Forgiveness—What Is Possible? What Is Demanded?

By | February 20, 2016

I heard a story on NPR the other day.

rembrandtSeems that in Maryland there’s a push to review the sentences of those who were convicted of murder in the last 40 years based upon the Unger decision.

Several people who were affected by these murders—being the family and friends and co-workers—were asked for their thoughts. Did they forgive these people?

One lady—and I am not picking on her—said essentially that she forgave the man who killed her family member some 40 years ago, but she could not forget and that, as a murderer, she thought he deserved to stay in jail—that his release, even though mandated by mistakes in prosecution, should be stopped because he was guilty.

I pursued the thought of “what is forgiveness?” as I was on the way to work, trying to construct an understanding of what it meant and what it required of me.

And then I was asked for my thoughts. What is Christian forgiveness? How much are we to forgive?


I think we should separate a couple of things, first, some which you are already like to do yourself:

1. There is no “Pope” for Christianity (even though there is a Pope for Roman Catholics), so we can all kind of invent what Christianity means to us. Some people in Maryland, claiming to be Christians, really cannot be used to represent all Christians.

2. We still can still come up with what people inside and outside Christianity think that it means and requires, and hit the mark for what people inside will allow as true and what people outside consider as binding or descriptive.

3. One essential element is, indeed, a concept of forgiveness, which does not have an explicit definition in the Christian scriptures even though Christians are enjoined to forgive, by the words of Jesus himself as well as the main people who are considered his disciples, and by the example of Jesus on the cross who asked, we are told, for the Father in Heaven to forgive those who were killing him because they were ignorant of the meaning of their actions.

4. If we presume that forgiveness is really an essential mark of Christianity, and we presume we can guess what it means (release someone from the debt for their actions, giving them a restoration to their place in society, accepting that they have actually committed an offense but no longer holding it against them), then we can say that forgiveness means something we can both do ourselves and see others do.

5. Forgiveness, it would seem, does involve a releasing. It might not involve a forgetting, but even if there is no capability of forgetting, the releasing is important.

6. Because forgiveness is given great value in normative Christian behavior (“you’re supposed to forgive!”), there is, in my opinion, inordinate stress on people to “forgive” in order to show the bona fides of their faith.

7. It’s my opinion, though, that forgiveness, while something we can say we are doing, is something that really requires us to enact a change in how we will value someone.

8. Also in my opinion, we can’t be made to forgive, and we cannot make ourselves forgive until we are ready.

9. Also my opinion, we shouldn’t make our act of forgiveness something that breaks us. I think we should understand the value, and work toward it, and let time and circumstances and reflection help us forgive – but we can’t demand it of ourselves, and we cannot, absolutely cannot, demand it of others. (Which is why I was quite upset after nine Christians in Charleston SC were assassinated by a white supremacist who wanted to kill black people, that some of the survivors declared they “forgave” the murderer. I think that was at best a religious nicety but I don’t think anyone is capable of forgiving that quickly the murder of their loved ones.)

10. I think forgiveness is for _us_. _We_ are helped in our own journey and growth when we forgive, because it helps release us from the binding we have in our pain and destruction caused by another. As long as I cannot or do not forgive, I am considering someone else’s retributive pain and destruction. Forgiveness releases _me_.

11. Forgiveness, when given, is at a personal level according to Christianity. The legal requirements of justice and law may also allow for dismissal of charges and a clearing of the record, but that’s not forgiveness. And even though we can forgive someone of their damage to us, none of us can, by our personal forgiveness, release someone from their legal penalties. We might end up in court with the person who caused us pain, and whom we now forgive, but the acts that brought that person into prison are acts against the state and not really the person. (We bring people to trial for murder because there’s a law against it, not because I have a personal injury done to me, and the penalty is laid down by the law. Otherwise, people who are orphans and widows would have no one defending their right to life in court when they are murdered.)

12. I am sorry for the pain these people have experienced because their loved ones were murdered, in some cases right in front of them. (The 92-year-old woman comes to mind – her husband was killed in the shop in front of her 40 years ago, and she still weeps for the pain and grief.) I demand forgiveness from none of them. But if they do forgive, I would encourage them to go all the way, and forgive.

13. With that said, even though I might forgive someone of what they did to cause me pain, my forgiveness or lack of forgiveness is completely irrelevant in the courts. Someone who says “I forgive him, but he needs to go back to jail because he murdered!” is a nonsensical statement. He’s not getting out because you forgave him. He’s getting out because his conviction and sentence were, according to the state, unjust and unfair. His “early release” is a matter of law, not a matter of your forgiveness.

14. I think the lady in question deserves my empathy and pity, but I don’t think she deserves my acceding to her definition of forgiveness. I think she’s wrong, but I don’t think I need go any further than stating that, and hope that she can find release for the sake of her own comfort and her own soul.

15. The forgiveness-of-sin aspect of forgiveness is something that God does, not us. Our forgiveness is for personal slight. God’s forgiveness is for moral and spiritual offense. We sin against God and his holiness, causing us to break away from his presence and power. Forgiveness wipes the moral slate clean, makes us whole against spiritually, and puts us back in the place where we can commune with him face to face. God can forgive any sin/sinful action because he’s God, which is one of the things Jesus did (forgave someone their _sin_) to show that he had the power and authority to forgive beyond the human level. But that’s not what our personal forgiveness is. We can’t forgive a moral or spiritual offense because it’s not done against us.

Anyway, that’s where I am today. The topic of what it means for Christians to forgive is a testy one, because some people think we should “forget,” which is sometimes impossible, and others think that it is releasing (that’s my position), which is much more doable.