Tuesday, September 05, 2023

Qualified to Forgive

Contrary to the conventional wisdom, biblical forgiveness (as discussed in this recent post) is not a state of mind or a particular emotion; rather, forgiveness is a verbal transaction between two parties in which one requests relief from a felt obligation and the other grants it. Letting go of anger, resisting bitterness, and getting over old hurts are simply not the same thing as genuine forgiveness asked for and received.

But there is another aspect to genuine biblical forgiveness worth exploring: it requires that the correct parties show up to the table.

Who Can Offer and Who Can Accept?

It should be patently obvious that no human being is qualified to forgive an injury done to someone else. The scribes in Matthew had at least that much right when they accused Jesus of blasphemy for forgiving the sins of the paralytic: they correctly understood the man’s sins were offenses not just against other men but against God himself. For the Lord Jesus to grant him forgiveness of these was either an outrageous act of presumption or the rightful assertion of his own deity.

So then, only the offender may legitimately request forgiveness and only an offended party is truly qualified to grant it. Done appropriately, God’s forgiveness follows.

Though not a believer to the best of my knowledge, Douglas Murray grasps this principle. In his chapter on Reparations in his recent bestseller The War on the West, he writes:

“The first thing to do is to work out whether the wrong has actually occurred. And what the extent of that wrong might be. Next, it is necessary to work out who the person is who has been wronged and who the person is who has done the wrong thing. If forgiveness or apology is required, then who can offer it and who can accept it? If some kind of compensation or restitution is required, then where will it come from and who will it go to?”

The Dying Nazi

By way of illustrating the problem, Murray offers two real life accounts. The first concerns Holocaust survivor and Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, once called to bedside of a dying Nazi soldier riddled with guilt for his war crimes as a member of the Hitler Youth. This man and his compatriots shot or burned around three hundred Jews in a single atrocious event. Murray writes:

“After the SS soldier has finished his tale, and the reader perhaps expects some kind of reconciliation, Wiesenthal gets up and leaves the room without saying a word.”

In response to Wiesenthal’s story, a range of thinkers and religious leaders contributed their thoughts, and many of the Christians consulted believed Wiesenthal should have offered some kind of forgiveness to the soldier. What these failed to take into account is that Wiesenthal’s motives in leaving the room in silence are irrelevant. He could have been burning with hatred or aching with empathy for the dying German, but the fact remains that he wasn’t qualified to grant forgiveness. He may have been born a Jew, but he wasn’t one of the three hundred burned or shot, or even one of their close relatives. Forgiveness for sins against others was not his to grant. Only God could do that.

Had Wiesenthal been a Christian himself, we might have expected him to point the dying soldier to God as the only possible source of forgiveness. He wasn’t and he didn’t. But you see the problem. Any attempt by Wiesenthal to grant forgiveness on behalf of others would have been thoroughly presumptuous.

The Archbishop of Canterbury

The second account is more recent, and typical of the profitless groveling engaged in by religious spokespeople in the post-George Floyd West. Again, Murray writes:

“In February 2020, the archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, gave a speech to the general synod of the Church of England. In it he apologized for the ‘institutional racism’ of the Church of England. The archbishop said, ‘I am sorry and ashamed. I’m ashamed of our history and I’m ashamed of our failure. There is no doubt when we look at our own Church that we are still deeply institutionally racist.’ At the time that Welby gave this speech, the next most important person in the church besides himself was John Sentamu, the then archbishop of York.”

Murray notes that Sentamu is from Uganda, demonstrably not a victim of the Church of England’s “institutional racism”. That’s not to say that some members of the Church of England over the years, perhaps a great number, were not guilty of racist thoughts or racist acts. But most of the people legitimately qualified to forgive such sins are long in their graves, and the perpetrators of such acts are not asking for it. Thus, Welby is not only asking for something he and his church are unqualified to ask for and unlikely to receive, he is asking for the impossible.

The Limitations of Forgiveness

Human forgiveness is always limited in character. Consider the case of parents who publicly forgive the murderer of their daughter. Provided the guilty party is repentant, they are certainly welcome to release him from the guilt of his crime against them personally. But try as they might, they cannot release him from the guilt of his crime against their daughter; even her parents have no standing to speak for her. As the Lord put it to Cain, “The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.” This remained true entirely independent of Adam and Eve’s feelings about what Cain had done once they came to know of it. Abel’s blood had its own voice and its unique claim to God’s justice.

Furthermore, no parent’s lofty sentiments can do anything at all to help discharge the State’s case against a murderer. He may have been personally forgiven by a subset of his victims, but he has still committed crimes for which he will have to account to society.

More importantly, he still has God to deal with, if he has not already done so.

Original photo of Justin Welby courtesy the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, CC BY 2.0

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