Half-Measure Christianity

One of my favorite monologues in television history comes from the penultimate episode of Breaking Bad’s third season, called “Half Measures.” Mike Ehrmantraut, the private investigator/personal body guard to drug kingpin Gus Fring, is trying to convince Walter White to let Fring’s organization kill Walt’s partner Jesse. Mike’s argument recalls his days as a beat cop (according to the show, he was a cop in Philadelphia; according to his speech, he drove out into the desert. I’m not sure there are deserts around Philadelphia), having to handle domestic disturbances. In one case, convinced a battered woman would never leave her abuser, Mike takes him into a secluded area and threatens to kill him unless he stops beating his wife. “Just trying to do the right thing,” Mike lamented. “But two weeks later, he killed her…. The moral of the story is, I chose I half measure when I should have gone all the way.”

Hold that thought.

One of the unique and compelling aspects of Christianity is that it instructs us to focus on God and to examine ourselves. It doesn’t give us license to shame one another. It doesn’t teach us that we deserve to be treated a certain way interpersonally, nor does it imply that we can demand any such behavior. On the contrary, the Gospel teaches us how I, Christian, should respond no matter how I am treated. Rather than demanding not to be cursed, I must bless those that curse me. Instead of returning vitriol for hate, God tells me to do good to those who hate me. Far from protecting me the people who oppose me and my beliefs, I am taught to pray for them. Christianity, in its essence, is about transforming me, you, us into the likeness of the living God.

This is important to note. One of the core teachings of Christianity is that we must forgive each other. Why? Because no matter how badly someone has wronged us, we have wronged God infinitely more. “Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had mercy on you?” God asks, in the form of a parable, in Matthew 18. In response to that parable, Peter asked Jesus, “How often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Jesus replies, “Not up to seven times, but seventy times seven.” (A lot of commentary has been made about how Jesus wasn’t giving Peter a math test but just saying, “Just keep doing it. Don’t stop. It doesn’t matter how many times he sins against you. Keep forgiving.”) Aaron Weiss takes this to the logical conclusion: “But grace, we all know, can take the place of all we owe. So why not let’s forgive everyone, everywhere, everything?”

But some of us, without even thinking about it, take this idea past its end point. Instead of stopping there, and directing this teaching inward to say, “I must forgive my neighbor,” we twist it to point outward: “My neighbor must forgive me.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. That’s true, but only to a point. We are not allowed to use the teachings of Christ to manipulate the behavior of fellow Christians – or anyone else for that matter. If you harm your friend or neighbor, it’s not on you to demand forgiveness from him or her. Your job is to repent, ask forgiveness, and be willing to offer atonement for the harm you caused. When Zacchaeus, the tax collector, came to Jesus and said, “Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will restore it fourfold,” Jesus didn’t say, “Nah, it’s cool. It’s their job to forgive you for that.” Instead, Jesus said, “Today salvation has come to this house.”

Tim Keller teaches that forgiveness, typically speaking, is hard. “(Forgiveness) is a form of suffering. You not only suffer the original loss of happiness, reputation, and opportunity, but now you forgo the consolation of inflicting the same on them. You are absorbing the debt, taking the cost of it completely on yourself instead of taking it out of the other person. It hurts terribly. Many people would say that it feels like a kind of death.” (Keller goes on to dispel the idea that forgiveness is just “letting go” of a gripe, or what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” Forgiveness is refusing to let the other person pay the cost of a debt; the cost still must be paid, though, and the greater the debt the greater the burden of paying it. “Everyone who forgives someone bears the other’s sins.”)

You could argue that I am overstepping. After all, this is at best an inference rather than an explicit teaching of the Gospel. But I think the foundation is there. In Romans 13, Paul teaches us, “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” Love is, by nature, proactive. Waiting for someone to forgive on their own accord is passive. It is half-measure Christianity. In Matthew 5, Jesus says that if you are at the alter offering a sacrifice and remember that a brother or sister has a gripe with you, you are to leave your offering until you’ve reconciled with that person. Only then can you come back and present your offering.

I think Kierkegaard hit the point right on the nose: “The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly.” If we direct the word of God at anyone without first – and thoroughly – directing it at ourselves, we have missed the mark. You are responsible for your pursuit of righteousness. No more half measures, Christian.