A work colleague lost his son last summer. The young man with an inviting smile and twinkling eyes was murdered in a road rage incident after a family outing to a baseball game. The tragedy has profoundly affected the boy’s father who very openly admits to a level of grief that is beyond trite condolences and assurances that one day he may realize the purpose of such a thing happening. Many of his friends and acquaintances and even some strangers have read his posts and struggled to know what to say or how to feel in such a circumstance. The bereaved father is not looking for help. He has a professional therapist for that. Instead he is simply expressing the agony of a shattered life.
Recently he admitted that he was not ready to forgive the man who shot his son. The murderer has yet to utter a word of remorse. Instead the bereaved father asked us to describe forgiveness. He wanted to know if any of us would be inclined to forgive someone who had committed such a heinous crime.
I think that the concept of forgiveness is far too complex and personal to describe in a generalized way. As with much of our experience we tend to over simplify issues. We want quick answers. My friend has found that in reality such a quick fix is impossible to find. So too do I think that we literally have to be the person who has been hurt to fully understand the level of loss, betrayal, violence that often surrounds the question of forgiveness. There is also the issue of whether or not the perpetrators of such acts have a semblance of regret.
I think that the most powerful moments in the life of Jesus of Nazareth came when he was betrayed by a friend, tried for a crime he did not commit, sentenced to die, and then nailed to a cross to die an agonizing death. There were two other men hanging on crosses of their own on either side of him. One of them admitted his sins and expressed his regret for having committed them. Jesus forgave him, but Jesus did not turn to the other fellow and offer the same absolution. What this teaches us is that pardon is earned by truthful sorrow and penance. I don’t think the message could be any clearer.
There is also the issue of mental culpability. We know that some people act out of severe mental illness. In the same way humans sometimes do not act to protect or save someone out of ignorance or simply because they are not paying attention. On that same day that he was dying Jesus uttered a collective kind of mercy for his executioners saying, “Father, forgive them. They know not what they do.”
I Googled the word forgiveness and this is what I found, “Psychologists generally define forgiveness as a conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment toward a person who has harmed you…Forgiveness doesn’t not mean forgetting, nor does it mean condoning or excusing offenses.”
For me forgiveness would depend on the degree of hurtfulness that someone inflicted on me. A hurtful comment would be easy to pardon. A lifetime of degradation from someone would not only be too vile to condone but would also demand a total break from the toxic relationship. I don’t think that anyone should be expected to forgive the malicious taking of a life, particularly if the perpetrator is unwilling to express sincere contrition.
I do believe in the possibility of redemption but it is not always easy to know if the repentance is sincere or simply a ruse. Whatever the situation, I don’t think that it has to be up to the victim of extreme abuse or violence to make the first move and be the better person who offers an olive branch. I think it is really okay to hold contempt for the person who gassed hundreds of Jews, the man who hung an innocent man from a tree, the person who humiliated and beat his wife. If God gazes into an individual heart and finds enough remorse to forgive them, then so be it, but the victims of such heinous experiences should not be held accountable for forgiveness. It is only natural to feel no mercy for someone who has destroyed a life.
My grandson was an actor when he was in high school. He once performed the role of Dennis Shepard, father of Matthew Shepard who was brutally murdered for being gay. At the sentencing of one of the killers Mr. Shepard asked the judge to spare the life of the convicted murderer in a stunning speech that sums up the agony of losing a child to violence. He did not however express a willingness to forgive.
“Every time that you wake up in that prison cell, remember that you had the opportunity and the ability to sort your actions that night. Every time that you see your cellmate, remember that you had a choice, and now you are living that choice. You robbed me of something very precious, and I will never forgive you for that, Mr. McKinney. I give you life in the memory of one who no longer lives.”
Somehow I think this says it all about forgiveness. This is what I would tell my friend.