Several questions on the same topic:
Q. Regarding your recent column on forgiving ISIS: Must forgiveness be predicated on remorse and repentance by the offending party? I am thinking of Christ being crucified and saying, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing” — or St. Stephen forgiving those who had stoned him. (Greenwich, Connecticut)
Q. Jesus said that we must forgive or our heavenly father will not forgive us. The forgiving of the offending person — with my will — can happen right away, with God’s grace, even when I am still very hurt and angry. Forgiving does not mean that the person is exonerated, should be let out of prison if there has been a crime, or that I should trust him or even relate to him if he continues to be dangerous. (Pope John Paul II forgave his would-be assassin in prison, but never requested that he be released.) The clincher for me was hearing a speaker say that if I held on to resentment, hate, or anger toward a person who hurt me, how was I different from that person? (Columbus, Ohio)
Q. We are called to pray for the very souls of those who commit atrocities in the name of ISIS — that God turn their hearts of stone and have mercy on them. I disagree with you that we don’t have to forgive them — we, too, risk separating ourselves from God if we choose not to forgive. (McLean, Virginia)
Q. It has been my formation and my understanding that forgiveness is not about the other. It is about us. Forgiveness is a decision one makes to let go of the power that the perpetrator has over your mind, your heart, your emotions. Holocaust survivors such as Corrie ten Boom have forgiven their Nazi persecutors, even those who killed her family members. (City of origin withheld)
Q. I would like to differ with you with respect to what appears to be your description of a twofold conditional model of forgiveness that requires remorse and repentance (i.e., a pledge of changed behavior). In my mind, conditional forgiveness is merely a secular model of forgiveness rather than the unconditional higher moral ideal to which we are called as Christians. (Atlanta)
A. In a recent column regarding forgiveness, I said this in part:
A parishioner happened to ask me, after the Paris bombings, how he could ever ‘forgive ISIS.’ I told him that he didn’t have to, because forgiveness (in my mind) presumes remorse on the part of the perpetrator and a pledge of changed behavior, both of which are notably lacking in the ISIS terrorists.
I said that we should pray for those benighted individuals and leave judgment of them to God — while also remembering, of course, to pray especially for their victims.
Few columns that I have written have generated as much response — most of it negative. The questions/responses above are just a sampling of the opinions expressed. As with any fair criticism, I think my responsibility is to evaluate it, re-examine the original question, and determine whether the new comments might cause me to modify my first response.
I have done that — honestly, I hope — and my answer is still the same. Jesus did say of his persecutors, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.” I have always taken this to mean that Christ realized that his executioners had not measured the gravity of their offense; had no awareness that they were killing the author of life, the savior of the world, the icon of all goodness; had felt they were simply fulfilling a civic duty by ridding themselves of someone who threatened to foment revolution in Roman-occupied Israel.
Jesus, I think, was asking God to take all of this into consideration before judging them.
As for the ISIS terrorists, I have no microscope into their minds and their motivation. That is why I chose, in my response, to pray for them, while leaving any judgments to God. But I don’t think that I am bound to forgive them — or to operate on the assumption that they were nobly motivated — and I base my opinion, in particular, on two other Gospel passages.
In Matthew 18:15-17, Jesus speaks of those who sin against other members of the community of his followers; Jesus says that their faults should be pointed out, but that if they refuse to listen, they should be treated as “a gentile or a tax collector.” That, to me, does not sound like a plea for forgiveness.
Even more clearly, in Luke 17:3-4, Jesus says:
If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he wrongs you seven times in one day and returns to you seven times saying, ‘I am sorry,’ you should forgive him.
Note especially that forgiveness is conditioned on the offender’s apology.
And isn’t this what the Church has traditionally taught with regard to the sacrament of penance: that the absolution of the priest is predicated on a “purpose of amendment”? Should the sinner have not the slightest intention of changing the behavior that is sinful, the guilt remains. So if God’s forgiveness is conditional, is it wrong for our own to be?