Is It Ever Wrong for a Christian to Forgive?
Here is my question spelled out more fully: If we do not believe that forgiveness requires forgetfulness or that it sets aside consequences for the person who needs forgiveness, is it ever wrong for a Christian to forgive someone?
Out of context, most Christians would say no; it is never wrong to forgive someone (given the conditions stated in the italicized sentence above).
Christians claim to be Christ-followers; Jesus Christ commanded forgiveness without conditions and even said that if his followers did not forgive the Father in heaven would not forgive them.
Let me say it again: forgiveness does not necessarily require no punishment. Whether or not punishment is deserved and meted out is a separate question from forgiveness. About that nearly all Christians have always agreed. Many Christian theologians and ethicists have argued that within the church only repentance is needed; with true heart-felt repentance there is no need for punishment (within the church). However, the vast majority of Christian theologians and ethicists have always taught that within the civil order of society (Augustine’s “city of man”), punishment is not set aside by forgiveness. Even the Christian “magistrate” (judge) must punish evil doers—with love—for the same of order and safety in society.
Why am I raising this question here now?
I am going to avoid names here because naming names adds to strong feelings and gets us off the main point. But I will give a recent case study, without names, that makes this question—whether it is ever wrong for a Christian to forgive—especially relevant and even intense.
A white off-duty police officer shot and killed a black neighbor. She entered his apartment, saw him standing or coming toward her, pulled her pistol and shot and killed him—in his own apartment. He was unarmed and there is no evidence that her life was in any danger. She was in the wrong apartment. She says she thought she was in her apartment. She wasn’t. She was convicted of murder and sentenced to years in prison. After her sentencing, before she was taken away to prison, the victim’s brother asked the judge if he could approach her and he gave her a hug and said “I forgive you.” The rest is history. Social media went wild—accusing the brother of things like “slave mentality”—for forgiving his brother’s murderer.
I am assuming here that the forgiving brother is a Christian. I do not know that for sure. But his act of forgiveness is obviously consistent with Jesus’s command to his followers to forgive unconditionally. If he is not a Christian in the formal sense, I suspect he is a Christian in some other sense.
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I don’t think we can abstract this incident and controversy from the wider problem of many unarmed, innocent and non-threatening black people being shot and killed by police officers and the police officers often being either not charged or acquitted. In this case, however, the white police officer was convicted and sentenced. Still, many people are rightly outraged about the epidemic of police (and other) shootings of unarmed, non-threatening black people in America.
Yesterday I gladly heard a leading African-American evangelical theologian and ethicist speak about the ongoing problem of racism in America. With fervor, with passion, he argued that blacks in America are still disadvantaged and that it is wrong for white Christians not to recognize and acknowledge that and do whatever they can to change that situation. And yet, he also said that righteous indignation and passionate involvement in a just cause should not cause a Christian (or perhaps anyone) to become obsessed with anger or bitterness.
When, during a Q & A time, he was asked whether he thought the brother’s forgiveness of the white police officer was right, he affirmed that it was—because Jesus did not give us (Christians) any justification for not forgiving someone. He only commanded us to forgive. The speaker strongly affirmed the conviction of the white police officer—as a necessary consequence of murder. But he said that forgiveness is not in conflict with just consequences being applied.
Years and years ago Dutch Christian concentration camp survivor Corrie Ten Boom took up this question and answered it from her own experience. She reported publicly that once, when she was speaking about forgiveness, a German man approached her (after her sermon) and asked her to forgiven him for his service as a concentration camp guard during World War 2. She recognized him as an especially vicious guard who was in some way partly responsible for her sister’s death in the concentration camp. She talked and wrote about her inner struggle with forgiving the man but testified that she did forgive him because that is what Jesus requires of his followers.
I know this is easier said than done. But in principle forgiveness of enemies is always a Christian act—without conditions or qualifications (bearing in mind that consequences are still applicable even with forgiveness). How else can it be—given Jesus’s clear and unequivocal teachings about forgiveness?
Now I know that someone will say “That’s easy for you to say because you’re white.” Well, I heard an African-American theologian and ethicist say it yesterday. And I have very close loved ones who are black. And I am personally outraged at the epidemic of unjustified shootings of black people in America. I am outraged at juries who have declined to convict some of the police officers who shot unarmed black men and women and at least one child that I know of (and saw it on television).
But as a theologian and as an ethicist, I have to affirm forgiveness even if I am not sure I could do it.
I personally do not think the accusation that the brother’s act of forgiveness is a betrayal of African-Americans is correct. I think it was an affirmation of how much more Christian many African-Americans are than many white Americans. I can only applaud him and hope that I would have the generosity of spirit that he displayed if someone I know and love happened to become a victim of completely unjustified violence.
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