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In my last column, we looked at a few of the most popular excuses devised by us Christians for avoiding the command to forgive enemies. But there are still others.
BY MARK SHEA
In my last column,
we looked at a few of the most popular excuses devised by us Christians for
avoiding the command to forgive enemies. But there are still others.
One common dodge is to say, “God
does not forgive impenitent sinners. Why should we be held to a higher standard
than that to which God holds himself?”
This clever retort sounds good,
but it all hinges on what we mean by a “higher” standard. Obviously, no
standard is “higher” than God’s own standard in the sense of “better” or “more
perfect.” But if by “higher” you really mean “stricter,” then there is a very
sufficient answer to this question: “because we’re not God.”
The sleight of hand at work here
is the notion that God would never forbid us something he doesn’t forbid
himself. But this is nonsense.
We are commanded, “Judge not,” by
the judge of the whole world.
Because we are not qualified to
judge anybody and he is qualified to judge everybody. In other words, it is
precisely because we are not God that
we are commanded to forgive.
Still another excuse for refusing
forgiveness goes this way: “The command to forgive is not unconditioned,
because if it were, a priest could not refuse absolution. Since, in some cases,
the priest is supposed to refuse absolution, so can we refuse to forgive.”
This is, however, to confuse
sacramental confession with the common Christian demand for forgiveness. Like
it or not, the command, “When you stand to pray, forgive anyone against whom
you have a grievance” (Mark 11:25), is
unconditioned, just as the command to love our enemies is.
And it is coupled with the equally
unconditional (and dire) assurance, “If you do not
forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses”
(Mark 11:26). Pastors with a responsibility to govern the Church are given
latitude by Our Lord to exercise discretion in the dispensation of sacramental
absolution, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain
the sins of any, they are retained” (John 21:23), precisely because they act in persona Christi and we do not.
Yet another excuse people
sometimes offer works this way: “I can forgive evils done against me
personally, but I don’t have to forgive, say, the 9/11 conspirators because
they did not affect me personally.
That’s why it was so presumptuous
of Pope John Paul II to pray a prayer of forgiveness for them.
Some say, “That is for the victims
to do, not some pope sitting in Rome
in the comfort of a papal palace! He has no idea how those victims suffered!”
The trick behind this excuse is to
allow yourself to identify with the victims of a sin enough to hate their
enemies, but to pretend that this act of identification does not likewise
oblige you to forgive their enemies as it obliges them.
Basic rule of thumb: If a sin done
to a stranger arouses pity for the stranger and loathing for the one who
committed the sin, then to that degree you are bound to forgive it as if it
were done to you.
“But,” we splutter desperately,
“Do you really think, for example, that Osama bin Laden is owed forgiveness?”
No. Nobody is owed forgiveness. Unconditional love is, by definition, undeserved.
Grace is grace, not something we deserve.
So, sooner or later, we return to
the granite fact that we are solemnly commanded by Jesus Christ himself to
extend forgiveness to absolutely everybody who sins against us, whether they
ever repent or not. Why does he give this command?
1. We’re not God, and
2. It will destroy our lives and
damn our souls if we don’t.
You can refuse to forgive [insert
jerk’s name here] till the day you die. The actual, practical, real world
result of this will be that no actual practical good will be done whatever by
clinging to unforgiveness.
For it is false that clinging to unforgiveness will somehow empower us to “do what needs to
be done.” This is like confusing idling your motor at
a million RPMs with driving. It is a purely
destructive waste of time.
For the biggest irony is: We not
only commit the sin of usurping the place of God, we also have no effect whatever on the sinner while we eat ourselves alive
with pointless, utterly unproductive and impotent rage.
The truly Christian thing is to act in
whatever practical and just way we can — and then hand the sinner over to God
with the words, “I forgive X in the name of Christ.”
This, like quitting smoking, is
easy — and must be done thousands of times.
That’s the Tradition. It’s the
most repellent part of the entire Gospel. But also, I think, the most
Mark Shea is senior content editor