Who Deserves Forgiveness?

I awoke to the terrible news and images of Kenji Goto's beheading by the so-called ISIS terrorists. The face of evil was unmasked by the hate-infused words of "Jihadi John" in his vengeful message to the Japanese people: "You, like your foolish allies in the satanic coalition, have yet to understand that we, by Allah's grace, are an Islamic caliphate ... an entire army thirsty for your blood."

There is no point to ignoring the hatred and the threats spewing into the world through those who claim to be doing good, through brutality and bloodshed in the name of divine grace. Such attitudes and actions must be named and denounced for what they are: wrong, immoral, sinful, vile, and evil. These are not just contemptible acts of terrorism that may find some explanation in political, economic, religious, or social ideology; they are nothing less than graceless acts of human evil.

Quite naturally our abhorrence of such blatant evil rightly provokes our wrath and desire to retaliate against, even to eradicate, the perpetrators. "Justifiable" wars, with all the unfortunate "collateral damage" of incalculable property destruction and the deaths of innocent people, may often seem to be the last and necessary resort, yet wars and violence have never been sufficient to eradicate evil.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, responding to the beheading of Mr. Goto, said, "We are deeply saddened by this despicable and horrendous act of terrorism, and we denounce it in the strongest terms." Then, addressing himself to the terrorists, he said, "[W]e will never, never forgive them for this act." No possibility of forgiveness -- ever! Mr. Goto's mother responded to the killing of her son by saying that he had wanted to help create a world without wars. "I am shedding tears of sorrow," she said, "but I don't want this sorrow to create a chain of hatred."

However, hatred and escalating violence will be the inevitable result. But it is a dilemma, isn't it -- how to differentiate between evil and the persons who perpetrate evil? Our denunciation of evil carries with it the damning of the person. And in our damning of the person, we exclude them from any possibility of forgiveness.

Evil must never be ignored or condoned; it must be renounced and denounced for what it is. But what about those human beings who, for whatever reason, become instruments of evil, perpetrators of evil in the world? We cannot and must not hold them irresponsible for their actions; they are inexcusable. But the question remains: Can perpetrators of evil be forgiven? And if they cannot be forgiven, then who can ever be forgiven, and why?

I wrestle with these questions, and in my wrestling I know all too well the truth of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's observation when he was a prisoner in the brutally repressive and inhumane gulag of the Soviet state:

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

I've come face to face with evil and with evil doers in the prisons of the world -- thieves, rapists, swindlers, terrorists, killers, child molesters, political tricksters, drug barons, and human traffickers among them. Some of them were repentant, others not, but neither the remorseful nor the cold-hearted could undo the evil they had done. Not one among them was deserving of forgiveness. Yet forgiveness was and is their only option, the only means of defeating their bondage in evil.

It would be very, very difficult for anyone to forgive those men and women -- perhaps even impossible. The damage and destruction of their evil ways seems unforgivable. Why forgive? Why forgive even when they ask for it? Why forgive even if they admit responsibility and grovel in the dust? Let them stay condemned in the cauldron of their evil!

As a follower of Jesus, I am trying to understand that forgiveness is not something anyone of us deserves or earns -- regardless of how heinous or insignificant our complicity in evil may be. Forgiveness is the ultimate good news of God in Jesus Christ -- unmerited mercy offered unconditionally to every evil doer, every kind of evil doer. All that you and I and evildoers of every degree and stripe can do is to respond -- by accepting God's forgiveness and, in doing so, recognizing our guilt, or by rejecting God's standing offer of forgiveness here and now, therewith condemning ourselves to be unforgiven. Ultimately each of us chooses either to remain in the embrace of evil or to surrender to the embrace of God.

So if I am forgiven, then how then do I forgive? To whom do I extend forgiveness when I've been victimized by evil? Should I even offer to forgive an unrepentant evil doer -- for minor offenses? Repeat offenses? Traumatic, costly, unresolvable offenses?

Our Father in heaven...
Forgive us the wrongs we have done,
as we forgive the wrongs that others have done to us.
Do not bring us to hard testing,
but keep us safe from the Evil One.

(From Matthew 6: 9, 12, 13 -- GNT)