Forgiveness, a Personal Perspective
I was asked by Betty Jane Spencer, “Preacher, do I have to forgive a man who murdered my four sons?”
A few years earlier, a group of young men had gotten high on drugs and broken into her Indiana farmhouse and committed mass murder. Betty Jane’s sons were killed. She was shot and left for dead. Since beginning his prison sentence, one of the convicted criminals wrote to tell her he had “found Christ” and asked for her forgiveness.
When she said “Preacher,” I knew she wanted more than my opinion. She wanted a statement that represented the Christian tradition. “Am I obligated, as a Christian, to forgive in this situation?” Just what does the church mean by ‘forgiveness’? He did not say ‘I’m sorry’…just ‘forgive me’ she continued. What am I to do?”
I told her to give me six months and I would try to give her an answer. During that time, I sought out victims of violent crimes and those whose loved ones have been shattered by crimes. I studied the Jewish tradition and looked at what the church has said.
The victims who talked with me were very disturbed by the issue of forgiveness. They were constantly being told they must forgive, but most could not. One woman’s daughter had been killed by her daughter’s husband, who was now in prison. The son-in-law said he “found Christ” in prison. Therefore, the mother concluded in anguish, that he would go to heaven and be with her daughter, and she would go to hell because she could not forgive him.
Victim’s resistance to forgiveness seems to focus on two elements: forgiveness as forgetting and forgiveness as excuse. Survivors do not want their loved ones to be forgotten.
In a conversation with the mother of Benjamin Lender, a young man killed by the contras in Nicaragua, I asked how she would feel about being asked to forgive those who killed her son. She immediately responded, “Does that mean I will have to forget?” The word “amnesty” comes from “amnesia” – to forget. When someone says, “I’m sorry,” we frequently respond, “Oh, forget it.” When we forgive someone, it usually implies that we will try to act as though nothing has happened. Understandably, victims of violence are deeply concerned that their loved one is not to be forgotten.
Forgiving may also imply excusing. Betty Jane is willing to assume that the young man in prison had had a genuine religious experience. But what does “finding Christ” have to do with an early parole? Does finding Christ excuse what was done? Does a religious experience mean that now we should act as though a crime wasn’t committed? Leaders of the prison ministry say the man should be released so he can witness for Christ. Betty Jane wonders why he can’t witness for Christ in prison.
What can we learn from Judeo-Christian tradition about forgiveness, which does not imply forgetting or excusing? On Yom Kippur, sins against God are forgiven. But if you have sinned against your neighbor, you must go to him or her and seek forgiveness. Not even God forgives what you have done to another. This perspective is dramatically presented in Simon Wiesenthal’s The Sunflower. Wiesenthal, a Jew in a Nazi concentration camp, is led to the bedside of a dying German soldier. The soldier confesses that he took part in the killing of Jews and wants Wiesenthal to forgive him before he dies. Unable to do so, Wiesenthal turns and leaves the young man’s side. He believes he has no right to forgive the soldier of what he did to other people. He imagines meeting dead Jews in heaven and hearing them ask, “Who gave you the right to forgive our murder?”
Pondering this, I remembered the times I have proclaimed, “Your sins are forgiven.” I now imagine a battered wife thinking to herself, “Who gave you the right to forgive the one who beats me?” I no longer say in a general or public way, “Your sins are forgiven.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that “cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance.” Repentance has remorse, restitution and regeneration. First, a genuine “I’m sorry” is required. (The prison psychologist told Betty Jane that the only regret of the young man who killed her sons was that they, “didn’t finish her off, too.”) Second, insofar as possible, an attempt must be made to restore what was destroyed. This means accepting legal, financial and moral consequences. Third, there must be renewal, a change in how the person lives. “Fruits of repentance” should show evidence that the sin will not be repeated.
This threefold character is seen in one of the invitations to Holy Communion. “You that do truly and earnestly repent of your sins; and are in love and charity with your neighbor; and intend to live a new life…” To offer forgiveness when these conditions are not met is not gracious. It is sacrilegious. Forgiveness is not a commodity that can be handed out. It is a relationship that must be entered into. Karl Rahner says, “More than repentance and reconciliation with God is required before sin is wholly overcome; the whole reality of man which sin has injured must be integrated into a new and fundamental decision, in order for that charity to be won which, indeed, all is forgiven.”
Even with this understanding of repentance, victims ask us not to demand that they themselves pronounce absolution. Those of us who speak on behalf of the Christian community can speak of God’s mercy to the truly repentant, but we have no right to insist that the victim establish a relationship with his or her victimizer to effect a reconciliation. Even without some reconciliation with the perpetrator, most victims can gradually “let go” of their hate, anger, rage or despair. Their negative energy becomes channeled into constructive activity such as working for victim causes of supporting other victims. They no longer allow the perpetrator to be the center of their lives. They focus on the present and the future.
Betty Jane is open to a future without her sons. She is a prominent national leader in the victim rights movement, currently the Florida state director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. But she is not open to a future with those who killed her children. She had no relationship with them before the murders and she desires none now. She hopes they create for themselves a positive future, but one that does not include her.
Betty Jane is quite ready to affirm that God is merciful, and she is hopeful that the murderers of her sons will find a genuine relationship with God. But don’t ask her to be responsible for their salvation. Don’t ask her to go to them and judge their hearts. Let a representative of the church assume that burden.
When I saw Betty Jane six months later, I told her “No.”