not: ‘forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ In the disputes and turmoil of our world, we too can utter ‘forgive them, for they know not what they do.’
But perhaps even more challenging is to ask ‘forgive us, for we know not what we do’…
Chris Porter is a New Testament scholar working on the Fourth Gospel with a particular emphasis in the intersection of theology and psychology. He is currently a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at Trinity College Theological School.