am having a problem with forgiveness.
I think I have always had it.
Ironically, there is no one in my past that
I have felt I had to forgive for any wrong done to me. No one. I am lucky
there. But from my earliest coming of age I can remember being completely
hardhearted when it came to public figures and criminals who escape justice.
For example, for years I excoriated Lyndon Johnson for escalating the war in
Vietnam and later Richard Nixon for reneging on his promise to end it. The
subterfuge and lying that permeated the Watergate hearings sent me into
paroxysms of rage, which adversely punctuated dinner table conversations in the
early 70’s. Ronald Reagan’s selling arms to the Contras in Central America in
the 80’s, Bill Clinton’s monumentally stupid affair with Monica Lewinsky in the
90’s that wrecked his second term’s effectiveness as president, George Bush’s
tax cuts for the rich and misguiding the American people on Saddam Hussein’s
WMDs, and now Donald Trump’s malevolently sick and mean character, his
separating thousands of children from their parents and holding them in cages
indefinitely at the border, and his gross mishandling of the corona virus
crisis – all these rancid behaviors from men whom we have put in the most
powerful position in the world and from whom we expect the highest example of
integrity and leadership – all these
things over the last sixty years grind on my soul and have made me exceedingly
cynical about national politics.
Even my heroes of those times – John Kennedy,
Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King (all assassinated), Gene McCarthy, Daniel
Ellsberg, Woodward & Bernstein, Archibald Cox, Barbara Jordan, Molly Ivins,
Rachel Maddow – don’t completely cool my passion for justice.
When I was a boy, Catholic school teachers taught
me that there was a heaven, hell or purgatory awaiting all human beings after
we die. Heaven was, of course, a place of perfect happiness with God. Hell was
a place of eternal suffering for unrepentant sinners. Purgatory, which I
learned later only Catholics believed in, was a temporary state
for lesser sinners who had to suffer the torment of flames after death until
all their sins were purged and they were allowed into heaven.
The idea of
sinners being punished for their sins struck me as right and just.
In high school I flirted with the Hindu idea of
reincarnation in which a person’s life was a journey through many lifetimes.
The endless repetition of birth, death and rebirth, called samsara, is a
painful process of inching toward perfect merit, working off bad deeds, and
achieving moksha or liberation. This process was called trans-migration – an
individual soul surviving lifetime after lifetime, and it allowed for switching
species. A person could be reborn as human, animal, vegetable or mineral. The
greater the merits accumulated over all life the higher the rebirth. Each
person has the freedom to make choices that will earn merit or dishonor and
influence the course of their present as well as future life.
Later in seminary theology classes I abandoned the
idea of purgatory and reincarnation altogether and accepted the idea that
Jesus’ death on the cross redeemed everybody once and for all. When He said
those words from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they
do,” He wasn’t just forgiving His captors, the Romans and the Jewish leaders.
He was absolving all men – past, present and future – of their sins.
I still believe this, but the problem of
forgiveness remains for me.
Are all the wicked people, who have been and are
unrepentant for committing their terrible atrocities being given a free pass
to eternal life? That seems to violate justice. In his life Jesus himself spoke
of hell frequently. He talked about
separating the wheat from the chaff, the sheep from the goats, and the fig tree
that bears no fruit being tossed into the fire. He spoke of the last judgment
and the wailing and gnashing of teeth at least a dozen times. Sounds like a
place of real suffering for sinners after death to me.
I read an excerpt from Bryan Stevenson’s memoir Just Mercy: A Story of
Justice and Redemption (2014):
“Mercy is what you give to people who don’t deserve it. It’s what you give
people who haven’t asked for it. It’s what you give and it will come back.”
it struck me that Jesus intimated the same idea when he forgave us from the
To forgive people who don’t deserve it – Is this
the last lesson Jesus taught just before he died? To be truly Christian is this
what we must do?
Perhaps I should just shrug my shoulders and say, “Let God be
the judge,” and go about my life believing that everything is in God’s hands.
After all, as the poet says, “God’s in his heaven. All’s right with the world.”
Other more talented and well-positioned people will take care of things, won’t
On the other hand, I believe it was precisely this sort of laissez-faire
attitude that brought Adolf Hitler to unrestrained power and is now allowing
our own president to run amok in our country.
and its ally mercy, although they are not the same thing, direct ALL the powers
of four cardinal virtues toward the suffering of others. (Mercy refers to the
treatment of someone who could be treated harshly. Forgiveness refers to
letting go of the anger and resentment against a person.)
And what are those
cardinal virtues? In catechism class I
learned that the four cardinal virtues are prudence, justice,
fortitude, and temperance. In order to
have one of them, a person must have all four; they are inseparable because
they work together in important ways.
Prudence is the power to make wise decisions. This power requires self-control and therefore, temperance, the
power to resist enslavement to unbridled desires. This power requires
self-denial and sacrifice. It takes courage or fortitude to risk our
life or health or fame or fortune for the sake of some other good or for
someone we love.
The good we sacrifice for must be in reality a good. This is
where justice comes in. It enables us to treat people fairly and give
them the things they have a right to. It calls us to allocate the benefits of
our society equitably.
Jesus embodied all these virtues when he showed
mercy to the thief who was crucified next to him, then prayed, “Father, forgive
them for they know not what they do.” Mercy impelled him even in his last
extremity of suffering to look upon his enemies and all human beings with a
He offers the ultimate example, which I cannot measure up
to in a world that seems to be teeming with material greed and dissolving into
chaos because of it. I must leave it to God to reconcile both justice and mercy
and try my best not to question or doubt that he in his wisdom will dispense
both in his own mysterious way.