Some Obstacles to Unconditional Forgiveness

In my last column I re-asserted the most radical and offensive teaching in the entire Christian tradition.  It’s not about contraception, gay marriage, abortion, divorce or war.  It is the command of Christ to forgive unconditionally.  Not surprisingly, we Christians have worked out various strategies for avoiding that command. 

Perhaps the most common obstacle to forgiveness is the notion that extending forgiveness means offering “cheap grace” and refusing to confront evil.  It’s the notion that if you don’t go on hating that guy who ditched you, if you don’t keep repeating to yourself every day the litany of wrongs your mother-in-law has done you, then your enemy will have gotten away with it!  The crimes will go unpunished if you do not make yourself the Eternal Repository of Memory.  The thought, “I must not let them off the hook!” sums this up.  When we conflate forgiveness with inaction in the face of evil, people will often take one of two (equally fruitless) courses.  One person will simply allow evil to go unchallenged when it is in their power—and clearly their responsibility—to challenge it.  Not a few abusive priests managed to avoid the just punishment of the law because somebody thought it would be “unforgiving” to call the cops.  It’s nothing of the kind.  The task of the Christian in such a situation is to extend complete forgiveness to the perp and then report the crime to the police lest other innocents suffer.  Forgiveness does not equal passivity in the face of evil.

The other false notion arising from this bad understanding of forgiveness is the notion that stewing in rage is tantamount to “doing something”.  To again return to the priest scandal as an example, I often run across people who chew the cud over sickening headlines about sins in some other part of the world and say things like, “Love does not permit continued sin. I do not love an abusing priest or an enabling bishop by telling him ‘That’s ok, I forgive you and God will forgive you’ when there is no reason to suspect they will repent and sin no more. They have demonstrated that they will do it again, if I let them off the hook. Forgiveness does not include a license to repeat the sinful action, and that is what forgiveness at this point in time would mean.” 

The problem is that people who say things like this about sins that do not involve them are living in a fantasy world which imagines that cursing at a computer screen or TV will somehow affect the actions of bad bishops, abusive clergy, police, prosecutors, and so forth on the opposite side of the country.  But of course, somebody swearing at their TV in Ohio over some sin committed by a priest in Boston is going to do absolutely nothing except corrode her own soul.  Her refusing to let go of rage is not going Teach Somebody a Lesson, chasten a bad cleric, help the cops do their job or comfort a victim.  It’s just going to destroy her own heart.  It’s a perfectly worthless act.

Related to this is another particularly silly argument that “Forgiveness cannot take place until we know the extent of what must be forgiven.”  So if a person or persons continues to sin, we don’t have to forgive them, since we allegedly can’t forgive what they have not yet done or what has not yet known to have been done.

This is, not to put too fine a point on it: hogwash.  Indeed, it is exactly backward from Christ’s approach.  He does not wait until our lives our over to decide whether or not he loves us.  God commends his own love to in this: while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).  He commands us to do the same.  That is what “love your enemies” means.  It doesn’t mean “Love people who pay back your emotional bank account by saying they are sorry and assuaging your rage.”  It means “extend unconditional love and forgiveness to nasty people who despise you and want to harm you.  Desire their happiness.  Do not cultivate bitterness against them.  Fight their evil actions, where necessary and possible, but do not will them ill.” 

The practical implication of saying, “I will not forgive until I know everything my enemy has done and heard apologies for all of it” is that you will never ever begin to forgive anyone, since you will never know the full extent of sins committed by any person.  Ultimately it’s just another excuse for putting conditions on your extension of forgiveness–an excuse that makes you no different than the tax collectors and sinners.  Jesus demands more.  How much more—and why—we will discuss next week.


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