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Friday, September 27, 2013

Forgiving the Unforgivable?

I heard on TV about the mass murder at a mall in Kenya recently but only read about them yesterday. If you have not read here is an address to get more info (I cannot directly link on my blog, do not know why)  
This follows on a bombing at a church in Pakistan that killed eighty five.

The issue of Islamic violence against Christians is very difficult. I am a Christian, so I enter the story wearing a metaphorical "team jersey" and seeing things through my very Christian (and white, male, middle class) perspective. That said, I am not confused about the ethical evil in these two attacks. Sorry, nothing justifies such wanton brutality and mayhem. And I know enough church history to say that black and brown Christians, including the poor, have said he same thing since ancient times.

Yet, I also know that the perpetrators have their own stories. [Acknowledging that makes some people mad. we prefer our bad guys are pure evil of their own volition.] It is tempting to see them as "animals" or "human garbage" or to claim theirs is "a religion of hate." There is no justification for what they do, but there is an explanation. There are twists and turns (and perversions) in their thinking which leads them to do what should never be done, but there are also experiences in their childhood and education which shaped them. I worked for a decade with kids who were abused. It turns out that people can be made evil, or at least helped along. Sometimes the perpetrator really is a victim, too.

I have little patience for the "moral relativist" folks who equate the terrorist with an American soldier. So do not misread my words. What happened is objectively unjustifiable and evil. I just cannot embrace a dismissive and simple minded "they are evil" as an explanation. The devil is at work here, so is personal sin, but psycho-social influences are also present. Like all human behavior it is complex. Too complex for any simple answers.

Equally complex is our response. Today our Gospel from Matthew was the Lord's Prayer. Matthew has a  more expanded version than Luke. The two Evangelists have a different emphasis. In Luke (11:1ff) it comes just after the Martha-Mary story about listening to Jesus. Jesus is at prayer and his disciples ask for a prayer (like John the Baptist gave his disciples a prayer). Jesus gives them this prayer and follows it with an exhortation to persevere in praying. Ask, seek, knock; be like an obnoxious neighbor demanding help in the middle of the night! The focus is on faith filled praying

Matthew places it in the midst of the Sermon on the Mount, a three chapter collection of Jesus' sayings (many of which are dispersed throughout Luke). In particular, it is inserted in three parallel sayings on prayer, fasting and alms giving. In fact, based on those parallels, it looks obvious that Matthew is the one who slid it in here.But with Matthew's version of the Lord's prayer is tacked on an additional exhortation on forgiveness. The basic message: IF you forgive, God will forgive you, if you do not forgive, God will not forgive you. This is found also in other teaching of Jesus (how you judge others is the criteria by which you are judged) and it seems to be a key element of His message. Certainly, Jesus practiced this from the cross ("Father forgive them, they know not what they do"). The unjust torture and murder He experienced produced kindness and mercy. And what Jesus told us to do--forgive--is modeled by Stephen (in Acts) who prays God's mercy on those who stone him. So it is a church responsibility.

So what do we do? Do we just 'forgive' the murderers, overlook their evil and say, "no one is perfect..."? I think NO, NO, NO is a proper response. People who say "all sins are sins, all sins are equally wrong" are nuts. Equating murdering people in cold blood or blowing people to bits in their church service with stealing a piece of candy is so clearly foolish to me that I will say nothing more. These sins are big deal, mortal sins (to quote 1 John 5:17 "there is sin that is mortal...All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that is not mortal.""). Forgiveness of sin is also a big deal, it is grace. So what to do?

My suggestion is we, you and I, do nothing. We are not the victims. We have not earned the right through our blood or pain to forgive anyone anything. Forgiveness of the murderers is the possession of the Pakistani and Kenyan victims. They are the ones to whom the debt is owed. And God. Always God. Those were God's children who were shredded and diced like vegetation. Those were God's sons and daughters who were shattered and destroyed. And the survivors are God's children burdened with the heavy task of answering the question "what now shall we do?" To choose forgiveness will not be cheap words for them. It is unfathomable to me....

How to end the evil? Killing the perpetrators will create more grievances and  more perpetrators. Doing nothing will embolden them and make more as well. What then to do? The answers are complex and in the end nothing works flawlessly. However, I know that Jesus tells us forgiveness is our vocation. It is our duty and task. And in order to do it, we must speak the word of forgiveness from our own cross. God help us. Such a thing seems impossible at times...

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