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This cannot be forgiven

March 12, 2012

Those words were uttered yesterday by Afghan President Hamid Karzai in the aftermath of the horrific killing of Afghan civilians by a lone US soldier.  It is too early to know exactly what happened, let alone, why this man did what he did, but everything we do know is bad.    And we can understand the sentiment that Karzai spoke of. 

We hear, and feel, the same sentiment at various times under varied circumstances.  We hear it when victims of sexual abuse by a Penn State football coach speak; when a 9-year-old girl shot alongside an Arizona Congresswoman dies; when grieving relatives contemplate the horror of destruction and loss at the World Trade Center.  Often these sentiments seem as strong and as painful as ever years later. 

Logic tells us that we need to let things go, to forgive at least to some extent, so we can end the cycles of revenge and retribution that beset so many conflicts or to end the hold that bitterness has on us.  Our Christian faith is built on the cornerstone of forgiveness.  But when we contemplate the pain and injustice of our hurts both logic and faith seem inadequate. 

As Christians we are tempted to respond with platitudes.  Yes, we say, faith is strong enough to enable us to forgive.  And perhaps it is.  But we need to take care as such comments become condemnations to those in pain.  Our efforts to encourage others to “give it to God” and move on silently condemn their inability to do so.

I wish I could tell you forgiveness is easy.  It is not.  I wish I could tell you that it is a one-time event.  But all too often we find pain and sorrow creeping back into our lives and realize we need to walk that road again and again.  Forgiveness can seem more like a long process than an event. 

I can yearn for those who have been hurt to forgive, knowing it is in their best interest, but I can’t bring myself to scold them if they are not able.  Often a great deal of time must pass.  Perhaps it is just me but I think sometimes forgiveness creeps up on us unawares; times goes by and we suddenly realized we have let bitterness go without being sure exactly when and how it happened.  And, yes, some hurts may only be eased when our Lord will wipe away every tear in heaven. 

I also feel that there are some flawed assumptions on what it means to forgive.  Some might say, or more often imply, that forgiveness requires me to no longer feel hurt.  It does not.  The pain is real even after we forgive. 

Neither does forgiveness require us to excuse the act that caused us pain.  Not long ago I saw a young child spill grape juice on a woman’s dress.  As the child stood horrified the woman told her not to worry, that the dress was old and she was going to get rid of it soon anyway.  What she did was marvelously gracious.  She excused the child of the guilt, telling her it did not matter.  But this, however gracious, is not forgiveness.  It is saying (or pretending) that there was no hurt.  Forgiveness is different.  God forgives our sins not because they don’t matter but because his love is greater.  In forgiving others we do not need to pretend it does not matter. 

In the end, Karzai’s statement was wrong.  Even this horror can be forgiven.  We might say that we are not ready to forgive.  We might struggle even wanting to forgive.  Surely there is, at best, a long road to travel toward forgiveness.  But in the end, the author of forgiveness who died on the cross assures us that forgiveness is possible.  All of us, most particularly our fellow Christians, know that forgiveness is a laudable goal and one we should strive for.  Our task in this effort is to offer support and love to the hurting as they walk the horrible path.


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