Conflicted about Forgiveness
April 29, 2013

Dear Theo,

I've been wondering for a long time how to reconcile Jesus' message of love and forgiveness with the persistent feeling - even after much reflection and prayer - that when people do horrible - and yes, evil things such as massacring elementary school children, detonating bombs at the Boston Marathon, or running an inhumane, racist, and illegal late-term abortion practice with zero regard for women's lives, that it is perfectly acceptable, perhaps obligatory, to judge and punish them. I think I might believe that certain things are unforgivable.

It's a lot easier to say 'turn the other cheek' and 'it's God's place to judge' if you are young or have no experience. Contrary to most of what's preached on the topic, I've spoken with many people who experience deep peace, relief, and closure from seeing someone who wronged them be punished, even though forgiveness is supposed to be the path to spiritual peace. And, as I've gotten older, it's become harder because I understand better what it would mean to be robbed of a spouse, a parent, a child.

Now I find myself unable to reconcile what I believe in the abstract to be Christian principles of love, forgiveness, and understanding - principles that I myself try to live by - with real-life conviction that people who do evil things should be held accountable, told in no uncertain terms by society that their actions are completely and totally wrong, and face severe punishment - both for the sake of victims and for the sake of deterrence so that others might be spared the same pain.

It would be nice if we lived in an ideal world where everyone abided by love and grace and humility. I want so badly to live in such a world, and I count myself so lucky and blessed to be part of communities that do embody these things. But I am a pragmatist and can't deny that we live in a different world, and I want my family, friends, and self to be safe. I guess I'm partly tired of moral relativism being pushed to the extreme, but I also find myself in disbelief that Jesus or God - if they even exist as conscious entities - would think it was all right for good and kind people to suffer needlessly while those who act with total disregard for human life and safety receive empathy and forgiveness.

Am I wrong? Am I falling prey to human failings in not being able to move past this? How do you straddle these two realities? How do you work for and encourage a world and a culture where people are supported in doing the kind and right thing, but are also appropriately corrected when causing harm? I no longer know how to feel about this, or what to say to others when they assert the unequivocal wrongness of something like the death penalty. 

Sincerely,

Conflicted Even After Careful Consideration

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Dear Conflicted,

First off: the rage you might feel welling up in you when a great and violent injustice is done? Totally natural. Deeply biological. Almost impossible to avoid unless you are Mother Theresa (and even she, by all accounts, had a temper).

So how do you forgive the terrible deed-doers? I don't really know how you do it. There's not a formula, "Do X, then Y, and the rage you feel toward the perps will magically dissipate." 

What I do know is this story from the Gospels:  the disciples asked Jesus how many times they were to forgive someone who was unrepentant. Seven times? they suggested, probably expecting Jesus to say, "No way! Don't be a chump. Once or twice is fine. Fool me once..."

Instead, Jesus said, "No way! Not seven times. But seventy times seven times." 

In other words, forgive them until you actually maybe start to feel forgiving. That's how I read it, anyhow. We can't fake a feeling, but we can practice it until we get it right. And for some of the things we have suffered, it will take at least 490 times to start feeling what God wants us to feel.

But what about the shooters, the bombers, the homicidal abortionists making a buck off the pain of women of color? Surely Jesus didn't mean them.

Well: where would you draw the line then? Is there any such thing as a line, where sin is concerned? Sin's a continuum, isn't it? What about the pedophile? Then what about the pedophile who was themselves sexually abused in a grisly fashion? What about the bank robber? Now what about the bank robber who is in the throes of a heroin addiction that began in utero, or the robber who steals out of hunger?

When it comes to sin, there's not a line. There's a big, murky continuum.

I want to make a distinction: I don't think the thing we feel when we have finally forgiven someone who has hurt us, or someone we love, is necessarily love, or even its sisters empathy or compassion. I think the thing we feel is FREE. Free from the poison of the violence in our own hearts, free from the hungry monster of retribution.

You say that you have talked to "many people who experience deep peace, relief, and closure from seeing someone who wronged them be punished." I'm going to challenge this idea: who are these many? Isn't this anecdotal evidence? For every one of your many I'll bet I can find someone whose life has been completely derailed by their thwarted desire for retributive justice.

How can you find peace when terrible things happen? Maybe you won't, ever, entirely. Some of God's children are called to bear the burden of outrage at injustice, to keep the rest of us awake. But nobody goes on a trip and carries their luggage the whole time.  You've got to rest, put it down once in a while. See friends, see art, hug a stranger, accept a glass of wine or chamomile tea, watch some LOLcats on Youtube, and lean into joy, knowing the rest of the world will be there when you get back to it.

When talking about what God and Jesus might want, it can help to think about justice in two kinds: retributive, and restorative. Retributive justice is punishment: an eye for an eye, prison time, the death penalty. Retributive justice seeks to extract something from the offender that doesn't actually compensate the victim in any tangible way (other than satisfaction, if they indeed experience satisfaction at witnessing the lost eye, the lost life).

Restorative justice, on the other hand, is God's justice: it demands something of the offender that actually restores something to the victim or the victim's family, as well as restoring the offender to their own God-given, best and healthiest self. Restorative justice returns them to being a creature that has something to offer to their Creation. You can read some great stories of restorative justice HERE. Conflicted, you ask how people can be "appropriately corrected." I believe this is the way correction can happen.

But as for the alternative: how often does a 'house of correction' actually live up to its name? Retributive justice - that is, prison - rarely rehabilitates offenders. And execution? Well, it never rehabilitates them, at least not in a way us myopic mortals can see. Maybe when we finally see "face to face," as I Corinthians promises us we will.

Prison and execution are costly measures that not only extend the cycle of violence and tap the taxpayer, they wholly prevent offenders from redeeming themselves, coming back to themselves, repenting and sharing their God-given gifts for the good of all.

Everybody was made by good, in the beginning, by God. Nobody came into this world wanting to hurt another human being. But things went wrong, far wrong, for many of us, along the way, and every single one of us needs restoring to ourselves, to some degree.

Conflicted, if you live long enough, you will accumulate a lot of grief. Maybe this is the real conflict inside of you. You will love so well, God willing, that you will have more and more to lose. You can pre-grieve these losses, or you can enjoy your loves while they are with you. This is hard work. It's a spiritual practice, to be grateful for what is, right now, and to lean into joy, no matter what is going on.

I live in Boston. After the Marathon bombing, everyone noticed something: how many angels there were in attendance. How many people ran toward the explosions, to assist the wounded and dying. How many runners kept on running, to the hospitals to donate blood. That week, art museums all over Boston opened for free to the public, so that people could soak their spirits in beauty. Young people flocked to city squares to hand out fresh flowers and free hugs. Chilly Boston melted.

There is a reason, in scripture, why before the angels do anything, the first thing they do is say "don't be afraid." Fear is the root of all violence, including the violence in ourselves that seeks retributive justice.

You say "I want to live in that world of grace and love and humility." Well, you can. But leaning into fear and anger isn't going to get you where you want to go. It's a train that's hard to get off, and it's not going to Heaven. There are deep and malevolent forces at work in the universe, just as there are deep and benevolent counterforces. You get to choose which side you want to serve.

You also say "I want my friends, my family and myself to be safe." Well, I'm sorry to say: you won't be. Life is not safe, and God is not safe. But God is good.

Bless you, and may you be a blessing,

Theo


Who is Theo?

"Dear Theo" is written anonymously by three UCC ministers of different ages and backgrounds - one main writer and two respite writers. We're hoping the questions will span all kinds of topics: from sexuality and relationships to church culture and conflict to mental health, family drama, ethical and moral dilemmas, and everything in between.

Every week will feature a new letter and a new answer. Please write Dear Theo with your questions and problems by sending to deartheo@ucc.org. Letter writers identities will also ALWAYS remain anonymous.

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