A couple of days ago a 16-year old was jailed for raping a five-year-old boy. The offence took place just days after he had been spared a custodial sentence for a previous attack. The young man, who is said to have Asperger's syndrome, abducted and repeatedly abused the child only eight days after being shown leniency for the rape of a seven-year-old boy. The first victim's family were committed Christians and the court had heard that they forgave him and called for a "corrective" rather than punitive sentence.
During this week I have been watching a TV mini-series called Collision. A multi-car pile-up was being investigated by a cop who had lost his own wife in a car crash the previous year. His daughter had been paralysed in the same crash and was now in a wheelchair. During the course of the program, the drunken driver responsible for his wife's death was released from prison. He sought out the cop and explained that during his time in prison he had become a Christian and now felt that he ought to go to the cop and beg for forgiveness. The cop beat him up. As the story proceeded, exploring the lives of those involved in the crash, it was clear that each of them had done something reprehensible. What was noticeable was how wives forgave errant husbands so as to keep their families together. The cop's crippled daughter even suggested that he forgive the drunken driver. She had, after all, forgiven her father for his affair with a policewoman. She emphasized that without forgiveness he would never be able to move on.
So the question is posed, "Should we forgive?" Even more pertinent, should Christians forgive.
I think there are several points to make. You cannot forgive on behalf of someone else. Even the parents of the abused child cannot forgive on his behalf. They were themselves offended by the abuser's act and they can forgive that, but not really the harm done to the child.
Forgiveness may well be undesired. When the Christian in the play asked forgiveness of the cop, the cop pushed him away. The Christian then said, "I forgive you for pushing me." This raised the level of anger in the cop so that he almost killed him. The cop didn't want forgiving.
Forgiveness does take away responsibility. God's forgiveness may save us from Hell, but it doesn't save us from prison. The judge shouldn't have spared the rapist from jail after the first offence. The thief on the cross was forgiven by Jesus, but he still had to complete his sentence - he had to die.
In a recent episode of House, a young doctor murdered an African tyrant under his care and got away with it. However, it weighed on his Catholic conscience and he went to confession. The priest, quite rightly, says, "You can't be absolved by saying a few Hail Marys; you must go to the police."
Finally, forgiveness is ineffectual without repentance. And repentance means more than saying you're sorry. It means a whole change around in your life.
But isn't God's forgiveness unconditional? Doesn't the Bible say, "While we were still sinners, Christ died for us."?
The offer of forgiveness is unconditional. God made the first move without asking us to do anything first. We are not offered forgiveness because we have made amends, done some community service, given to the poor or spent years as a missionary. God describes all such attempts at atonement as 'dirty rags'. Forgiveness is free; the price has already been paid.
However, we are given the free will to reject the offer. Just like the cop in the mini-series we can give the person doing the offering a punch on the nose. Forgiveness is not forced upon us. As the cop's daughter implied, forgiveness is a great healer. It can induce repentance, but without repentance it is ineffectual.
What difference did it make to the young rapist that he had been forgiven by his victim's parents? None at all. There was no repentance (perhaps because of the diagnosis attached to him he was unable to repent. Perhaps he was like the soldiers at the foot of the cross - they know not what they do.) Whatever the answer he had to be locked up. A beast in a zoo does not know what it is doing when it attacks the visitors; it still needs locking up.
If your brother/son/mother were blown up by a suicide bomber, you would have a hard time forgiving the perpetrator; perhaps in forgiving Islam and everyone associated with it. So would I. A Christian must learn to forgive. "Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us." That does not mean that the man who planned the atrocity and those who funded and facilitated it are free from blame. They broke the law and must face the punishment that the law decrees. We do not operate under Shariah law, where the payment of blood money can absolve the crime. Our law demands a penalty (in different places, imprisonment or execution). Our ability to forgive doesn't come into it and should not influence the judge when passing sentence.
But being able to forgive unburdens the victim.