Three teen-age girls were shot dead while praying on Monday, December 1, 1997 by a fellow student, Michael Carneal at Heath High School in West Paducah, Kentucky. Before they were buried, their schoolmates hung a sign announcing, “We forgive you, Mike!”
This immediate and automatic forgiveness is not surprising. Over the past generation, many of us have adopted the idea that we, as Christians, should forgive anyone who commits evil against anyone, no matter how great and cruel, and quite apart from whether the evildoer repents.
The number of examples is almost as large as the number of heinous crimes. For example, in the following summer Timothy McVeigh killed 168 people in Oklahoma City. A month or so later, at a Martha’s Vineyard church service attended by the vacationing President Clinton, the pastor announced that the duty of all Christians was to forgive Timothy McVeigh. “Can each of you look at a picture of Timothy McVeigh and forgive him?” the Rev. John Miller asked. “I have, and I invite you to do the same.” In the aftermath of the horror of 9/11 at prayer meetings around the country, clergy asked that we forgive the terrorists who committed the horror of 9/11.
We should be rightly appalled by this feel-good doctrine of automatic forgiveness. It advances the dangerous notion that no matter how much you hurt others, millions of your fellow citizens will forgive you. One of the central, foundational tenets of the Judeo-Christian tradition, that of repentance, has been destroyed. Even by God, forgiveness is contingent on the sinner repenting, and it can be given only by the one against whom the sin was committed.
These days one often hears that “It is the Christian’s duty to forgive, just as Jesus forgave those who crucified him.” Of course, Jesus asked God to forgive those who crucified him. But Jesus was the party against whom the sin was committed. Note that He never asked God to forgive those who had crucified the other thousands of other innocent people whose bodies lined the roads of Roman territories. He clearly recognized that no one has the moral right to forgive evil done to others.
When confronted with such arguments, many Christians and most clergy with whom I’ve discussed this problem offer another defense: “The students were not forgiving Carneal for murdering the three students. They were forgiving him for the pain he caused them.” Such self centered thinking masquerading as a religious ideal is a good example of the moral disarray in much of religious life. This is therapy masquerading as theology: “I forgive you because it will make me feel better.”
You and I have no right nor obligation, religiously or morally, to forgive Timothy McVeigh or Michael Carneal or the 9/11 terrorists; only those they sinned against have that right and they are dead! If we are automatically forgiven no matter what we do, why repent? In fact, if we forgive everybody for all the evil they do, The forgiveness that resides in God’s grace has been diminished altogether . We have substituted ourselves for God.