Forgiving the Unforgivable
“To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.” -C.S. Lewis
Her voice choking back tears, Bethane Middleton Brown addressed the individual who had, only hours ago, murdered her brother and eight others in cold-blood. Before his killing spree began, he had spent an hour with them at their weekly Bible study, in the basement of Emmanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina. The killer stood silent in handcuffs, with no evident traces of regret or remorse in his actions or demeanor. While acknowledging her anger, Brown expressed her forgiveness, stating, “We are the family that love built. We have no room for hate, so we have to forgive.”
Brown was not the only one to openly share her words of forgiveness; several friends and relatives of those murdered shared their own words of forgiveness, others using the opportunity to share God’s Word with the shooter. Here, an individual who betrayed the trust of those who openly welcomed him into their church, and murdered them for nothing more than the color of their skin, was readily being forgiven for what he had done. What could possess someone to so readily forgive an individual who just hours before had murdered their loved ones?
These words of forgiveness echoed another tale of forgiveness that had grabbed headlines worldwide, 34 years before. Sirens were wailing the evening of May 13th 1981, carrying an attempted murder victim. While still en route to the hospital, the man espoused forgiveness for his would be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca. Agca, a Turkish assassin, was part of a group sent on a mission to kill one of the most important and influential individuals in the world at the time: then- Pope John Paul II. Four days following his survived assassination attempt, Pope John Paul II issued a public message of forgiveness for his would-be assassin, calling upon others to pray for Agca. He eventually went on to visit Agca in prison two years later, and met with members of his family on numerous other occasions over the years. What motivates one, lying in what may be their final moments, to forgive someone who attempted to assassinate him?
Such acts of forgiveness seem absolutely unfathomable, especially when they come so swiftly from the victims of such extreme suffering. Where did these individuals find the strength and the inspiration to forgive such grave wrongs against them? Perhaps it was due to their great love and devotion to an individual who was also so willing to forgive, even as He was being nailed to a cross: Jesus Christ.
Pope Saint John Paul II wrote in his message for the 1997 World Day of Peace, “I am fully aware that forgiveness can seem contrary to human logic, which often yields to the dynamics of conflict and revenge. But forgiveness is inspired by the logic of love, that love which God has for every man and woman.” In his writing, he reiterates our Christian responsibility to offer others forgiveness when they have wronged us, no matter the severity of the offense. This forgiveness is essential if we are to truly progress towards the path of peace. We cannot rely on operating under the system of human logic, but must strive to act in a manner consistent with that of God’s great mercy and forgiveness for us.
Christ is clear upon the necessity of forgiveness. We cannot simply choose not to forgive one another if we are to expect to receive forgiveness for our own sins. This is made evident in the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, Matthew 18:21-35. The Lord has forgiven us of all of our sins, and in choosing to withhold forgiveness from another, we are committing a far graver offense in the eyes of God than had we simply sinned against another. In the parable, the servant has been forgiven of his debt, which totaled 10,000 talents. Placed in proper context, we may realize just how forgiving the king is. One talent is equal to roughly 20 years’ worth of wages (working every day of the week, except for the Sabbath), thus the servant was forgiven for a debt equal to 200,000 years’ worth of wages.* Yet that same servant fails to forgive his fellow man of his debt of only 100 denarii, having him thrown into prison. When the king hears of this, he is outraged, and has the servant sent to be tortured until his own debt has been repaid. Christ ends the parable in Matthew with a warning of a similar fate should we choose to also withhold forgiveness from others.
One can find numerous instances in which Christ explicitly states that forgiveness will only be granted to those who forgive others. “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” the Lord’s Prayer states in Matthew 6:12. The meaning of this line in particular is two-fold, and the second meaning can very easily be forgotten. The first part of the line is a plea for forgiveness. The latter half, however, is a conditional statement: should we expect to be forgiven by God, we are to forgive the sins of others. There are no other modifiers in this prayer. There is no asterisk with a footnote at the bottom of the page denoting the sins for which forgiveness is not a necessity. If we are to expect for our sins to be forgiven by God, we must follow the example and direction of Christ and, like Him, forgive the sins of others as well.
Christ did not die in order to forgive the sins of only the Jewish people at His time; He came in order to offer forgiveness to everyone willing to accept Him. Christ’s love and forgiveness showed no bounds. When Christ said, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34 NABRE), He extended this offer of forgiveness not only to His executioners at Calvary, but to each and every one of us who sins against Him. If we are to truly live up to our name as Christians, we must follow Christ’s instruction and example–continuing to forgive our trespassers, time and time again, no matter how severe the wrongdoing.
Admittedly, while in many instances forgiveness does not flow easily, we must constantly strive to do so, for it is what we have been called to do. As the great leader, Martin Luther King Jr. once said while expressing the essential nature of forgiveness, “He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love.” Without forgiveness there is no love. Without love we are choosing to go opposite of the direction of God, making us no better–if not worse– than those who have caused us harm. If we are to hope to receive the Lord’s forgiveness for our own offenses, we must learn to offer unconditional and unceasing love and forgiveness to all, including those who have caused us harm.
Still, it is important to realize why we are to forgive others. If we forgive others only for the sake of receiving something (God’s forgiveness) in return, are we truly being forgiving? Our primary goal should not be to receive a reward, but to live as Christ instructed us to live. We are called to forgive because we have been shown forgiveness ourselves, forgiveness of a magnitude we can hardly begin to conceptualize. Through our forgiveness of others, we come to recognize that all of us have missed the mark, and that all of us continue to miss the mark. Regardless, in His infinite love and mercy, God continues to forgive us time and time again. Through our continued forgiveness of others, we come to realize just how loving and merciful God is to forgive not only our own sins, or the sins that have been committed against us, but to forgive the sins of all who seek His forgiveness.
Offering our forgiveness to others can be excruciating at times, and can even seem illogical at times, yet God does so readily for each of us. It is for this reason that we must forgive. Some may say that we should simply forgive because it is good for us, and while this is true, it does not capture the greater purpose and reason. We forgive not simply for some kind of reward whether it be temporal or eternal, but because it is what Christ has first done for us. If we are to truly say that we are Christians–followers of Christ–we must forgive.
Jeremy Candelas ’18 is a Communication major at Cornell, with a focus in Communication Media Studies.church, CS Lewis, forgiveness, love, Martin Luther King Jr, mercy, peace, Pope John Paul II, race, racism, shootings, violence