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Revelation 7:11-17 “Then one of the elders addressed me, saying,

„Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?‟ I

said to him, „Sir, you are the one that knows.‟ Then he said to

me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they

have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the

Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and

worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is

seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more,

and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any

scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be

their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of

life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

     The bodies of the students and teachers at Virginia Teach

had not even been buried, before one of the local pastors called

upon the Christian community to forgive Cho Seung-Hui, the

assailant. This immediate and almost automatic call for

forgiveness was not surprising though, because it happened

before, after the terrible shooting in the Amish school last

year or at the tragedy at Columbine.

     Indeed I remember when thhe pastor at a Martha‟s Vineyard

church service attended by the then vacationing President
Clinton, preached that it was the duty of all Christians to

forgive Timothy McVeigh, the murderer of 168 Americans in the

bombing at Oklahoma City. “I invite you to look at a picture of

Timothy McVeigh and then forgive him,” said the Reverend John

Miller 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.”

     Is that we Christians are asked to do? Is that how we as

Christians are called upon to respond after travesties like

Virginia Tech, to simply forgive? That sounds more like the

1960‟s to me than the Christian tradition. Yale Professor David

Gelernter, who was severely injured by an attack of the

Unabomber, noted in his book, “Drawing Life,” that the 1960‟s

seems to have declared that making moral judgments was the

greatest sin; so much so that, judging evil is widely considered

today worse than doing evil. Indeed the pejorative word

„judgmental‟ does not even appear in most dictionaries before

the 1970‟s. And so we are told that we mustn‟t judge others, we

can only forgive them. And now that idea has been adopted by

much of the Church as a central message of Christianity. It is

suggested that our responsibility is to forgive everyone who

commits evil against anyone, no matter how great and how cruel,

and no matter whether or not the evildoer repents. We cannot

demand repentance of them because that would imply judgment. Yet

this seems to me to destroy the central tenets about forgiveness

in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

     First of all, according to the ancient Jewish

understanding, only God forgives sins. This is why, for

instance, we confess our sins to God, even our sins against our

neighbors. That is also why Jesus was accused of blasphemy for

forgiving the sins of the paralytic in Matthew 9.2, and thus

assuming the place of God in the eyes of the Jewish leaders. But

more importantly, repentance was an essential factor before God

would forgive sins in the Judeo-Christian tradition. That is why

John the Baptist, and then Jesus, encouraged the people of

Israel to repent in order to prepare for the coming Reign of

God. Repentance and forgiveness went together, and were the

means of reconciliation with God. Forgiveness without repentance

was „cheap‟ and demeaning.

     Jesus encouraged individuals to forgive others their

trespasses, just as we have been forgiven our trespasses, but

the implication here is that we have been repentant. As Jesus

himself declares 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.”

Elsewhere Peter came and asked Jesus, “Lord, how often shall my

brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?”

Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but

up to seventy times seven.” (Mt. 18.21).

     Thus a fundamental assumption of forgiveness in the Judeo-

Christian tradition was repentance. In addition, according to

the Jewish tradition, only the person against whom someone sins,

can forgive. For example, Jesus asked God on the cross to

forgive those who crucified him. He didn‟t, though, ask God to

forgive those who crucified the thieves on his right and on his

left, because in the Judeo-Christian tradition no one has the

moral right to forgive the evil done to others.

     I suggest therefore that you and I have no right,

religiously or morally, to forgive the assailant at Virginia

Tech; only those he sinned against have that right. Some people

would argue however that we are being asked to forgive the

assailant not for attacking others, but we are forgiving them

for the pain they have caused us. How presumptuous! Someone

murders and wounds students and teachers hundreds of miles away,

and the next day I am asked to announce because I am a Christian

that I forgive him for the pain he caused me! Give me a break!

That such self-centered thinking is masquerading as a religious

ideal is a good example of the moral disarray we are in.

     Others suggest that the victims themselves should be

encouraged to forgive all the evil done them because that is the

Christian thing to do, and because doing so is psychologically

healthy. It brings “closure.” This, too, sounds like selfishness

masquerading as a religious ideal --- “Though you do not deserve

to be forgiven, and though you may not even be sorry, I forgive

you because it will make me feel better.”

     Traditional Catholic teaching has declared that there are

four conditions that must precede forgiveness. First, the sinner

must acknowledge their sin. Secondly, the sinner must be

penitent, that is, they must not only feel sorry for what they

have done, but also accept some responsibility for the pain. As

one Christian leader observed, there is a big difference between

saying you are sorry about some incident and asking forgiveness

for your part in that incident. The later implies some

responsibility. Thirdly, the sinner must have a firm intention

to amend their life, not to do again what they have done. And

finally, the sinner must try, if they can, to make amends, to

correct or repair the damage done by them. If these four

conditions are met, then and only then can the priest grant

absolution, that is, then and only then can the priest declare

that God has forgiven them their sins.

     So what should our response be to the tragedy of Virginia

Tech? Horror, I think, that such a thing could happen; that

anyone could become so misguided and destructive. Sorrow, that

this student has caused so much pain and injury. Consolation,

for the wounded and the families of the dead. Determination, to

do what we can to see that such a tragedy does not occur again.

And finally, a willingness to forgive those responsible if they

are indeed repentant and seek amends. For repentance and

forgiveness go together, and are the means of reconciliation

within a community, of reincorporating those who are estranged.

And indeed, was it not the feeling of estrangement and isolation

that played such a crucial role in the act of this troubled

young man, and in those before him who perpetuated similar

horrors. For the response to feeling excluded, should be seeking

reconciliation, not revenge. And that is the example we as

Christians are called upon to make, to be a community of

reconciliation in the world, and not one of „cheap‟ forgiveness.