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Can Forgiveness Survive In The Post Christian West?

By Akos Balogh

On September 6, 2018, off-duty Dallas Police Amber Guyger entered the apartment of Botham Jean and fatally shot him. (Guyger said she entered the apartment believing it was her own, and that she shot Jean believing he was a burglar).

On October 1, 2019, Guyger was found guilty of murder. In the courtroom, the victim’s brother, Brandt, had this to say to Guyger:

I forgive you, and if you go to God and ask Him, He will forgive you…I love you just like anyone else…I personally want the best for you…and the best would be to give your life to Christ…I don’t wish anything bad on you.

He then asked the Judge if he could approach Guyger and give her a hug (which he did).

What drove Brandt to forgive like that?

Photo: pablo.com

In June 2015, 21-year-old Dylann Roof massacred 9 church goers at Charleston Emmanuel Church. In the courtroom, the relatives of the Emanuel church victims stood up one by one in the courtroom, offering forgiveness to the man accused of murdering their sons, mothers and grandfathers in cold blood.

How could they forgive, after losing their loved ones?

On Oct. 2, 2006, Charles Roberts, walked into a one-room Amish schoolhouse on a clear Monday morning. The non-Amish Roberts tied up 10 little girls between the ages of 6 and 13 and shot them, killing five and injuring the others, before killing himself.

Within hours of the shooting, the Amish community had come around both the parents of that shooter (who lived in that area), and the wife and the three children of the shooter, who also lived in that area.

And they had come to express sympathy and say ‘we want to be with you in the hard days ahead.’

When the shooters funeral occurred, more than half the people who were at the funeral were Amish people. And an Amish spokesman said that all the family members who lost children forgave the shooter and his family.

What motivated and empowered such forgiveness in the face of unspeakable tragedy?

Human Beings At Their Best?

Speaking of the Amish incident, author Tim Keller comments:

In America, there was a huge amount of discussion about this. Everyone was shocked at [the Amish’s] ability to reconcile, to love, to reach out. And a lot of people wrote back then ‘this is what American’s are capable of – this is us at our best’.

Or Was Something Else Going On?

Keller continues:

But a few years later, three sociologists wrote a book called ‘Amish Grace’. And in that book, they wrote that we should not think our western society is capable of producing this sort of [forgiveness] anymore. Forgiveness is an act of self-renunciation, it is an act of self-sacrifice for the good of others, and the good of the community. Forgiveness means ‘I could pay back, but I’m not going to’ – it’s an act of self sacrifice.

Why Forgiveness Is Unlikely To Survive In a Post Christian West

Keller notes:

But – the sociologists said – our culture is increasingly a consumerist culture, it’s an individualistic culture, and it teaches self-actualisation. It teaches self-assertion. And teaches us never to do self-renunciation. And it means that there will be fewer people in our culture who can forgive. Who can share power. Who can make sacrifices. We’re just not producing them.’ [Emphasis added]

Atheist commentator and author Douglas Murray would agree with that assessment.

Speaking more generally, Murray also points out we now live in an age where fewer people know how or why to forgive. Instead, public shaming and retaliation is increasingly the only way people know of how to deal with wrongdoing. Murray writes:

We live in a world where…guilt and shame are more at hand than ever, and where we have no means whatsoever of redemption. We do not know who could offer it, who could accept it, and whether it is a desirable quality compared to an endless cycle of fiery certainty and denunciation.

Indeed. Forgiveness is hard. It’s not natural to forgive. Forgiveness goes against the grain of our (fallen) human nature. And the more you’re hurt, the harder it is to forgive.

Which is why vengeance and retaliation is the natural way of relating (and has been since Genesis 3).

Whether it’s the divorced couple who just can’t get on (even for the sake of their kids). Or warring factions in Syria, Yemen, parts of Africa – and many other parts of our world. Or debates on social media which quickly degenerate into name calling (and worse). We human beings find it hard to forgive those who hurt us.

But here in the West, thanks to the influence of a first century Jewish carpenter, we’ve come to value forgiveness as a good and noble thing. Yes, it’s mostly those who take Jesus and his sacrifice for us seriously that are the most likely to offer forgiveness. But as a culture, we’ve valued forgiveness nevertheless.

Sadly, this does seem to be changing.

If Christianity is being pushed out of the West, and replaced by the ideology of self-assertion and self-actualisation (‘It’s all about U’), then how will forgiveness survive?

Yes, it will survive amongst followers of the Risen King who gave His life to forgive.

But in the wider culture, I dare say, forgiveness is going out of fashion.