You can’t get forgiveness from God…
without also forgiving others.
If you refuse to do your part,
you cut yourself off from God’s part.1
“Can he ever be forgiven? Can he find redemption?” – asked the interviewer.
“Those are the questions,” replied a psychologist, and then mused aloud, “but who really deserves forgiveness?”
Prior to hearing this interview I actually hadn’t given much thought to the case of Lance Armstrong, acclaimed seven time winner of the rigorous “Tour de France” bicycle race. Like most people, I thought it served him absolutely right to be disgraced, stripped of his medals and banned from professional cycling competition for the rest of his life. Furthermore, it seemed to me that his public admission of using performance enhancing drugs illegally2 was more about self-justification than true confession – Just another fallen hero trying to restore his public image.
Nevertheless, for the rest of the day that interview and the questions it raised about forgiveness stuck with me. Even as I’ve been trying to live justly I was cynically dismissing (judging) Lance Armstrong as a manipulative scoundrel. I even voiced my harsh negative opinion to others but not once had forgiveness even entered into the equation of my conversation. Of course, Armstrong had never hurt me personally and I’d never met him, so who am I to forgive him in the first place. But I began wondering about the place of forgiveness in my attitude toward him – is being judgmental and cynical, even gloating over his downfall the just way for me to respond? Is it helpful and uplifting to anyone?
A few months ago I met a genocide offender in Rwanda who had returned to the community following a long prison sentence for his complicity in killing more than ten people. He had subsequently become a pastor and prison chaplain! It was a captivating story of redemption, but I could not help wondering who forgave him and what that was like to make this transformation possible. It must have taken more than just the forgiveness of his victims’ surviving family members. What was the role of the church and the community in forgiving him? Moreover, is it even justifiable to forgive someone who has brutally killed so many people? When is forgiving a man like him or any offender justifiable? What makes forgiving just in response to the greater and lesser offences that you and I daily encounter – or commit?
To be sure, forgiveness is a very complex matter, and “just forgiving” can’t be tantamount simply to extending forgiveness in response to an offender’s confession; nor can “just forgiving” be tantamount to a victim’s generous offer of mercy to an unapologetic offender. There are many moving stories of offenders seeking and finding forgiveness in the course of truth and reconciliation proceedings, and there are profound stories of victims unilaterally forgiving their unremorseful, unrepentant, unmoved offenders. While some of these very one-sided stories eventually reach good outcomes, many are left unfinished and unresolved. However, even when incomplete, one-sided forgiveness seems better than no-forgiveness at all. Forgiving someone seems to open a tiny crack in the wall of human indifference, injustice, and violence that lets the light of redemption get in – even if the offender turns away.
I don’t know if Lance Armstrong will find redemption or not. What I’m realizing is that whether it is Lance Armstrong, the killer turned chaplain in Rwanda, or me – forgiveness is not an entitlement or something we may or may not deserve – it is only a gift that you and I can give. “Just forgiving” is offering that gift in response to people who directly or indirectly offend, insult, or injure us, so that we and they might find redemption and that our bruised and broken relationships might one day be restored. And even though Lance Armstrong hasn’t hurt me personally, my judgmental and unforgiving attitude toward him is conducive neither to his finding redemption nor to the redemption of the cynicism, brokenness and hurt in our community and the world. So, for what it is worth, I forgive him for his public deception and for not living up to what we expect of a professional athlete.
“Just forgiving” contributes to making the world a better place and it is necessary for justice and peace to be experienced. Without forgiveness, justice ends in condemnation from which there is no exit, no redemption. “Just forgiving” opens a crack in the wall through which the light of redemption penetrates the dark spaces of injustice and inhumanity in the world.
What makes it the commendable thing to do at the appropriate time?
It’s not simply a matter of lifting the burden of toxic resentment or of immobilizing guilt, however beneficial that may be ethically and psychologically.
It is not a merely therapeutic matter, as though this were just about you.
Rather, when the requisite conditions are met, forgiveness is what a good person would seek because it expresses fundamental moral ideals.
These include ideals of spiritual growth and renewal; truth-telling;
mutual respectful address; responsibility and respect;
reconciliation and peace.3