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Friday, January 14, 2011

Should We Ever NOT Forgive?

Recent killings by a deranged gunman in Tucson bring up the question of forgiveness for people who commit terrible crimes of that kind.

When a similarly deranged shooter killed innocent Amish children at the Nickle Mines School in southern Pennsylvania in October, 2006, that religious community instinctively responded with grace and kindness. Everyone saw their actions and attitudes as amazing examples of Christian forgiveness.

I wonder if their response shouldn’t simply be considered an incredible form of “give-ness,” the giving up of any revenge or hate and the demonstration of a truly Christlike and unconditional love for an enemy who had harmed them in the most terrible way possible.

I prefer to call that cross-like love. The forgiving part is up to God.

Jewish writer Dennis Prager questions the notion that we “should forgive everyone who commits evil against anyone, no matter how great and cruel, and whether or not the evil doer repents.” He also believes we can only forgive those who have sinned against us, not those who have sinned against others.

“If we forgive everyone (unilaterally) for all the evil they do,” he says, “we have substituted ourselves for God.” Even Jesus, he adds, when interceding to God to forgive those who crucified him, “never asked God to forgive those who had crucified thousands of other innocent people.”

As a Jew, Prager does affirm Jesus’ idea of having us forgive those who wrong us based on their repentance, just as God surely does. He just wonders whether many of us have trivialized forgiveness, turned into something that’s about making us feel better rather than, like the God of the Bible, being concerned with both justice for evildoers and compassion for them when and if they repent and commit themselves to genuine change.

What got Prager to thinking about this was seeing a news article and photo of some students in West Paducah, Kentucky, some years ago displaying a large banner with the words “We forgive you, Mike!” referring to the 14-year-old who had just  shot and killed 3 teenagers at Heath High school. He believes they/we have neither the power or the right to forgive on others’ behalf.

So, should we distinguish between loving evildoers versus pronouncing them forgiven? The first is an initiative toward even the unrepentant, the second is a response based on a complete 180 degree turn on the part of  the one seeking forgiveness.

Please understand, I strongly agree that we should forgive our debtors. But a debtor, by definition, is one who is fully aware of what he or she owes and is unable to repay. A person who denies having committed an offense is not a debtor. Nor is the person who insists the offense is not really their fault, as in, “The devil (or my temper, my addiction, or my bad upbringing) made me do it.”

I have a book in my office with two title pages, one on the front and another on the back. It’s actually two books in one, written by David Augsburger. The first title is “Caring Enough to Forgive” which takes up approximately half of the pages, and the other, reading from the reverse side of the book, is “Caring Enough Not to Forgive.” 

The latter is a jarring title for those of us who’ve been taught that forgiveness is something we grant everyone unilaterally, no strings attached, just proclaim them off the hook. But Augsburger believes the implied condition for all of our “forgiving others their trespasses as we ask God to forgive us our own” is one clearly stated in Luke’s gospel, which says, “If others sin against you, and if they repent, forgive them.”

Meanwhile, for all who choose not to repent, we continue to love, do good to, and pray for them without question. All the while remembering that we are always in need of plenty of forgiveness of our own.

I'd love to have you respond with your thoughts below.
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