I have a pastor friend who has written a thoughtful blog post on forgiveness in the wake of the Boston bombings. His initial take is different than mine. He’s got me thinking about forgiving the unforgivable.
Maybe it’s too easy for me to look at the accused bombing suspect, Dzokhar Tsarnaev, and see a broken and hurting kid. He is, after all, half a continent away, safely in the hospital, and he didn’t hurt anyone I love. He’s not really my enemy, so if I can love him and forgive him from this safe distance, it doesn’t reflect any particular virtue in me.
In a way, Tsarnaev, or any public bad guy we could think of, is a sort of straw man. We set him up as a case-in-point, a generic enemy. We test on him our resolve to be forgiving, if we have such resolve. What would I do if…? Even if I don’t ask the question out loud, or even internally, specifically, intentionally, I’m sounding the depths – or shallows – of my own capacity to say, with Jesus, “Father, forgive them…”
There’s something so comfortingly clear about someone who hurts innocent bystanders. We know who’s right, who’s been wronged. It’s why we like old-time westerns or action movies where there’s no moral ambiguity and the man in the white hat will always stand against and overcome the man in the black hat. In real life, in my commonplace, quotidian encounters, it’s not so clear.
I hurt other people. They hurt me. It’s not a bullet or a bomb, but a careless word or look or tone. Sometimes it’s not so careless, but stealthily planned to hurt, to wreak a little bit of vengeance in the name of self-defense. I’ve been hurt; I want to hurt someone, to release my pain by inflicting it on you. At first, it feels good not to forgive, to give like for like, like scratching an itch. But it doesn’t really help, because the itch is a symptom, not the disease. I will scratch and scratch until I’m the one who’s bleeding.
As long as I keep looking outside, at some enemy who is set against me, I will want to strike back, and my wound will never heal. In a way, it doesn’t matter whether I harbor the unwillingness to forgive against my neighbor or against the Osama bin Ladens or Adam Lanzas of the world. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” reminds me to count the cost to my own soul when I bind that which I’m called to loose. If I hold a grudge against the most distant enemy, my grudge will maintain a hold on me.
I agree with Pastor Rob, that forgiving doesn’t necessarily mean forgetting. I have known enough people who have been harmed – physically, emotionally, spiritually – by people close to them to know that forgetting can mean inviting further abuse. That’s not what forgiveness is about. I have seen those same people, though, genuinely forgive acts of violence, lack of love, cruelty, neglect, and abandonment – and experience healing transformation in their own souls in the process.
We are called to forgive the unforgivable, but it’s a mistake to assume that it’s simply an act of charity toward the offender. Forgiveness is finally a choice to allow my own soul to heal.