The title of this post comes from a guest preacher who spoke at our church recently. He and his wife are active in prison ministry in another country. Prison is one of those places where “forgiveness” really does seem impossible—and a place where the forgiveness wrought by Jesus through his cross is, in reality, the only way “out.”
I imagine you’ve seen a scene like this: the murder trial has concluded with a conviction, and it is now time for the victim impact statements. Before sentencing, the court, and the convicted one, listens to those who have borne the brunt of this terrible crime. The one I recently saw on television had the mother whose daughter had been brutally murdered addressing the convicted killer: “I will never, ever forgive you for what you did to her, to me, to my family, to all of us who knew and loved and treasured my daughter. And neither will my daughter ever forgive you—she will haunt you forever.”
Given the monstrous nature of this crime, how could forgiveness ever be possible? And even if possible, how could it ever be helpful or “the right thing to do”? There are those who say that forgiveness is actually a terrible thing to offer: it denies or greatly softens the crime and its impacts, it lets the offender “off the hook,” it pressures those who have suffered great loss into an attitude and action that violates them and their grieving. While forgiveness is something that individuals might elect to do privately, it has no role in public.
There is much that is important in these observations; we should not attempt to hurry past them. Forgiveness never means denying the reality of the wrongs done, nor suppressing their ongoing and often lasting consequences for victims. Restitution and punishment may well be necessary, and none of this will instantly or automatically reset the fractured relationships back to “normal.” In fact, full restoration of relationship will always be difficult and may in some situations be impossible. However, once we have given these very legitimate questions the weight they deserve, we still face an important question: Now what?
What happens to the mother who never forgives her child’s murderer? What happens to the murderer (and should we even care?) What happens to a world where forgiveness becomes impossible, or merely optional for the few crazy enough to go that route?
Forgiveness is really only an issue when something terrible has happened. Those living in the modern West don’t often have something truly terrible happen, or so we like to think. We view ourselves as essentially pretty “good” people, and imagine that this “goodness” is either intrinsic to us, or the fruit of our virtue and good character. The murderer, the child rapist, the serial killer, the financial advisor who cheats his vulnerable clients of their retirement funds deserve no mercy, no forgiveness; we, the rest of us, don’t really need any.
But the world is more deeply broken than we know or imagine. And all our resources aren’t enough to make it right, make it well and whole. Because it doesn’t belong to us.
In the Christian telling of the world’s story, the world/cosmos belongs to God. God is the Creator and Sustainer of all that is; God is also the perfectly righteous and just Judge. When wrongs are committed, something is not only owed to those we have wronged; something is also owed to God. In other words, I cannot only sin against my neighbor; in so doing, I also always sin against God as well. There are two dimensions of relationship that need to be repaired, restored, rectified, made whole: my “vertical” relationship with God and my “horizontal” relationship to my neighbor whom I have wronged.
If we dismiss “God” from our thinking about forgiveness, that will inevitably give us license to dismiss our neighbors, too. We can punish, incarcerate, isolate, execute, but none of that will make the small worlds of individual lives or the large world that is all of our lives together whole. For that, forgiveness is required.
Respectable folk like me imagine that there is some sort of category difference between me and the murderer. I live within a self-deceiving illusion concerning my innate goodness and virtue. But if, and as I try, to follow Jesus (“I was in prison and you visited me”), as I listen to their stories, it begins to dawn on me: if I had lived the lives they have lived, I could very well have done the things they have done. The reason I have not done the terrible things of which I, too, am capable, is not so much because of my courage, integrity and virtue, but more because of my cowardice, lack of opportunity and the “accidentals” of my birth, genetics, personal history, etc. Put me in the wrong set of circumstances, put me under the wrong kinds of pressures, and there is no telling what I am capable of doing.
When wrongs are done, when evil is done, when relationships and lives are fractured and broken by crime and by sin, it costs to move towards the recovery of health and wholeness. The basic “balancing of the books” that human legal systems attempt—public shaming, fines, restitution, community service, incarceration—are necessary as far as they go. God simply is interested in going much further.
I think we all can deeply empathize with the mother who calls down eternal curses upon the murderer of her child. And we also have examples of those who have suffered similar losses and who, in their victim impact statements, fully name the wrong that has been done by the perpetrator and name the tremendous costs that they bear because of the crime—and choose, at even greater cost and with great courage, to keep going: I forgive you.
No one should ever be forced to forgive, or shamed for not doing so. But the crime has happened, the losses are already upon them, the consequences may continue for years or even for the rest of their lives. And so the question: Now what? What can free us from the wrongs we have suffered and the wrongs we have committed, what will free us from having the rest of our lives defined by evil?
With humans, forgiveness is impossible; with God, nothing is impossible.