A young man is arrested, charged, pleads guilty and convicted of killing his wife. Faith leaders at the funeral of this young woman strongly urge family members and the congregation to ‘forgive’ the perpetrator. But should we forgive the perpetrator unconditionally? Should the act be forgiven and forgotten? For the victims family, is it their duty to forgive as though nothing had happened?
What can we learn from Judeo-Christian tradition about forgiveness, which does not imply forgetting or excusing? On the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur, sins against God are forgiven. But here’s the rub: if you have sinned against your neighbour, you must go to him or her and seek forgiveness. Not even God forgives what you have done to another.
Forgiveness is not a commodity that can be handed out but a relationship that must be entered into. The German Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it like this: “cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance.” Repentance he says has three conditions: remorse, restitution and regeneration. First, a genuine “I’m sorry” is required. 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. To offer and urge forgiveness when certain conditions are not met is not gracious. It is sacaligious.
A true repentant perpetrator will not force victim(s) to reconcile if they do not want to. If the perpetrator has not changed, forcing victims to reconcile will put them in harms way once again. Change is a long and hard road; it is like recovery from alcoholism. Even with this understanding, victims cannot be asked to pronounce absolution. Those faith leaders can speak of God’s mercy to the truly repentant, but cannot demand that the victim(s) establish a relationship with his or her perpetrator to effect a reconciliation.