Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.
My request that readers share their opinions about whether we should forgive the surviving Boston Marathon bomber generated a flood of articulate and deeply moving responses. Here are just two examples, followed by my response:
Why we should forgive the Boston bomber: As a Christian pastor, I believe and I teach that Jesus clearly admonishes us to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44). He also teaches that if we don't forgive others, then God will not forgive us (Matthew 6:15). I strongly believe that we can and should offer forgiveness, while at the same time seeking justice through the courts in order to find peace and healing both for our bodies, our souls and our nation.
I know it's not always easy for us humans to forgive others, especially when horrific crimes are committed. However, the difficulty of the task does not exempt us from trying to pardon another person in our hearts. Though granting forgiveness may not occur immediately, it can take place in God's time if we seek his will and guidance. I believe we should take seriously our calling to be the "salt and light" of the earth, which means that, as believers, we're to look for ways to develop further the kingdom of God on earth.
Thus, we shouldn't wait until all the conditions for granting forgiveness are favorable, for that may never happen. Failing to encourage forgiveness, however undeserved it may seem, will only allow more bitterness, anger and fear to fester in us.
Thus, I encourage you to remind readers that peace and hope are possible, provided we allow God to help us forgive other sinners, just as we have been forgiven.
-- J., Durham, N.C., via email
Why we should not forgive the Boston bomber: Not until we first forgive Adam Lanza, James Holmes, Jared Loughner, Nidal Hassan, Timothy McVeigh, Osama bin Laden and Adolf Hitler, none of whom I would ever forgive! To forgive any of these human monsters would be to devalue the lives of the innocent, decent people they killed and maimed.
-- R., Plainview, via email
My response: I think J. has touched on a profound point that if we do not forgive, it corrodes our own souls and makes us less able to embody God's loving words and abundant compassion here on earth. I think R. has also grasped a chilling truth -- that if we forgive this most recent mass murderer, must we also forgive all other mass murders? What does it mean to follow the biblical commandment to love your neighbor if your neighbor is a terrorist? Despite my admiration for J.'s good heart, I agree with R., but I would like to keep talking to J. I wonder whether the consequences of mass forgiveness for mass murderers might be the opposite of what J. imagines. Muting our outrage at those who bring carnage to our country may end up weakening our resolve to seek justice because it humanizes the killers.
Such killers have dehumanized themselves by their violation of the sanctity of human life. Why should we re-humanize them by misplaced compassion? I say "misplaced" because they will not repent, and they will not atone for the blood on their hands.
Forgiving a repentant killer is a truly hard case for me. The Boston bomber is not such a case.
The philosophical issue goes back to Aristotle, who thought that evil is really nothing but the absence of good (privatio boni). But evil, as we know it in the last two millennia, is much more than just a mistaken search for the good. Radical evil exists. Evil chosen for its own sake exists. Cruelty without compassion exists, and in the face of radical evil, we must seek radical justice -- not revenge, but justice.
I'm still unclear as to what J.'s forgiveness would look like. Perhaps, as J. states, the need to forgive the surviving Boston bomber comes from our need to be forgiven, but whatever sins I might petition God to forgive, they wouldn't include terrorist bombings. We all stand in need of forgiveness, but to in any way equate our sins with the sins of a terrorist bomber is, I believe, a profound misunderstanding of the varying levels of sin and thus the varying needs for forgiveness. We who have not committed such an act may not be righteous, but we're not monsters. God must know the difference.
At the very least, the sins of the surviving terrorist bomber in Boston demand abject apology and sincere repentance for his cheapening of human life, for his perversion of true Islam, and for his profound lack of gratitude for the safe harbor afforded him by America -- a gift he reciprocated in blood.