Forgiving, forgetting

September 21, 1998|By Joseph Gallagher

ONE POSITIVE result of the White House scandal is the debate it has raised on the issue of forgiveness. The need to forgive and be forgiven is endlessly relevant in a world where even the just man may fall seven times, and "Pardon me" is a

kind of universal mantra.

Though religions are often about guilt, they are also about forgiveness. All but one of the Koran's 114 chapters begin "In the name of God, Most Compassionate, Most Merciful." Though compassion and mercy do not necessarily include forgiveness, three of the Koran's 99 names for God pertain to forgiveness: Al-Ghaffar, Al-Ghafur, Al-Ghafir.

For Jews, Yahweh could be stern and terrifying. Still, the Hebrew Bible is obsessed with a God whose mercy is everlasting and above all his works.

In the New Testament, Jesus defines his mission as a call for a repentance that leads to the forgiveness of sin. At the the Last Supper, Jesus says his blood will be shed for such forgiveness. For his executioners, he prays, "Father, forgive them."

More than any other major holy writings, the New Testament focuses on forgiveness between human beings. America is a predominantly Christian nation, and in the Lord's prayer, millions of us pray everyday that God may "forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." How often? Jesus tells Peter to forgive 70 times seven times.

One of Christ's most winsome parables praises the father who is prodigal in forgiveness; one of his sternest excoriates the servant who is forgiven a major debt but then refuses to forgive a minor one.

Serious forgiveness is often extremely difficult. Still, Learned Hand, a venerated judge, thought that "the impossible ethics of Jesus" were one of the most precious treasurers of civilization -- ideals which we never quite learn but can never quite forget.

The impulse to merciful forgiveness is one of muddy mankind's supremely cleansing and ennobling qualities. William Shakespeare's hymn to "the quality of mercy" is one of the most sublime moments in literature: "In the course of justice, none of us should see salvation."

There are some things which mercy does not necessarily entail. Though "to err is human, to forgive is divine," forgiving -- which is in our power -- is not the same as forgetting, which isn't within our power.

Forgiveness does not take evil lightly. Yes, Jesus said magnificently, "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone." But he also told the adulteress, "Go and sin no more." One leaves the confessional forgiven, but still with a penance to perform and, perhaps, make restitution.

Nor is a forgiver required to expose himself foolishly to further harm from the offender. What "foolishly" means is a practicality that each person has to work out prayerfully in the heart's secret chambers.

All of which means, in my view, that from the biblical point of view, one could accord President Clinton the forgiveness he seeks but still believe that his resignation, impeachment or censure is in the best interest of the country -- and his own.

As with most moral dilemmas, conflicting values are involved. Merciful citizens of good will may well come to different conclusions.

Still, as the etymology of the word itself argues, forgiveness is far-giveness -- it is inherently far-reaching and generous.

The Rev. Joseph Gallagher, a retired priest of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, recently published "Statements at the Scene," a 50-year collection of his own poems.

Pub Date: 9/21/98

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