My Problem with Christian Forgiveness

I used put a lot of stock in the word of people who I perceive as being good Christians. Not about taste things. If Coble told me that I needed to listen to this new Rush album because it’s awesome, it’s going to take a little bit of convincing. But about people. And I’m going to use Coble as an example because I do trust her assessment of people. If Coble said, “Oh, you need a new roof? This guy goes to my church and he’s great. You should call him up and see if you can afford him,” I would take that to heart. And if I learned that this roofer raped three women, I would expect Coble to be shocked and embarrassed. I would, in fact, expect her to be learning this terrible information from me, because I would not expect, no matter how wonderful the dude seemed now, for Coble to give her good name to recommending a person who might be a danger to me.

But lately I’ve noticed this disturbing trend where a person (A) is demonstrably a bad actor and obviously could pose some… danger might be too strong a word, but let’s say “problem”… this person could pose some problem for me. And the person (B) who is neglecting to warn me about the bad actor’s previous behavior is doing so because of Christian forgiveness.  See, B knows A has issues, perhaps even issues B has had to deal with, but B, for the sake of his religion, has forgiven A.

That, to me, is fine. Forgive away.

But the part I am becoming more and more uncomfortable with is that, while I agree that “forgiveness” in a Christian context should mean that the slate is wiped clean–person A is free to go forth and sin no more–I don’t think person B should withhold information that would cause me to feel cautious around person A, just because person B has forgiven A.

Again, let’s go back to the rape example. Maybe person A raped person B’s sister. Maybe even A went to prison and got religion and has turned his life around. Person B has forgiven A (and let’s assume this is with his sister’s blessing. She has also forgiven A, just for the sake of this example.) and now that person A is looking to get his life back on track, person B is going to recommend person A to me for some task or reason. Person B vouches for person A.

And I believe person B, not realizing that this is not a situation in which A is an actual good person, but in which B knows A could be dangerous but B is trusting A not to be.

I don’t want to be put downstream from that, you know?

But I don’t know what forgiveness looks like otherwise. I mean, I know forgiveness and forgetting aren’t the same thing. But it seems to me that, if you’re still bending your life away from the person who’s wronged you, then it’s not really forgiveness. But, on the other hand, does forgiveness have to come with endorsement?

I don’t know. I’m not sure I’ve actually ever felt honestly forgiven and I’m not sure I’d know how to openly and honestly forgive someone. (Which, again, may be another reason I left the church). But I do know that, if I forgave someone who wronged me and that made you trust that they were good and safe to be around and they hurt you, I would feel like part of that hurt was caused by me giving you the wrong impression of that person’s safety.

23 thoughts on “My Problem with Christian Forgiveness

  1. Right now my wife is in Nairobi, Kenya on a medical mission trip with Maury Davis.

    I’m way ahead of you on this.

  2. Well, first off, Coble is flattered to be considered anything like a Good Christian or a trustworthy source of recommendations.

    But let me also state that Coble, as I know her well, believes that Forgiveness and Consequences are two different things.

    For instance, Coble has a cousin who was infamous in their hometown for being a lieutenant in a child-rape and child-porn ring. Coble’s cousin claims to be saved, and the entire family believes that he is forgiven and now a practicing Christian.

    No one in the entire family will leave their children alone in a room with Cousin Molester for even one split second.

    Because we are all Christians who know that the biggest temptation a person’s biggest weakness. So that’s, effectively, the most dangerous part of them.

    You’ve asked for forgiveness for being a rapist? Great. That’s fantastic. That in NO WAY means that you won’t be tempted to rape again. In fact, in my view–and the view of orthodox Christianity–it means that you will have to resist ever more strongly the urge to rape. Because Satan wants to bring down Christianity and bring down Christians and Satan KNOWS the biggest chink in everybody’s armor.

    Prime example: Mel Gibson. Other prime examples include all the philandering ministers, cheating choir directors, thieving businessmen who make up the public face of our religion and the private homes where men still raise a hand against their wives and children and the women have sex with the mailman.

    Forgiven doesn’t mean innocent. It means greater risk, imho.

  3. Coble, I love what you just wrote. And I think it’s the Maury Davis that’s the problem, not the Kenya. ( Now the Kenya song is in my head–“Kenya believe it?”)

  4. Maury Davis … he’s a sleazeball, sure, but he hasn’t murdered anyone recently, has he? I mean, the stuff for which he has repented he seems indeed to have put aside. I wouldn’t think that anyone who wants to help him further his current goals is in danger of his repeating himself.

  5. Heh.

    But here’s the thing. Some murderers do genuinely repent of their crimes. He may or may not be one of them; I have no way to know. But attacking him now by focusing on his past crime seems wrong to me, because no human being besides Davis himself knows how it fits into his life now, while there are things he is doing now that seem quite objectionable (though not criminal) to me, and I think we ought to be pointing them out instead. Or else leaving him alone.

  6. Yes, but Sarcastro’s wife is overseas with him. Are you saying that Sarcastro should just be all “Oh, well, the whole random-woman-murdering thing was so long ago, I really should be worried instead that he’ll…” what? Teach her that homosexuality is wrong?

    She’s pretty headstrong. If she were my wife, I wouldn’t be worried he’d unduly influence her. I would be worried about whether and what might set him off.

  7. This story about David Berkowitz/”Son of Sam” is not the same exactly but it falls along the same sort of line. I’d seen quite a few interviews with DB over the years. He regrets his actions and while he is serving a lengthy sentence, doesn’t seek parole and is in prison for the rest of his days, at least he is using his “time” to do some sort of positive act for others. It doesn’t make up for the vicious murders of the ’70s, but by all accounts he seems more sincere than probably anyone else I’ve read about that is trying to gain favor with the system:

  8. Oh, okay. I’m with you now. He’s that minister who killed a neighbour lady or something like that.

    From a psychological standpoint, unless the killer is doing so for psychosexual reasons (i.e. a serial killer), murder is more the symptom of the real problem. Not that it makes the victim any less dead. But one-off murder is the end result of rage impulses, greed impulses, self-protective impulses. So it’s not like if you’ve got a repented murderer you have to worry they’re going to kill people all the time.

    You should, though, be worried that they will be inclined to lash out in anger, steal money, lie about their job history or whatever main impulse was behind the initial murder.

    That’s why preachers and other testimonials LOVE murderers. People think that murder is the heinous crime and that this repented murderer is the best example of someone who has done the worst and turned his or her life around. They fail to look at things like the office balance sheet.

    If my wife were in Africa with Maury Davis I would be less worried about her being murdered and more worried that his rage would leave them stranded after he lashes out at some guide. Something like that.

  9. In the past two days, Davis’s mission team has treated over 1400 Kenyans for a wide variety of maladies. That should count for something. The work they are doing saves lives. How do the scales of justice and karma balance that out? The forgive/forget conundrum is something I’m trying to work out in my head. The “killing an old lady” thing isn’t something that goes away and, in fact, is a big part of his testimony.

    It’s a selling point.

    And I kind of have a problem with that, too.

    He’s never going to wash his hands clean of her blood, but does his subsequent works mitigate the one heinous act?

    Which reminds me of a joke,

  10. Yeah, I sure don’t have a good answer for that. But I also know enough ministers to know that they’re pretty good at putting themselves at the front of many a parade. So, it’s great that the mission is doing good work. I don’t know how to know how much credit to give Davis for that, though.

    I guess my feeling on the matter, in Davis’s case, is that I think it’s great that he’s facilitating people’s ability to do well in the world. More power to him in that regard. But he can’t pay the debt he owes Ron Liles to someone else. It doesn’t matter if his mission team treats 14 million Kenyans, until he’s square with Liles, he’s not square with Liles. He can’t substitute other good works for getting right with his victim’s family.

    And, frankly, I feel like using that murder as a tale of redemption that opens people’s wallets when the collection plates are passed is the same as OJ writing a book about how he killed his wife “if he did it.” You shouldn’t get to profit directly from your crime, even if you use those profits to help the world.

    I’m not even saying, in Davis’s case, that there should be a law against it. It’s just that I would expect, if he’s genuinely practicing his religion, that’s the conclusion he would come to, as well.

    Christians don’t do human sacrifice. And yet, somehow, Jo Ella Liles has become the spilled blood that has allowed Davis to accomplish everything he has, including all the good he’s done.

    That grosses me out.

  11. Folks like me believe God can use any thing to advantage. No matter how heinous. The Kenyans receiving treatment are a testimony to God’s nature. Not Davis’. Not your wife’s. If those people choose to participate in the Divine by acting upon the commandment to Love thy neighbor and provide unto the least of these, they would rightly do so as act of glorification of God. What their reputation gets out of it has nothing to do with it. In fact, Jesus taught that if you do these things for your reputation they don’t count as a mitzvah.

    I have an issue with any person getting wealthy from preaching the gospel; in fact I would say that they might have skippped a few chapters of the NT if they do. Rich isn’t bad, but rich off the gospel is a death sentence. The fact that Davis sells his Redemption Song and capitalizes on the murder is a very good sign that his preaching qualifications are not up to par.

    Then again, I suppose this is a lot of inside baseball.

    PS. Christianity doesn’t have scales.

  12. Oh, for Pete’s sake. Okay, so is there anybody NOT worthy of forgiveness? I hear that Hitler was really a decent guy …And Ted Bundy? He was just misunderstood, poor bastard.

  13. I would never tell Sarcastro what to worry about. If it were my wife, I’d be more worried about Davis losing his temper and chewing out some local official than about him murdering her (or anyone). That is my own judgement, though, and not what I would advise anyone else to think or feel.

    Mostly, though, I agree with what Sar and Coble said about Davis (in effect) using his status as a repentant murderer for his own glorification and enrichment. To the extent that, if it were my wife, I’d be concerned about why she was going along with this trip, rather than with one with another sponsorship. IANAC, but as a Jew I would say that I’d prefer to see Davis put his crime behind him by leaving it alone. That said, I don’t know what’s in his heart.

    But all of this is a bit of a derail from one part of your OP, B, and of Coble’s initial response to it: with a rapist (whether of children or adults) I’d be more inclined to err on the side of caution, since all the evidence is that rapists are more likely than other criminals to repeat their crimes.

  14. RockyCat, I don’t recall hearing that either Hitler or Bundy expressed the awareness of having sinned, or asked for forgiveness, or anything like that. And without the acknowledgement of wrongdoing, there is clearly no atonement or repentance. So they’d be in a different category, I figure.

  15. I’m not sure what you’re asking. “They would have been forgiven”? By whom — their victims, the survivors of their victims, their human judges, their divine judge? Are you asking whether I would have forgiven them? Or whether I think others ought to have forgiven them in these hypothetical, contrafactual situations?

    I can’t answer for others. But if they had asked for forgiveness by expressing clearly their understanding of what they had done, and had followed that up by accepting the appropriate penalties, and had spent the remainder of their lives doing what the survivors of those they had murdered asked them to do in repentance, I think I would have had to forgive them. I will point out, though, that doing any of these things seems so out of character for what we know about either of them that I for one can’t imagine them starting on the process. So I don’t feel much need to try to work myself into a position of hypothetical forgiveness towards either of them.

  16. Oh, for Pete’s sake. Okay, so is there anybody NOT worthy of forgiveness?

    All of us. (Now, keep in mind please, that the party line I’m throwing out here is the Orthodox Christianity one, and depending on your faith YMMV. )

    With traditional, orthodox Christianity the teaching is that we are all fallen and that there is no gradation or degree of sin. Sure, on earth and in our court system there is. Murdering someone carries graver consequences than telling a white lie about how your wife looks in a pair of old jeans. But from the God’s Eye View, sin is sin. The argument goes that in order to interact with God one must be pure and any sin at all taints the soul. So whether your soul is black with murders and rapes or has a tiny smudge from a few broken speed limits and lies on tax forms, you’re not able to interact with God. And that makes you unworthy of anything.

    I hear that Hitler was really a decent guy …And Ted Bundy? He was just misunderstood, poor bastard.

    A lot of people take great offence at the Christian teaching, and this is exactly why. Who wants to be told that they are “just as bad as Hitler”? But it’s like pregnancy and brokenness. You can’t be a little bit pregnant or only slightly broken. You are a sinner or you aren’t a sinner. And of course, YMMV. Other faiths look at the issue differently.

    The flip side of the bad news of all of us being sinners is that we also believe (well, those of us who aren’t busy dealing with our hangups about homosexuality, divorce, Roman Catholics, nonwhites, etc.) that everyone is extended the gift of Grace. Just as everyone is a sinner, everyone else is also forgiven.

    The current sticky wicket is whether or not one has to accept that forgiveness by repenting–see NM’s example from her Judaic tradition–or if you just get forgiven eventually because God is just that cool of a deity. (For more on this google Universalism).

    There are currently many ironic fights going on within Christian circles about who is worthy of forgiveness and who isn’t. For a cheat sheet I will point out simply that the answers generally boil down to: a) Me and b) the other guy.

    I tend to be of the opinion that God and the Infinite Divine are out of my scope of understanding and that as long as I work within my purview I can leave the rest of the angels dancing on pinheads to God Itself.

  17. I think it was C.S. Lewis who said, if you want to practice forgiveness, maybe start with your neighbor and not the Nazis. Unless *they* are your neighbors, then it’s safe to leave forgiving them or not with their victims/society/God if you believe in such.

    If you don’t believe in God, then forgiveness is entirely a personal matter, though you could make the argument that focusing on hatred and evil will probably not help your mental health in the long run, and won’t change what happened either, so eventually you have to not let it eat you up.

    And given that Dick Cheney has a book out this week and is smirking at me from a million ads/articles, I’ve had to remind myself about that more than once…

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