Sunday, June 10, 2007

When Forgiveness Is Morally Reprehensible

Imagine that you've just been the victim of a horrendous crime. Perhaps you were raped. Perhaps you were carjacked, and the carjacker drove off with your child in the back seat, and you never saw your child again. Perhaps you were sitting in the classroom when a crazed gunman came into the room and opened fire, wounding you and killing many of your fellow classmates. Tragically, these are just a few of the real life scenarios some people have faced.

Now let's say that the police or the prosecuting attorneys come to you and ask you to talk about your experiences in detail, in the hope of catching and punishing the perpetrator. Or perhaps apprehension and conviction is no longer an issue, thanks to the fact that the perpetrator ended up killing himself. Nevertheless, the authorities are going to need for you to go over the event in painstaking detail, in order to help them to prevent similar events in the future.

If you have ever been traumatized by such an event, chances are good that you would just like to forget the whole thing and pretend that it never happened. You would much prefer that life could return to normalcy. But whether you like it or not, that is not an option. What's done has been done. Your assistance is vital in order to insure justice and in order to prevent other innocent people from being victimized.

But what about forgiveness? Didn't Jesus teach us all to forgive? Yes, he did. But there are people in this world who have drawn overly simplistic conclusions from that fact. They have concluded that being a forgiving person means staying silent in the face of evil. They have defined forgiveness in such a way that it makes it impossible to hold wrongdoers accountable for their despicable acts.

The trouble with that is that people who have committed crimes against others, or who have sinned against others, are seldom likely to stop after having committed such crimes or sins just once. Their acts are indicative of a lack of moral character on their part. If they are not held accountable for their past crimes and sins, they are very likely to commit more acts of a similar nature in the future.

To neglect one's responsibilities to the community by failing to hold wrongdoers responsible for their acts is to aid and abet such wrongdoers, and to share in their guilt to some extent.

There is no question about the fact that forgiveness is important in the life of every Christian believer. If it were not for God's willingness to forgive, our prospects for the future would be dim indeed. Jesus made it plain that God's willingness to forgive us imposed certain responsibilities on us as well. He made it clear that we could not expect God's forgiveness of our own sins if we were not willing to forgive others.

But I do not believe that Jesus meant that we ought to try to sweep all offenses under the rug and pretend that they never happened. I do not believe that he meant that wrongdoers should not be held accountable. Actions have consequences in this life, or at least, they ought to. Sometimes there is a fine line between justice and vengeance, but the line does exist.

It's morally reprehensible to define forgiveness in such a simplistic way that it prevents people from taking the steps which are necessary in order to prevent people from being harmed or sinned against in the future.

We sometimes make mistakes when attempting to hold people accountable. Some people are wrongfully accused, wrongfully arrested, wrongfully convicted and wrongfully punished. That is regrettable, and we ought to do everything in our power to prevent such occurrences. But the fact that such injustices sometimes occur in the name of justice ought not to be used as an excuse for abandoning the entire enterprise and allowing criminals and sinners to get by with harming other people.

There are differences between sins which are also crimes, and sins which remain immune to prosecution from the law because they pertain to things which ought not to be regulated by the state. But the basic principles discussed in this article are equally applicable to both categories of wrongdoing. It ought to be clear, from a thorough reading of scriptures, that there are remedies within the church for acts of wrongdoing which do not technically violate any manmade laws. Lying, for instance, is only punishable by law in extreme circumstances (such as perjury). But lying is a sin, regardless of whether or not it is punishable by law. Just because a particular sin is exempt from legal prosecution does not mean that it is not harmful to others.

The Church loses credibility when it uses forgiveness as an excuse for turning a blind eye to sins which harm others. We Christians have a moral responsibility to care for hurting people. We cannot claim with any credibility to care for hurting people if we neglect our responsibility to hold people accountable when they sin against one another.

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