…I’ve been thinking about his mission. The prophet Malachi says of him:
“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a curse.” (Mal 4:5–6).
And his father Zechariah prophesies of the Messiah John announces that, among other things, his mission is “to perform the mercy promised to our fathers,/and to remember his holy covenant” (Lk 1:72).
About this business of “the mercy promised to our fathers.” One of the things that our generation is going to have to learn for itself is what the psalmists had to learn to do: Both acknowledge “We and our fathers (and mothers) have sinned” and then, instead of kicking down the ladder of history, asking for mercy for “we and our fathers (and mothers)”.
Americans are a revolutionary people. We don’t suffer the sins of our fathers and mothers well and have a long history of rejecting our fathers and mothers without mercy when confronted with their sins.
The trouble is that we don’t understand mercy. We think it means excusing sin. It doesn’t. It means forgiving it.
Excuses are not for sin. Excuses are for what is not sin. The bus lurches and you step on my foot and I excuse you, not forgive you, because you committed no sin. You weren’t trying to stomp on my toe and you could not possibly have avoided doing so. You were a victim of physics.
Forgiveness is for when you have deliberately and with malice aforethought set out to hurt me. Conversely, it is for when (because you are a selfish jerk) you completely neglected my good when you owed it to me not to do that (as when you were texting and ran a stop sign and killed my little girl).
Forgiveness, in a word, is for when you have sinned by deliberate, culpable commission or omission, setting your selfish wants above what you owed me in justice.
As historical sins like sexual abuse or racism come to light, the generation confronting them must therefore do three things. It must
1) excuse what can be excused (so, for instance, complaining that St. Paul did not begin a campaign to end slavery in the Roman Empire is silly),
2) refuse to excuse what cannot be excused (so, for instance, we must not tell victims of sexual assault that the things they endured were not outrages or that Jim Crow was really fine) and
3) forgive what cannot be excused.
Forgiveness means willing the happiness and good of the sinner and we are called to do that unconditionally as God does. God commends his own love to us in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). We must therefore likewise extend the willingness to forgive to all including (especially) the impenitent. That’s why forgiveness is so hard since most sinners are either impenitent or wildly unwilling to face the full force of their guilt and full of excuses for why they are actually the Real Victims[TM] or not so bad as all that, etc. Rare indeed is the sinner who comes to us and says “I have sinned against heaven and against you” begging forgiveness. In fact, the more grave their sin, the less likely the sinner is to ever admit they have sinned. And in the case of our dead ancestors, we will *never* hear the words of contrition in most cases (unless we find some buried letter from the Founder of the KKK saying, “What have I done? Dear God, forgive me!”. Our fathers who fought for slavery or our mothers who behaved like scoundrels in generations past may have never apologized, for all we know. What do we do with them?
I believe all three things listed above are necessary or we will neither learn from nor be capable of being reconciled with our ancestors. And that bears directly on our own case since we too have sinned and it’s just a matter of time before our children judge us and, most of all, God judges us for eternity. If we are merciliess, we can expect to receive no mercy at all from our children, who will judge our sins with the same harshness we mete out to our ancestors. And God has already made his views known: “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Mt 6:14–15).
Not because God does not want to give mercy, but because if we make ourselves the Javerts charged with condemning our ancestors without mercy, we shall be, like Javert, closed to the possibility that God will ever forgive us. The measure we use will be measured to us–by ourselves.
Forgiveness does not mean pretending the sinner did not sin. It does not, with the living, mean refusing to bring the guilty before the bar of justice if they have committed crimes. (So, for instance, I see no contradiction between locking up a sex predator and forgiving him–that is, willing his ultimate good and a heavenly destiny for him.)
Nor does extension of unconditional forgiveness on our part mean pretending the sinner has repented and sought forgiveness if he has not done so. We are called to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves, not vice versa. The reason we extend forgiveness to the impenitent in the hope they will receive it is that, even if they do not, we are freed from bitterness toward them and freed to receive the love of God. Refusal to forgive until the other person repents only shackles us to the sinner. It usually does absolutely nothing to punish or reform the sinner and, in the case of the dead, gives them power over us from beyond the grave.
Forgiveness is incredibly hard. It feels like “letting them get away with it”. And without the gracious help of God, I think it’s impossible. But the gracious help of God is available everywhere and at all times to any willing heart. That is why prodigies of forgiveness have been achieved even by unbelievers who were simply people of good will who knew it was the right thing to do. And it is why we believers in Christ, who have free access to that grace, have no excuse if we do not forgive.
The Fathers of the Church say that the forgiveness of sins is a greater miracle than the creation of the world. After all, it cost God nothing to create the universe. It cost him crucifixion to forgive sins.
This Advent, let us take hold of the grace of God’s mercy and forgive all who have sinned against us and ask forgiveness of those we have sinned against. Nobody needs to do that more than I do. It’s a work in progress for us all.
So that said, please forgive me for any sins I have committed against you in the past. And to any reader who has sinned against me, I extend forgiveness to you and to all who have sinned against me.