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The Sin of Forgiveness

by Dennis Prager
Wall Street Journal, December 15, 1997

The bodies of the three teenage girls murdered by a fellow student at Heath High School in West Paducah, Ky., were not yet cold before the students of the Christian prayer group that was shot at announced, "We forgive you, Mike," referring to Michael Carneal, 14, the murderer.

This immediate and automatic forgiveness is not surprising. Over the past generation, the idea that a central message of Christianity is to forgive everyone who commits evil against anyone, no matter how great and cruel and whether or not the evildoer repents, has been adopted by much of Christendom.

The number of examples is almost as large as the number of heinous crimes. But one other recent example stands out.  In August, the pastor at a Martha's Vineyard church service attended by the vacationing President Clinton announced that it was the the duty of all Christians to forgive Timothy McVeigh, the murderer of 168 Americans. "I invite you to look at a picture of Timothy McVeigh and then forgive him," the Rev. John Miller said in his sermon. "I have, and I ask you to do so."

The pastor acknowledged: "Considering what he did, that may be a formidable task.  But it is the one that we as Christians are asked to do."

Though I am a Jew, I believe that a vibrant Christianity is essential if America's moral decline is to be reversed and that despite theological differences, there is indeed a Judeo-Christian value system that has served as the bedrock of American civilization. For these reasons I am appalled and frightened by this feel-good doctrine of automatic forgiveness.

This doctrine undermines the moral foundations of American civilization because it advances the amoral notion that no matter how much you hurt other people, millions of your fellow citizens will immediately forgive you. This doctrine destroys Christianity's central moral tenets about forgiveness - that forgiveness, even by God, is contingent on the sinner repenting, and that it can only be given to the sinner by the one against whom he sinned.

These tenets are unambiguously affirmed in Luke 17:3-4: "And if your brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if seven times of the day he sins against you, and seven times of the day turns to you saying, I repent, you shall forgive him."

This flies in the face of what passes for Christianity these days - the declaration, often repeated, that "It is the Christian's duty to forgive just as Jesus forgave those who crucified him." Of course, Jesus asked God to forgive those who crucified him. But Jesus never asked God to forgive those who had crucified thousands of other innocent people - presumably because he recognized that no one has the moral right to forgive evil done to others.

You and I have no right, religiously or morally, to forgive Timothy McVeigh or Michael Carneal; only those they sinned against have that right - and those they murdered are dead and therefore cannot forgive them. (Indeed, that is why I believe that humans cannot forgive a murderer.)  If we are automatically forgiven no matter what we do - even if we do not repent, why repent? In fact, if we forgive everybody for all the evil they do to anybody, God and his forgiveness are entirely unnecessary. Those who forgive all evil done to others have substituted themselves for God.

When confronted with such arguments, some callers to my radio show offered another defense: "The students were not forgiving Carneal for murdering the three students," these callers argued, "they were forgiving him for the pain he caused them." Let us summarize this argument: You murder my classmates, and the next day I announce that I forgive you for the pain you caused me!  That such self-centered thinking masquerades as a religious ideal is a good example of the moral disarray in much of religious life.

Some people have a more sophisticated defense of the forgive-everyone-everything doctrine: Victims should be encouraged to forgive all evil done to them because doing so is psychologically healthy. It brings "closure." This, too, is selfishness masquerading as idealism: "Though you do not deserve to be forgiven, and though you may not even be sorry, I forgive you because I want to feel better."

The rise of the theology of automatic "forgiveness" is only one more sign of the decline of traditional religiosity and morality.  As Yale Prof. David Gelernter, who was severely injured by the Unabomber, notes in his thoughtful recent book, "Drawing Life," the 1960's made making moral judgments the greatest sin.  He points out that none of his pre-1975 dictionaries contains the word "judgmental."  Today, judging evil is widely considered worse than doing evil.

Until West Paducah, I believed that Christians will lead America's moral renaissance. Though I still believe that - many Christians are repulsed by the demoralization and dumbing down of religion - the day those students, with the support of their school administration, hung out that sign I became less sanguine. If young Christians have inherited more values from the '60s culture than from their religion, where can we look for help?

Mr. Prager, host of a daily radio talk show in Los Angeles, is the author of "Happiness is a Serious Problem," from Harper Collins.