In the wake of yet another horrific mass shooting, this time at a church in Texas, a journalist posed a question to me and several other of her Facebook friends who are engaged in one or another type of Christian ministry:
“How do you balance forgiveness and anger after a tragedy like this weekend’s Texas shooting? Where does ‘turn the other cheek’ end and righteous anger for change begin?”
I don’t know how effectively, for her purposes, at least, I answered her question, but I present here a somewhat modified version of my reply.
Our church supports a Rwandan Christian missionary who is a member of the Tutsi people. His name is Luc. Luc has been to our church, and on various occasions members of our congregation have traveled to his town for work projects related to his ministry.
On one such trip our pastor traveled around Rwanda with Luc, and he noticed that the landscape was dotted by huge slabs of concrete that he at first thought were foundations for new buildings. Luc told him that the slabs covered mass graves, legacies of the genocide against his people.
At another point in the trip when our pastor was with him, Luc informed him that he recognized various Hutu people on the streets around them who had participated in the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi. I don’t know how the legal status of such individuals, who may have been too many to count let alone prosecute, was finally resolved, but somehow they still enjoyed their freedom in spite of what they did.
So, our pastor asked Luc how he coped with knowing that at any time of day and on any day of the week he might be walking past or even be doing business with someone who murdered people who may have been friends of his or even relatives.
Luc cited Romans 12:19: “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord.” (NIV) This is a spiritual exercise that Luc has to practice on a daily basis.
Where Does It End?
When we speak of “the end” of something, we are sometimes referring to its goal, or purpose. “The chief end of man,” the Westminster Shorter Catechism informs us, “is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” That is the goal and purpose God had in mind when he created us. Likewise, the goal and purpose of forgiveness is to remove offenses, to restore harmonious relationships, to reconcile former enemies-ultimately, to reconcile sinful people to a holy God, resulting in their salvation.
But sometimes it’s not about forgiveness. Sometimes it can’t be. Sometimes the situation is too horrendous and the offenders are too lost to allow it.
Sometimes it’s simply about not trying to exact our own justice.
I think that’s the category under which we are to file Christ’s admonition to “turn the other cheek.” In a sense, that is the lowest level of forgiveness, because contenting ourselves with letting the offense “slide,” so to speak, doesn’t really accomplish what full-blooded forgiveness is designed to accomplish: i.e., the restoration of a loving and harmonious relationship. It does allow for the possibility that offenders might one day come to their senses and seek real and deep forgiveness. But, in the meantime, we do not pursue what they really owe us. We do not seek our own justice (although this does not mean that the government should not seek it and in matters like the Texas shooting that is their role). We leave it in the hands of God. Again, this does not fulfill the biblical purpose of God’s deep and lasting forgiveness, but it at least fulfills the basic meaning of the word “forgive.”
Just as in our day and language, the biblical terms for “forgive” and “forgiveness” also double as accounting terms. This becomes evident in the Lord’s Prayer. When Jesus tells us to pray, “forgive us our debts,” he’s using the same verb that is used of forgiveness of sins-and, of course, that’s what we are really referring to when we pray the way Jesus taught. Our sins are spiritual debts for which we would, if justice were served to us, receive punishment. But once forgiven the debt is canceled along with the punishment. The sins are “written off,” as it were. Thus we can “write off” the damage done to us, whatever it may have been, by the offenses others commit against us, by simply practicing this lowest level of forgiveness, and in doing so, we help ourselves by freeing ourselves from the sin of a vengeful spirit.
Of course, the kind of forgiveness that Jesus told us to request is not the lowest level of forgiveness, but the highest, because it’s meant to result in a restored Father-child relationship between God and the believer. We are praying, after all, “Our Father.” When a young child, for example, is forgiven by a father, who we assume will never stop loving the child regardless of the child’s sins, it cannot mean that the father starts loving the child again, but rather that the child can climb back into the father’s lap and enjoy his love once again.
That’s the kind of forgiveness we can’t always offer a person who has sinned against us. Sometimes we can’t offer it because the offender makes it impossible. Because Devin Patrick Kelley did what he did, he’s now dead, and so the people he offended will never have the opportunity to forgive him in such a way that fellowship and friendship might be a real possibility. All they can do is leave him in God’s hands and move on.
There is a disagreement among evangelicals as to when it is appropriate to forgive someone who’s sinned against us. Some say we forgive immediately and unreservedly; others say we wait until the person comes to us in repentance. Both sides of this debate have valid concerns and make good points.
Those who say we should forgive immediately and unreservedly are concerned that we obey Colossians 3:13: “As the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” (ESV) How has the Lord forgiven us? We assume He forgives even the sins we don’t realize we’re committing, or have forgotten to confess.
Those who say we should wait until the person comes to us in repentance are concerned that we follow the instruction of Luke 17:3: “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him,” (ESV). Thus they say Jesus taught that forgiveness is conditioned upon repentance.
I believe the tension is resolved by seeing that all forgiveness is not of the same level and type. The book of Proverbs tells us that it is a person’s “glory to overlook an offense,” (Proverbs 19:11, ESV). But if a person has deeply offended us, is it biblical to act as though real friendship and harmony have been restored without a sincere confession, apology, and an effort to make it right (i.e., repentance)? If it’s some little peccadillo we’re talking about, then perhaps. But in serious cases I can’t grant that deepest level of forgiveness and restore our relationship until I see real repentance.
No forgiveness can be granted without cost and pain experienced by the one who forgives. No matter what level of forgiveness we’re talking about, the forgiver must absorb the loss and move on. Genocides and mass shootings are in a category all to themselves in this respect, a category hopefully none of us will ever have to deal with. It is difficult, costly, and painful, but those who suffered loss because of these terrible crimes can extend the lowest level of forgiveness by simply not seeking vengeance and doing their best to cope with the loss and pain that will never go away. And because the loss and pain persists, the forgiver may have to “re-forgive” daily as they recall and thus re-experience the crime. I don’t think we can really do this, however, until we trust that God alone is the best person to make us whole.
The Beginning of Anger
So far I haven’t addressed the second part of the journalist’s question: where does “righteous anger for change begin?” My answer to that would be that it begins when I abandon my own personal quest for vengeance. Only then can I think properly about how to address what happened. Only then can I prevent my hopefully righteous anger from becoming unbridled rage. And frankly, as a Christian, I believe that I only truly abandon my own personal quest for vengeance when I leave it in the hands of God. Otherwise, in my view, I am leaving it in the hands of someone or something far less than God, and incapable of perfect justice.
I am, however, not convinced that change is necessarily the next thing to pursue after some terrible crime has been committed. After the Holocaust, there was change in Germany. The Nazi regime was overthrown, and new regimes (West and East Germany) took its place. Now, that kind of change always happens when one side loses a war, but we might also speak of the establishment of United Nations that came about as another change, and some might argue that it has thus far successfully prevented a repeat of the two world wars of the 20th century. Only time will tell on that point, however.
But my point here is that no one was satisfied with change. Justice was demanded, and hence the Nuremberg Trials followed. The same has held true in episodes since World War 2 when crimes against humanity have been committed. In the case of Rwanda, it seems to have been decided that justice would somehow be served without prosecuting everyone who was guilty of participating in that country’s genocide. So human justice takes different forms, even from one genocide to the next.
But how do you execute justice when the perpetrator of the crime is dead, as is the case in this latest shooting in Texas?
Our problem in this country is that there is presently no consensus on what kind of change is needed in response to mass shootings. We obviously have a recurring problem, in that unstable and perhaps even mentally ill people are able to acquire large caches of weapons and ammunition, and thus become human time bombs, ticking down the minutes until they cause carnage on a large scale.
What has prevented a change that might successfully prevent these events in the future? I would suggest that one of them is our nation’s ideological divide on this issue. But another is the nature of news cycles and their effect on public attitudes. I don’t know how many weeks it will take, but I do know that people in general will stop thinking about this shooting and move on to more mundane concerns, just as many had already stopped thinking about the recent Las Vegas shooting by the time this one happened.
In the meantime, what we will probably see is one side calling for dramatic gun control legislation, while the other side points out that taking guns away from everyone (if such is actually proposed) will not keep them out of the hands of criminals, including the mentally unstable, thus rendering law-abiding people more vulnerable. The arguments are as predictable as they are time-worn.
In Rwanda, They Used Machetes
You don’t need guns to kill lots and lots of people. In the Rwandan genocide, which killed up to a million people in about a hundred days, one of the primary weapons of choice was the machete. Most of the murderers did not use firearms.
You don’t even need guns for one person to kill lots of people. Recent events have proven that trucks can be quite effective.
And perhaps this is where the real righteous anger should be focused: we as a people-not merely our politicians and social thinkers-but we as a people have not yet developed a firm resolve to deal with the problem of evil among us and evil within us. We are more concerned about our personal peace and affluence, and this is true on both sides of the gun control argument. As a result, there is not only no movement on the issue, but there are no new ideas and little, if any, discussion of the current moral level of our society. As long as both sides can retreat into their cycles of forgetfulness, the impasse will likely remain.
But another problem is that many people, especially those whose lives are largely untouched by biblical faith, quickly bypass the whole topic of forgiveness and rush immediately into an ill-founded anger. I am referring to an anger based on a set of faulty and even contradictory assumptions. On the one hand, they would say that people are basically good, and thus the real problem is a system that fails to control guns. On the other hand, they would also say that we should get as many guns out of circulation as possible because, ironically, people are basically unpredictable, and thus evil enough that any one of us could become a mass shooter at any given time. To the extent that a coherent argument has been presented for radical gun control, this is what is boils down to: we are too good to have guns in our environment, and too bad to own them ourselves.
So perhaps the real anger that leads to effective change is based on a calm, sane, and-dare I say it?-historically-Christian approach, rather than self-contradictory arguments. Perhaps such anger does not lead us to new laws, but to enforcing the laws we already have. As details from this most recent mass shooting emerge, so do the kind of questions that make me personally angry. Is it really that hard to keep guns out of the hands of mentally ill or unstable people? Was it really that hard to keep a large cache of weapons out of the hands of a man who was dishonorably discharged from the U.S. military, and thus, under the provisions of the U.S. Code (as I understand them) was not legally supposed to own any firearms?
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