Christmas and Forgiveness
“I can never forgive Trump for the things he said about John McCain, Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina, and all the others. Never!” A Catholic friend said this to me early in December, after Trump was elected. She spoke with such finality that I framed my response very cautiously.
“I understand why his statements offended you,” I replied. “They offended me, too. But Trump has taken a very different tone lately and he has made some impressive cabinet choices . . .”
“None of that matters to me,” she interrupted. “What he said was so hateful that I can never forgive him.”
Many Americans share my friend’s view. Ironically, from all indications, McCain, Cruz, and Fiorina are not among them. They seem to have found it in their hearts to forgive Trump. And I believe it is likely that he apologized to them.
Unwillingness to forgive others is not confined to politics, of course, nor is it new. It has been a prominent characteristic of human behavior throughout history, and therefore a matter that Christianity has had a lot to say about. And what it has said is especially relevant to the Christmas season.
Jesus came into the world to save us from our sins, and the act of salvation expresses God’s forgiveness and the love from which it flows. (John 3:16) Also, the message that Jesus’ death expressed about God’s forgiveness, Jesus’ life explicitly taught us. When Peter asked whether he should forgive his brother as many as seven times, Jesus answered that he should forgive him beyond the point where he loses count: “No, not seven times, but seventy times seven.” (Matt 18:22)
Moreover, Jesus taught us to ask for God’s forgiveness us in the measure that we forgive others, which means that refusing to forgive others is tantamount to asking God not to forgive us. (Matt 6:12, 15) He also said, “in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you,” and then admonished us to look at the “log in our own eye” rather than “the speck that is in [our] brother’s eye.”(Matthew 7:1-3)
Of course, unforgiving people may respond, “But how can I forgive people when they do truly terrible things? Isn’t that like excusing the inexcusable?”
The answer can be found in Scripture. Certainly the crucifixion of the Son of God was a “truly terrible” act. Yet even as it was being carried out, Jesus prayed “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)
Our response to people who offend us should be the same. To be sure, we cannot speak with the same certainty that Jesus did and say, they “do not know.” But we can say, “They may not know.” We can also speculate that, even if they knew, they may have lost self-control and acted irrationally and without consideration of the gravity or consequences of their behavior.
And even in the most extreme case—in which the offenders knew what they were doing and did it intentionally and maliciously—we should consider that they may now regret what they said or did and sincerely wish to ask for forgiveness but are prevented by pride from doing so. In that case, we should realize that are likely still burdened with guilt. That possibility can change our outrage to pity, which in turn can prompt us to forgive.
This Christmas, when we look at figure of the Christ child in the crèche in our churches; and when we hear the words of consecration at Mass—“This is my Body, which will be given up for you; . . . this is the chalice of my Blood . . . which will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins”—let us resolve to be more giving of others’ offenses.
We can begin with family members from whom we are alienated for reasons that, in some cases, are so lost in the fog of time that we cannot fully recall them. From there we can move on to forgive friends and acquaintances who, in reality or perhaps merely in our imaginations, have treated us badly. Finally, we can forgive politicians and other public figures whose words and actions, in our judgment, deserve condemnation. (Remember that we can forgive the person without approving his or her behavior.)
Such acts of forgiving are always appropriate gifts to the One who never tires of forgiving us. And there is no better occasion to offer them than in this year of intense acrimony and division.
Copyright © 2016 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved