Is Unconditional Forgiveness the Answer?

Randy Weaver was a big story in the 90’s- he was wanted by the government for selling illegal guns, and was tracked down and subjected to a standoff in which several people were killed, including his unarmed wife by a government sniper. He was defended at trial by superstar criminal defense lawyer Gerry Spence and aquitted. He has since been mostly forgotten.

His daughter Sara Weaver witnessed the shooting of her mother and understandably was traumatized by this. In a 20th anniversary story she tells of forgiving the government sniper who shot her mother. Is unconditional forgiveness- that is, made without any apology or repentance by the wrongdoer- the key to overcoming past hurts? More importantly, is it the right thing to do?

In general, Christians believe that unconditional forgiveness is required for all sins committed against a person. Any ongoing sadness, grief or other psychological pain is thought to come from the failure to forgive. Jesus says any, repeat, any, sin can be forgiven, except the failure to forgive.

The trouble with this is it results in a reductio ad absurdum. The wrongdoer can easily receive forgiveness, simply by confessing and asking for it, and is motivated to do so my feelings of guilt and shame. His sincerity is rarely questioned and he is not required to engage in any kind of penance or provide any compensation. The victim is required to release any demand for justice and not hold the offense against the wrongdoer. The offense can be heinous, and extremely harmful and destructive to the victim, but this does not seem to matter. The wrongdoer can kill the victim, and if the victim does not forgive the offender in the interval between the time the injury was inflicted and their death- as per Maria Goretti– they will go to hell.

(Speaking of which, why is Maria Goretti a saint for doing something she was simply required to do by the plain words of Jesus?)

There is good reason to believe by close reading of the Bible this is not the case, but this is what most Christians believe.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Is Unconditional Forgiveness the Answer?

  1. Ryu

    I saw that. What nonsense. The police state is much more advanced today. I guess she got to feel spiritually advanced for forgiving her mother and kid brother’s killers, all over a $200 shotgun tax. Small consolation.

    • People have to find a way to get by in life. She took the version that is commonly sold. It’s a horrible price to pay, but if somebody insists it’s the only way not to feel horrible, maybe you pay it.

  2. Heil Hizzle Mein Nizzle

    OT, but Eustace is fast becoming my favorite Saint. The idea that a non-believer who treats people equitably can receive Christ’s grace holds some appeal for a lapsed fellow like myself. Plus I just like the image of a crucifix sprouting from a deer’s antlers.

  3. Good idea for a blog, I think it feels a niche out there for rational critique of Christian morals.

    My impression was that forgiveness was emphasised because the ancients were all about vendetta. In classical Chinese novels you read all about the never ending chain of vengeance when one dude is killed, his son kills the killer, the son kills the son, and it usually ends in wholesale clan warfare.

    Justice is nice when it can be taken to the end, i.e. utter destruction of the felon’s clan. But if that’s not possible then forgiveness is a very sound and civilised strategy. The fact that Christians grew like they did seems they had a point.

    • Forgiveness is a big issue in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, which were written for Jews. Jews had a legal system and were entitled to claim compensation plus 20% for almost any wrong. I believe the point was that this was taken to an unhealthy and obsessive extent. The gospels of Mark and John, written for gentiles, barely mention it.

  4. Thras,
    For things like this, I tend to make the Christian tradition my guide—that is, how did Christians @AD500, 1000, 1500, 1750, 1850, and 1950 view this sort of thing.
    Justice and mercy are two parts of Christianity that can never be separated in a healthy believer, but they often are. Mercy without justice is just as bad as justice without mercy. Mercy without justice becomes unmerciful just as surely as justice without mercy becomes unjust.

    I’m also really REALLY skeptical of forgiveness offered from a position of utter impotence. Forgiveness offered from a position of hegemonic strength is FAR more credible—as in, yes, I COULD easily smash you like a bug for your iniquities, but I CHOOSE not to for the greater glory of GOD. Forgiveness from weakness strikes me as more new-age self-help than genuine caritas. When you’re contemplating forgiving someone, ask yourself this—if I had absolute power of this person, would I be forgiving them, or am I just forgiving them because I lack the power to do what I REALLY want to do to them?

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