Forgiving The Unforgivable: Scandals, Contracts, & Grace

A few weeks ago the now former Governor of Mississippi, Haley Barber, caused quite the controversy by issuing dozens of pardons on his way out of office, several of which were issued to convicted murders. Not surprisingly, the victims’ families were appalled at what they felt was an act of injustice.

Living in Memphis, this story has been all over the news. One thing that has stuck out to me, is the bitterness and resentment that most of the victim’s families still harbor towards the now pardon murderers. To be honest, I can’t really blame them. I can’t imagine the pain they went through and continue to go through to this day.

But even in this midst of what seems to most of us to be justified animosity, I keep asking myself “Where does forgiveness come into play in all of this? Jesus said the Father wouldn’t forgive us if we don’t forgive others, but did he really mean we have to forgive people who kill our loved ones?”

Just a few days ago news broke that legendary Penn State coach Joe Paterno had died. Six months ago he was heading off into the sunset with an untarnished legacy. On Sunday he died in the middle one of the worst scandals in the history of college athletics; a scandal which found him too close to the heart of the fire.

Instead of simply celebrating a lifetime of achievement, the coverage of Paterno’s death has largely centered around his role in the Sandusky sex scandal and how that should or should not tarnish his legacy.

Just like the Mississippi pardon scandal, I keep asking myself “Where does forgiveness come into play in all of this? Jesus said the Father wouldn’t forgive us if we don’t forgive others, but did really mean we have to forgive people who molest [Jerry Sandusky] or allow others [Joe Paterno] to molest our children?”

Yesterday, Matthew Turner made us all aware of an awful situation at Mars Hill Church involving the response of the church’s elders to the moral failing of one of its members. The offending member sought forgiveness for his actions, but when he refused to sign a contract that would in effect “seal the deal”, he was excommunicated.

There is a lot that could and should be said about this issue. Without a doubt, the hypocrisy and shallow, fundamentalist reading of the Bible that is used to support the church’s actions should be called to account. For example, if Mark Driscoll really believes that passages from the Gospels can be isolated and used as a literal paradigm for church discipline, then why hasn’t he gouged out his eyes or chopped off his hands when they have caused him to sin?

Then again, Driscoll may be right in his emphasis on Matthew 18:15,16. Just not in the way he thinks.

If that passage is going to be the normative paradigm for church discipline, then it would behoove the leadership of Mars Hill to have a Biblical theologian on staff who could call their attention to the Bible’s use of irony. The same Jesus who told his followers to treat “sinners” like tax collectors and sinners, showed them exactly how this treatment should work. He ate with and befriended them before they ever even asked for forgiveness.

In an additional twist of irony, the man who wrote down this prescription for dealing with sinners, Matthew, was himself a tax collector who Jesus personally chose as a disciple. With that in mind it’s hard to believe that the shunning treatment is what Jesus really had in mind.

Enough of stating the obvious. This post isn’t about church discipline. It’s about forgiveness.

The way in which the scandals surrounding Mars Hill, Penn State, and Haley Barber have played out indicates to me how desperately we need to rediscover both our capacity to forgive as well as the ability to forgive rightly.

This is, of course, no simple thing to do. There is no magic formula for forgiveness. On the surface forgiveness should be easy. Somebody injures us in some way. They apologize. We forgive them. Then everybody moves on with their lives. But forgiveness is rarely, if ever, that easy. Often times the people that injure us never apologize. Even if they do, the pain is so deep it feels all but impossible for us to forgive them. Even when we find the courage to forgive, we found out quickly that complete forgiveness takes time. It’s a long and often difficult process.

Nevertheless, we are called to forgive just as we have been forgiven. Even without this divine command, forgiveness is necessary for life in a community. Without it, our bitterness and anger would overcome us, making it impossible to live together.

So, how are we supposed to go about this business of forgiveness?

For starters, it doesn’t mean we forget the past or pretend that we were never hurt. Despite the popular mythos, God doesn’t forget the past either. When Jesus appears to the disciples after the resurrection, his scars from the cross haven’t disappeared. When Revelation describes Lamb who sits on the throne of heaven, he looks “as if [he] had been slain”.

Forgiveness isn’t about changing the past, it’s about redeeming it. Forgiveness means we acknowledge that we have been injured, but that we chose to allow God’s grace to reign instead of our bitterness, vengeance, and pain. When we do that we incarnate the divine drama of redemption and reconciliation which brings the kingdom of God to earth as it is in heaven.

That being said, I think it is also important to talk about what happens when forgiveness doesn’t work out “the way it’s supposed to”.

The truth is reconciliation may never happen before the eschaton. There will probably never come a time this side of eternity, and maybe there shouldn’t be, when the victims of people like Jerry Sandusky are reconciled with their victimizer. And they should never be forced to do, regardless of “proper ecclesiastical procedure.” To do so is both is both disingenuous and dangerous, particularly to the victim. I think that sort of reconciliation may need to be left until Jesus returns to make all things new.

For me, there are 2 ways to look at this forgiveness thing.

On the one hand, we could throw up our hands in defeat and declare that sometimes forgiveness and reconciliation are impossible. This is the path many of us choose. It’s easy and to be honest, I can understand why we choose this path in many situations. Sometimes the pain is so deep, we can’t even speak about it, led alone begin the work of reconciliation.

On the other hand, we could look to the promises of Revelation 21 with renewed hope and believe that when Jesus says there will be come a day when he will wipe away ever tear from every eye and there will be no more death or mourning or sorrow, he really meant it. Though I can’t begin to explain exactly how Jesus will restore the impossibly shattered I hope that he will. That’s an amount of grace and redemption that I can’t comprehend, but want to believe in.

I choose the latter, mostly because of my father.

My parents divorced not long after I was born. One day when I was in first grade my father left and never came back. I only heard from him a handful of times between that moment and the only time I’ve actually seen him since when he came to town while I was in college because we thought his mother was dying.

Needless to say, Christmas, my birthday, and father/son picnics weren’t always the most enjoyable times. For a long time I was torn between hating the man who abandoned me and wishing I had a father around to play catch with. Forgiving him was rarely on the forefront on my mind. After all, what had he done to deserve it?

However, at some point I began to understand that I had two options. I could either forgive him and move on, or let the bitterness and resentment overcome me and define who I was as a person. I don’t know that I can say I “forgave” him. I think it would be more accurate to say I’m “forgiving” him. It’s a process, one which I hope will completed someday soon, because strange though it may sound, I still hold out hope that one day our relationship will be restored.

Now, I fully recognize that being abandoned by a parent is nothing like being molested by a parent or having a parent murdered. I’m not suggesting our reactions to these things should be same. However, as must as I truly want to do otherwise, I can’t escape Jesus’ condition-less call to forgive. Jesus’ doesn’t tell us to forgive “if”. He just tells us to forgive. And when Peter tries to put a limit on how many times we must forgive, Jesus tells him that he must never stop forgiving.

It’s a difficult path to follow. Jesus called it narrow and said few would find it. I hope that you can find the path to forgiveness and won’t allow bitterness and resentment to consume and define who you are. You can’t change the past, but you can change your future if you will allow the grace of God to reign in your life, redeeming the past and giving you a future with promise and hope for better days.

It won’t be easy, but with God’s grace you can do it.

And if we do need a “how to” guide to forgiveness (and the life, death, and resurrection is Jesus is not enough), then might I suggest we look no further than Paul’s letter to the church in Colossae. There he challenges the church to try an approach to forgiveness and reconciliation that is slightly different than what has been prescribed by Mars Hill. Rather than avoid one another, Paul calls on us to embrace grace…

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.


Grace and peace,

Zack Hunt