Best of Intentions

by Harvey Cox

Dr. Cox is Victor S. Thomas professor of divinity at Harvard Divinity School. He is the author of such books as The Secular City, The Feast of Fools, The Seduction of the Spirit and Turning East.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, November 30, 2004, pp. 32-38. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscriptions information can be found at www.christiancentury.orgThis material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


The kingdom of God that Jesus announced was not for people who never did anything wrong. It was for "sinners," for those who — mostly — tried their best to do the right thing, often failed, but accepted the forgiveness of God and of others, forgave others and themselves, and started over.

In many important respects the ethics of Judaism and Christianity are similar. Both emphasize the oneness of the human family and the responsibility we have for each other. Jesus continued and at times intensified the Old Testament prophets’ defense of the poor and the powerless. But there is one matter on which the two traditions have diverged. Whereas Jewish thinking has emphasized actual deeds and their consequences, Christianity has often focused on intentions. Once, in the course of assuring his disciples that it was not so awful if they could not wash their hands before eating, Jesus said, "Out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile" (Matt. 15:19, 20). He seems to be saying that the heart, not the hands, is the real source of a moral infraction.

The distinction is not absolute. Within the Jewish tradition, one of the Ten Commandments prohibits "coveting," which is an inner attitude; and Jesus condemned the pious people who ignored the beaten man on the road to Jericho. Whatever pity may have been in their hearts, they did not do what they should have done. But still, as the two traditions developed over the years, the distinction became a real one. For Christians this was evident several years ago when the Roman Catholic bishops of the United States condemned even the possession of nuclear weapons as a violation of the just war ethic. They argued that in order for these weapons to serve as a deterrent, a potential enemy had to be convinced that in certain circumstances we actually intended to use them. But such an intention, they argued, was already immoral. The underlying premise of their argument is that evil intentions spawn evil deeds, and it is better to nip the foul flower in the bud rather than wait for the wicked action to blossom.

In recent years, however, we have begun to see a certain convergence between these two ways of thinking about moral issues. Prodded by the need to reflect on actual policy options and their probable outcomes, Christian scholars have begun to probe more deeply into the possible consequences of actions, and not just what motivates them. Also, with the dramatic rediscovery of their mystical tradition, Jews have delved deeper into the inner self and its intricate labyrinth of impulses and desires.

I think this convergence is a healthy development. It is needed because once again our technology has outpaced our traditional modes of moral reasoning. There was a time when evil thoughts and evil deeds took place at close quarters. There was a time when you needed to wield a club or a spear to kill your neighbor. Now we can do untold harm to multitudes of people at a great distance, and without feeling personally involved. In her brilliant book Evil in Modern Thought An Alternative History of Philosophy, Susan Neiman cites this impersonality as one of our gravest ethical dilemmas. It means, she argues, that we can no longer focus on evil intentions as a key to morality. We can now do great evil without intending to. What we need today is more awareness, a wider recognition of how the vast systems we are caught up in can do terrible things and how we can contribute to that evil without even being conscious of it.

This is a disturbing idea. It means that the traditional debate about deeds and intentions needs to be rethought. "I didn’t really mean it," should no longer exonerate us so easily, nor should "I had no idea of what I was doing." In our century to be unaware is to be less than moral.

This question came up with an unusual degree of forcefulness in my course on Jesus when we discussed his famous words from the cross: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." I knew already that the students had strong feelings, if not always well-formulated ideas, on the topics we took up. But this discussion, more than any other we had, exposed the complexity of the moral world they live in.

It started innocently enough when I asked the students if they were surprised or puzzled that Jesus was ready to forgive those who were at that very moment torturing him to death. As usual, their responses varied. Some said they were not surprised. That, after all, was the kind of person he was. Others confessed they simply could not understand it. They could not imagine themselves doing such a thing, so it made Jesus less credible as a moral guide by seeming to put him out of reach.

What puzzled all of them, however, was the phrase "for they know not what they do." How, they wanted to know, could they not be aware of what they were doing? Also, just who was included in the "them"? Was it mainly the soldiers who mocked and beat him, or did it include the passersby who taunted him, the officials who had passed sentence on him, the spineless disciples who had fled, the collaborator who had betrayed him for a bribe? Besides, what if they clearly had been aware of what they were doing, so that he could not have said, "they know not"; would he still have forgiven them? It was soon obvious that this single phrase from Jesus’ lips was packed with layers of moral quandaries.

How, one student asked, could anyone engaged in something so blatantly cruel not be aware of what he was doing?

"Easy," another student answered. "We are rarely aware of the full implications of the things we do. There are always unforeseen consequences. Maybe that’s what Jesus meant."

Another student pointed out that if by "them" Jesus was speaking of the Roman soldiers, we should remember that they were under orders. The Romans routinely used crucifixion as a form of punishment for people they adjudged dangerous to their rule. Maybe these soldiers had just gotten used to it, had become deaf to the moans of the victims. The text says they were relaxed enough to throw dice for Jesus’ tunic as he twisted and pleaded for water. Certainly prison officials today seem able to inject lethal chemicals into the veins of prisoners or strap them into chairs to receive a 20,000-volt jolt of electricity when a judge tells them to do so. Maybe these soldiers thought they were just carrying out a routine order.

As for the Roman officials and their local collaborators, maybe they really believed Jesus was a genuine threat to civil order and had to be dealt with in the customary fashion. Maybe they thought that they were just doing their duty and did not feel the least uncomfortable. Still, most of the students were not satisfied. "How could these people not know what they were doing?" they continued to ask.

Finally one young woman went back to a previous comment: Maybe what Jesus wanted to say was that they were not aware of the full extent of their actions, or of the long-range implications. They were small cogs in a large machine. So, in that sense they did not really "know." A chemistry student agreed: How could anybody ever be expected to accept responsibility for all the possible implications of what he might do? His remark sparked some further discussion, especially among the science majors, of how difficult -- maybe impossible -- it is to foresee how scientific discoveries might eventually be used. This led to some reflection about whether Alfred Nobel would have -- or should have -- given up devising dynamite if he had known how often it would be used in bombs. Another student who had seen a production of the play Copenhagen deepened the argument by recalling the moral dilemma faced by Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg and later Robert Oppenheimer and others who were inventing the first atomic bomb. Oppenheimer, for example, knew how destructive it was, but knew (or thought) the Germans were trying to make one too, so he went ahead with it. Later, however, he vigorously opposed developing the nuclear bomb.

The discussion was still raging on when I had to leave, and when I came back an hour later most of the students were still at it, and they had not come to any consensus. I was not surprised. This text had propelled them into one of the most contentious moral issues of our time. Because advances in technology, especially in weaponry, remove individuals from the results of their actions, they allow human beings to do enormous evil without feeling the least bit involved. Pushing a red "fire" button at a target someone else has charted thousands of miles away is different from stabbing someone with a javelin. There is a quantitative gap between the battle-ax and the heat-seeking missile. Mass murder can become routine -- even "banal," as Hannah Arendt described it in the case of Adolf Eichmann.

I learned a lot from the discussion of "they know not what they do." Clearly the students were becoming more and more aware of the bewildering complexity of many modern moral issues, but they still desperately wanted to "do the right thing." We did not come to any wholly satisfactory conclusion, but our probes into the questions of agency, awareness and responsibility were valuable. They helped students to see that "the way it is done" is not always -- maybe even rarely -- the way it should be done. It stimulated them to imagine alternatives.

Also, the way the students struggled with the issues made me even more aware that -- like most of us -- they were human beings who really did want to act morally and responsibly. But most of them would always live and work in institutions in which someone else made the rules and set the standard operating procedures. For that reason, despite their best intentions, they would not always be clear about what it would mean to "do the right thing," and might not always be able to do it even when they were. It was for this reason, I reminded them, that we should not focus exclusively on the "know not" part of this famous phrase but should also remember that it begins with, "Forgive them."

My suggestion, however, did not resolve the dilemma. "What do you mean by forgiveness?" they asked. When, they wondered, should we forgive people who do mean or awful things to us or to others? Can we expect people we have hurt to forgive us? What does forgiveness have to do with being sorry, remorseful or penitent?

These are questions that sages have pondered for centuries, but it was fascinating to see how alive and immediate they were today for these young people, and I suspect for their elders as well. They are also unavoidable questions if one is studying the life of Jesus. The first words attributed to him in the oldest Gospel are, "The time has arrived; the kingdom of God is upon you." The next sentence is, "Repent, and believe the gospel" (Mark 1:14). There is every indication that those who heard these words of Jesus recognized what he was asking for, although not all were willing to comply. All Jews of the time, even those with a minimal exposure to their religious heritage, would have known that repentance involves three elements: genuine regret for one’s misdeeds, sorrow and remorse for the injury they have caused others, and a deeply felt desire to avoid repeating time offense. Without these three ingredients, genuine forgiveness, either by God or by one’s fellow human beings, was not in the picture.

All this would have been familiar to most of Rabbi Jesus’ hearers. The new element was the urgent tone of his demand for repentance. The coming reign of God, for which the pious prayed, was beginning now, and the change of heart it required could not be postponed. As we have seen, Jesus’ parables and sayings carry this same note of immediacy. Today, now, this moment is the time for repentance. The kingdom of God, albeit hidden and partial, is coming to birth in the midst of you.

For Jews today, God’s demand for confession and penitence is enacted during the Days of Awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. In what is staged as a cosmic courtroom drama, the people gather and confess not only their own transgressions, but also those of the whole people. At the last moment, just as the book of life is being closed, God’s verdict is announced. Because God is ultimately compassionate, everyone is forgiven and afforded the opportunity to begin a new year with a clean slate.

During the nearly 2,000 years since the earthly ministry of Jesus, the various Christian churches have also developed highly complex liturgies of repentance and forgiveness. But the core of the Christian understanding is crystallized in the ancient invitation to the commemoration of the Lord’s Supper, which eventually found its way into the Book of Common Prayer. It reads as follows:

Ye who do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbors, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways: Draw near with faith, and take this holy Sacrament to your comfort; and make your humble confession to Almighty God, devoutly kneeling.

It would be hard to find a more compressed summary of the Christian understanding of repentance and forgiveness. First, this invitation assumes that human beings are free. They are endowed by God with the capacity for choice and are therefore responsible for their actions. True, in some of its forms, the Christian idea of original sin seems to qualify this key premise. Yet, recognizing the paradox involved, the overwhelming consensus of Christian theology is that however free will may be blemished or weakened within the actual conditions of history, human beings nonetheless do have the ability to choose. Otherwise, the call for repentance would be meaningless.

This is not a trivial observation. Jesus’ summons to repentance to all who came within earshot -- the pious and the reprobate, the weak and the strong, the powerful and the socially marginalized -- undercuts any kind of religious, psychological or sociocultural determinism. It constitutes a firm rejection of any notion of karma or kismet that would make God or destiny or behavior in a past life or childhood mistreatment responsible for one’s actions. It suggests that although there can be mitigating circumstances, neither fate nor the psychological history of the person can be advanced as the sole reason for his or her conduct. Neither does it allow "it had to be done" or "nothing can be done about it" as excuses. It endows even the most victimized and oppressed peoples with a continuing and genuine responsibility, if only to struggle against whatever deprives them of their personhood. My offenses are ultimately mine. The cogito ergo sum of the Christian view of repentance is: Since I can repent, I am responsible.

The words truly and earnestly also carry an important message. They remind us that there is such a thing as inauthentic repentance. In our secularized culture this spurious repentance often appears in the "public apology" that falls short of the real thing. The psychiatrist Aaron Lazarre has pointed out that our public discourse is rife with such bogus apologies. A frequent form is, "I am really sorry that you feel that way" or words to that effect. The style of these utterances raises questions about whether they meet the standards of "truly and earnestly" preserved in the invitation to communion. Public apologies are often marked by the systematic elimination of personal reference and a reliance on the passive voice. The "I" somehow disappears. They rely on phrases such as "injuries . . . may have been done" or "mistakes were made." This erasure of the subject betrays a continuing reluctance to accept personal responsibility.

The phrase "are in love and charity with your neighbors" means that the truly penitent person has already taken the first step toward reintegrating him or herself into the human community whose fabric has been torn by the betrayal of trust a transgression implies. Here the ancient Jewish emphasis on what was actually done continues to inform Christian practice. It is not enough just to intend to put things right. The word are is in the present tense. I must already be in love and charity with my neighbors, at least to some extent. Here reconciliation between a human being and his or her neighbors and reconciliation with God are indissolubly linked.

During the Days of Awe before Yom Kippur, Jews are reminded that God can forgive those sins that we commit against him, but that we must seek forgiveness from our human neighbors for the violations we enact against them. In the Christian view, this idea is modified to some extent. Since God is present in the neighbor, all sins, including those against the neighbor, are also sins against God, And since Christians usually retain the moral but not the ritual elements of Torah, it is hard to imagine a sin against God (in a Christian view) that is not also a sin against some neighbor.

The phrases "intend to lead a new life" and "walking from henceforth in his holy ways" suggest a determination on the part of the penitent person not to repeat the destructive conduct. But "intend" also allows for the weakness of human flesh. The invitation recognizes that we rarely live out even our most earnest intentions. Nonetheless, even though we fall short, we should still have those intentions. Further, the "new life" referred to is not one without moral guidelines. "Following the commandments of God" recalls not only the Ten Commandments but also the Golden Rule. In some forms of the communion service, the Ten Commandments are readjust before the invitation is issued. This reinforces the notion that these biblical principles are intended to provide moral parameters for the "new life" the penitent person now intends to live.

Finally, and perhaps most important, is the invitation to participate in communion. It is, as it were, a read-mission into the family of God, gathered around a table that in Christian belief symbolizes the whole of humanity. It is the gateway through which one is welcomed back into a fellowship whose trust and confidence one has broken. It is an avenue to the restoration of the multiple relationships without which human life would cease to be human.

This linking of repentance and forgiveness with restoration to community echoes Jesus’ linking his call to repentance with his announcement that the kingdom of God -- the healed and restored human community -- is "at hand." The point is vital to the Christian view of repentance. Genuine repentance is an integral element in the coming of the reconciled world of justice and peace that God wills. Unlike Rousseau’s famous observation that "man was born free, but is everywhere in chains," the Christian phrase would be, "People were created to live together, but are everywhere divided and in enmity." The Christian liturgy of communion is a symbol of the ultimate goal of a restored human community.

In many Christian theologies, this restoratio humanii is believed to be no less than the purpose of the incarnation. Medieval paintings of the crucifixion often show the skull of Adam at the base of the cross. The idea is that a new humanity is now taking shape on the spot where the first human being met his tragic denouement. Jesus spent his earthly ministry breaking the social and cultural taboos that had excluded certain types of people (prostitutes, lepers, tax collectors) from table fellowship with respectable, pious people. For Jesus, this was an act of symbolic restoration. Inclusive table fellowship modeled an inclusive humanity. It prefigured the messianic feast foreseen by the prophets. The ultimate feast is unconditionally inclusive. As the Protestant theologian Karl Barth once remarked, the church should be "the provisional demonstration of God’s intention for the whole, human race."

It is important in both the Jewish and Christian traditions to avoid two extremes, which neither has always done successfully. The first extreme is to make penitence and forgiveness so easy they come to mean nothing. This overlooks the stubborn fact that repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation all belong together, and that each requires real effort. Sometimes Catholics have misunderstood the sacrament of confession as a license to repeat their misdeeds, since one can always confess again. Likewise, Protestants have misread the idea of justification by grace as permission to do as they please, since it is God’s business to forgive. This amounts to what the Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer once called "cheap grace.

The other extreme is to make forgiveness so terribly demanding that, as in the mind of Stavrogin, the poignant hero of Dostoevsky’s novel Demons, it becomes unreachable. If anything, I think our forebears, both Christian and Jewish, may frequently have made forgiveness too demanding. But I also fear that the "user-friendly" style of much contemporary religion may be sliding toward cheap grace.

In any case, although our extended dialogue as we pondered Jesus’ words may not have solved this old dilemma. I hope it left the students with the conviction that the kingdom of God that Jesus announced was not for people who never did anything wrong. It was for "sinners," for those who -- mostly -- tried their best to do the right thing, often failed, but accepted the forgiveness of God and of others, forgave others and themselves, and started over.