A friend of mine was killed by a terrorist. After becoming a Christian, he was abused and beaten by neighbours and family. This settled down, but just before Easter last year, he was killed.
Terror targeting is not confined to overseas. Last week, Martin McGuinness passed away with many people remembering all the ambiguity of his life and actions. He was almost certainly complicit in violent deaths as well as later working for peace. Then later in the week, we had incidents in London with a shooting, and a motor vehicle used as a weapon.
In the face of this, what is the role of forgiveness? Is it right to forgive people who haven’t shown any remorse? Should we join Norman Tebbitt in wishing that such people be “parked in an unpleasant corner of hell?”
To unpack this, we need to look at what forgiveness is, and isn’t. Forgiveness is not forgetting or pretending it didn’t happen. We don’t “forgive and forget.” Forgiveness is not excusing. Forgiveness is not saying “it doesn’t matter.” Nor is forgiveness about giving permission to continue hurtful behaviours nor is it condoning the behaviour in the past or in the future.
Forgiveness, following the Bible’s understanding, means “to let go,” as when a person does not demand payment for a debt. Jesus made this comparison when he taught us to pray:
“Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves also forgive everyone who is in debt to us.” (Luke 11:4)
Similarly, in the parable of the unmerciful worker, Jesus showed forgiveness was like cancelling a debt (Matthew 18:23-35).
We forgive others when we let go of resentment and let go of any claim to be compensated. Forgiveness is a decision to release. It’s letting go of the need for revenge and releasing negative thoughts of bitterness and resentment.
Forgiveness frees a captive. In this, it’s important to note that the main captive is ourselves. Forgiveness frees us from the repetition of anger. If we harbour resentment, then what sets sail from that harbour is polluting to us who harbour it. Holding on to bitterness brews our hearts with bitterness. Forgiving means that we are released.
As the family of Kurt Cochran, killed in London’s recent car attack, have said,
“[Kurt] wouldn’t bear ill feelings towards anyone and we can draw strength as a family from that… His whole life was an example of focusing on the positive. Not pretending that negative things don’t exist but not living our life in the negative – that’s what we choose to do.” — (link)
Forgiveness also releases the perpetrator. It doesn’t mean that they aren’t challenged and held to account. It doesn’t mean that they aren’t faced up with the evil of their actions, but this is done so that they can change rather than from a desire for revenge. Forgiveness replaces bitterness with the wish that the person be faced up to, and changed for the better. We wish good upon the person, not a place in hell.
At Easter, we remember Jesus praying “Father forgive.” That is both an example and an imperative. It’s both a model and a command in mission as much as anywhere else. In our mission situations we will see and share in some awful situations. My friend, in recounting the times of persecution, said that his heart was that he joined with Jesus in praying “Father forgive.” I know that would be his response to those that killed him. This is both an example and a call as we do mission.