Psalm 51 is a prayer of the Jewish King David. His rule, if such a person existed, would have been about 1000 BCE and is considered a Golden Age of ancient Jewish civilization. This is the same David who, in his most famous legend, slays Goliath with a sling. In Psalm 51 (included below) he prays to God for mercy. As he does so David expresses particular views about sin which I heard quoted by the contemporary theologian D.A. Carson, causing me to revisit this psalm.
D.A. Carson stated that in every occasion of sin, God is the primary (David says only) offended party. As the primary or only offended party (and this distinction in effect isn’t clear) God has the moral right to punish sinners and the capacity to pardon them independently of any human victims. King David in Psalm 51 asks God to be cleansed of his sin like contemporary Christians are invited to do, with the full confidence that this is God’s prerogative. God could not do this unless they were functionally the only offended party; another could still righteously pass their own judgment.
The first point I want to make about this theology is that much depends on what is meant by “offended” when we say God is an offended party to sin. One way this has been understood is that sin is a breaking of God’s rules and that this offence of disobedience is the way in which God is offended. If this is the way God’s offence is understood then it should raise some questions. How could the person of God be more offended for having their commands disobeyed over the direct victim of an assault for example? If sexual harassment occurred in a workplace would we say that the boss, whose rules for workplace conduct have been transgressed, is the most offended party? Imagine such a boss informing the victim that they have forgiven the perpetrator so everything is good now. We would understandably balk at this. Even though we should recognise that the boss has independently been betrayed by the harassing employee and could independently insist on punishment they are certainly not the only offended party. The victim of the harassment has an independent claim for restitution or punishment.
Another way of understanding God as the offended party is to state that we, along with all creation, are God’s property. Thus any transgression against us is against our author/owner rather than ourselves. If I enter your house and destroy your couch there can be no sense that the couch is an offended party. Only you are. Consistently if a person decides to destroy their own couch then there is no offence at all. To accept this paradigm, where God is the functionally only offended party by virtue of our possession by God, is to deny our personhood. (Moral personhood is a term for how a person is delineated from a thing in morality.) I condemn as barbaric when harm to children or wives counts only as harm to their patriarch (and owner) in some cultural circumstances. I insist upon the moral personhood of all. Are we supposed to accept via an analagous patriarchal logic that as children of God we have no independent personhood?
It should be acknowledged that to say we are not people in relation to another human person, is not the same thing as saying we are not a person in relation to God. God is not a citizen and can only symbolically inhabit a human throne. There is a kind of political equality in declaring that all, rather than just some, human beings are not moral persons. It is however a political equality of tenuous security. The offence of killing us is only dependant on God being offended by that killing. Large sections of the human population believe in a Bible that proclaims men who have sex with men, practitioners of witchcraft and children who disrespect their parents as right to be killed according to God. If we accept the paradigm of sin in which we are God’s property then any argument against such murder (even that it should be called murder) can only be an argument over whether that is actually what God wants. Which of us wants to go toe to toe with a fundamentalist to assert our humanity with no avenue to our inalienable personhood?
God as the functionally only offended party to sin is not peripheral to Christianity. The complete forgiveness of sins by the cross depends upon it. We have seen two ways Gods' position can be understood that should disturb us. Neither honours the victim with their full self-worth. It is reasonable to wonder whether these understandings of sin and God contributed to the catastrophic failure in some church institutions of their responsibility to young people in their care. Did they simply forget the victim was an offended party? Did they seek forgiveness from the boss only? It is also pertinent to ask, as a society with largely Christian roots, whether these understandings have expressions in our broader politic. The violence of colonization is sometimes excused by the greater glory of the nation. The cruelty of offshore detention is unseen because its victims are nobody’s property. How do we all under represent the victim in our understanding of wrong doing?
When we look at Christians practicing their faith we find many who recently exposed their churches corruption and have stood up for victims of abuse. We find a great number of the people who condemned and punished the violence of Australia’s colonization in our history were driven by their Christian faith. We find many Christians today at the forefront of trying to inject some compassion into Australia’s immigration debates. This leaves us with our last question, worthy of its own separate discussion; Are these Christians simply avoiding the logic of their own faith or do they have a different understanding of God as the only offended party of sin which doesn’t diminish the human victims? Is it possible that through an understanding of incarnation perhaps, these Christians avoid treating human people and God as separate persons who compete for our attention when addressing sin. Do they conceptually combine God and victim into one? I suspect this is so and I hope to find the opportunity to present this possibility to my Christian friends. I’ll tell you what they say. Hopefully they can give me the language to express their understanding to you.
1 Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin.
3 For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is always before me.
4 Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict
and justified when you judge.
5 Surely I was sinful at birth,
sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
6 Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb;
you taught me wisdom in that secret place.
7 Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
8 Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
9 Hide your face from my sins
and blot out all my iniquity.
10 Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
so that sinners will turn back to you.
14 Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God,
you who are God my Savior,
and my tongue will sing of your righteousness.
15 Open my lips, Lord,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
16 You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
17 My sacrifice, O God, is[b] a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart
you, God, will not despise.
18 May it please you to prosper Zion,
to build up the walls of Jerusalem.
19 Then you will delight in the sacrifices of the righteous,
in burnt offerings offered whole;
then bulls will be offered on your altar.