January 18, 2011
On Forgiving Murderers
A few years back an alumnus of my school, a pastor, killed his wife in a domestic dispute. I remember very clearly the description of a phone call between him and one of the professors who had been close to the couple. The first thing the killer had tearfully said was,
“Will you forgive me?”
The professor had answered, “Of course I forgive you.”
I remember having a very negative reaction to that interchange. Confronted with the horror of that situation, the unfairness, the sickening finality of that evil act, the thought that bubbled up was: it’s too early for this guy to ask for forgiveness. If he really was sorry he would not call for immediate absolution. He is only asking for forgiveness because he is hurting, not because he has hurt someone else.
My reaction was natural and perhaps even perceptive. Maybe I had the guy dead to rights. But even at the time I wondered if it was a Christian reaction. Highlighting the perpetrator’s blatant self-interest in the request for pardon also shone the light on my reticence to forgive. Even though I did not know this person, I did not want to forgive him. I couldn’t just bring myself to say, “Yes, that was a legitimate request. The professor’s answer was right.” I needed time to take the edge off. Then I could forgive, when doing so didn’t shock my moral system as much.
It wasn’t until some 10 years later that I saw the example of forgiveness that got me on the right track. We probably all remember the 2006 shootings of ten girls in an Amish school-house. The scene was about as horrific as any parent can imagine. What is more innocent and helpless than a young girl? What is more evil than lining a number of them up against a chalkboard and shooting them in cold blood? Hard to imagine. The blood rises, and we are frustrated that the perpetrator took his own life, depriving us of the righteous pleasure of tearing him limb from limb.
And yet the Amish response was unequivocal:
- A grandfather of one of the victims said from the start, “We must not think evil of this man.”
- Another member of the community said, “I don’t think there’s anybody here that wants to do anything but forgive and not only reach out to those who have suffered a loss in that way but to reach out to the family of the man who committed these acts.”
- The community came to the aid of the mother of the murderer and comforted and supporter her in her time of grief.
Some people criticized the reaction as minimizing evil, and I think that is precisely the urge that keeps us from forgiving too quickly. We feel like unless we express our indignation we will be opening the door for more evil. In this sense the refusal to forgive is a form of self-protection. We don’t want to get trampled. We don’t want our society to be trampled. It seems too permissive.
And yet, for those who call ourselves Christians, forgiveness is not an option. Jesus tells us quite clearly to forgive “seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:21-22), which is to say endlessly and with little regard for the consequences. The concern behind this teaching is Peter’s question, “how many times do I keep forgiving someone if they keep sinning against me?” Peter then suggests the number seven. After all, it has a biblical ring to it. But Jesus’ answer rather ingenuously expands seven into infinity. Nor does there seem to be much concern to determine the sincerity of the request. You just keep forgiving, even if after a while it starts to seem ridiculous.
Isn’t that what God does? Then we should do it too.
But the necessity of forgiveness does not somehow remove the inertia of the offense. In emotional physics, there is energy that must be dissipated. You may say “I forgive you” but that doesn’t mean it won’t eat you up on the inside and keep you tossing in your bed all night. Is it reasonable to demand such generous forgiveness? Is it even psychologically healthy? Shouldn’t there be a mandatory waiting period on requests for absolution?
Someone was seen to quip on Facebook the day other that “It’s too soon to talk about forgiveness.” Meaning the AZ shootings. “We need time to heal,” they claimed. Without intending to judge anyone who takes time to forgive (and without claiming that I’m some kind instamatic forgiveness dispenser myself), I still wonder: Isn’t asking for time just saying “I’ll forgive when I have forgotten?” Kind of like, “I’ll help you out when I have enough for myself”? Isn’t this avoiding the hard work of forgiveness? Isn’t forgiveness delayed, like a right, forgiveness denied? Shouldn’t we be able to forgive someone when they ask for it? Can there be a difference between forgiveness and the emotional storm around forgiveness? Can we forgive great evil without minimizing its evil impact on us?
Again I look to the Amish and I see a community of people who value forgiveness. I suspect that the ability to forgive quickly (knee-jerk forgiveness?) begins with a culture that practices and prioritizes forgiveness. Most of us don’t think about the practice of forgiveness until we are forced into an extreme situation that demands it. I am not by any means suggesting it ought to be easy to practice forgiveness, but I wonder if some of the hard work can in some ways be “front-loaded” – learned ahead of time. Perhaps it is not about somehow finding the resources within ourselves to forgive as it is about creating patterns of forgiveness which will come to the fore when they are called upon.