I wrote a blog on this subject after the various hate crime atrocities of 2017 but decided not to post it because it all felt too raw. And even now, I would not presume to offer advice to the bereaved who must seek catharsis where they can. But for me at least, the concept of Christian ‘forgiveness’ is a strange one. I am not at all sure I know what it means. The Oxford dictionary says ‘forgiveness’ means ‘to stop feeling angry or resentful towards someone . . . or to wish to punish an offence’. And I understand all that. Anger and resentment can eat away at you and destroy your life, so pragmatically, if you can let them go, that makes good sense. And punishment should be left to the law: Socrates had it right two and a half millennia ago:
It is never right to do wrong and never right to take revenge; nor is it right to give evil, or in the case of one who has suffered some injury, to attempt to get even.
My problem is that Christians seem to want it to mean something more than this. Perhaps something like the formal absolution of sin offered by a Catholic priest, but presumably without the guarantee of God following suit. We talk about ‘acts’ of forgiveness, perhaps because unless it manifests itself as some kind of formal, physical token, it is difficult to see exactly what Christian forgiveness exists in. But in essence, forgiveness exists in the realm of thought, and morality, unlike righteousness, does not have a role to play.
Christian forgiveness, as opposed to the common or garden version defined by the Oxford dictionary, is all just meaningless nonsense. If you set off a bomb and kill people for no reason other than they don’t share your religious beliefs, you are a failure as a human being and a perpetrator of a terrible crime. I may personally move on from anger about that, and the law may exact its penalty, but nothing has changed about your status as a loathsome creature unworthy of breath, and your crime remains an unchangeable fact of history. All that Christian ‘turn the other cheek’ and ‘love your enemies’ stuff is just so much claptrap. I haven’t bothered reading what the Anglican archbishops said following recent atrocities, but I bet there was much chewing of clerical pencils before they found words to express Christian forgiveness while the rest of the nation was baying for blood. Of course, we should be tolerant of other’s failings if we can, and make allowances where possible. Civilisation is based on such common courtesies. But there is no absolute moral imperative to do so, and in the case of religious extremists who show no such courtesy to the rest of us, the only appropriate response is repugnance, and – for me at least - utter unforgiveness. If only there was a hell for them to rot in!