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Deacon Kyle Eller: In a culture that won’t forgive, we must forgive all the more

One of the most striking characteristics of American life in recent years may be its growing mercilessness.

Deacon Kyle Eller
Deacon Kyle Eller
Mere Catholicism

Having difficulty forgiving others is an old story, one nearly all of us of every age wrestle with at some point. Someone wounds us, we know we should forgive, and it sounds good in theory, but like so much of the walk of virtue, when it comes to the actual doing, it’s harder than it sounds. The anger and hurt prove more insistent than we expected, and maybe in our worst moments, even though deep down we know better, we’re tempted to make excuses and try to convince ourselves forgiving is not really so necessary after all.

That’s a normal spiritual struggle for fallen humanity, one we have to work through with God’s grace.

What I’m talking about is something else, a more weaponized version of that. I’m talking about situations where unforgiveness is not seen as a human failing and part of our spiritual combat but rather as something practically holy and virtuous in itself — unforgiveness embraced as a good. I’m talking about institutionalized unforgiveness of whole classes of people whom we attempt to write out of the human community, as beyond mercy, beyond consideration, as people practically subhuman.

At its worst, I’m talking about ideologies that seem to hold the entire concept of mercy and forgiveness in contempt, in the name of a warped vision of justice.

While granting that social media in general (and Twitter in particular) are sometimes like a free, all-you-can-eat buffet of people saying outrageously absurd and offensive things, and that usually such content is better ignored, I nevertheless offer, as emblematic of what I’m talking about, what a Hollywood screenwriter posted on Twitter in the wake of the controversy involving Catholic high school students in a confrontation at the March from Life.

The writer posted a still image from a short video clip of a student — the same photo you have surely seen if you have read any media coverage of the controversy — and then wrote, “Plus side: A face like that never changes. This image will define his life. No one ever need forgive him.”

Now, literally every sentence of that, on its own, is morally repellent. From a still frame pulled from a short video clip he has extrapolated to a sweeping, comprehensive judgment of a teenage kid’s entire character, past, present, and future, despite having never met him, and based on this has declared him forever outside the scope of mercy. And in the writer’s mind, that’s the “plus side,” whatever that could mean.

Taken together, it’s as if the goal was to find a reason to declare the accused irredeemable, and by doing so to free others to hate him forever without feeling bad about it.

This is how totalitarian ideologies of the past centuries — the Soviet Union and its “class enemies” or the French Revolution and others with their “enemies of the people” — talked about those they exterminated in the name of their concept of justice.

That kind of language is becoming popular here, nowadays, too, sometimes even within the church.

Our faith offers the opposite worldview to the one that writes people off forever, that seeks not to forgive, and that rejoices in the notion that reconciliation is impossible. Our faith teaches us that when we, whom God made out of love, chose instead to be his enemies, he loved us so much anyway that he took on human flesh and let us nail him to a cross in order to reconcile us to him and bring us back into communion.

Saints and even everyday Christians down the centuries have, by his grace, imitated him, forgiving their own persecutors and murderers or even the murderers of their children, and not despairing for the conversion and the salvation of even the worst of sinners.

Our faith calls us to be ministers of reconciliation and considers the church a symbol of the unity of the whole human race. It gives us an anthropology in which we human beings, at the core of our being, are made for communion with God and with other people, a vision of the whole world as one human family, where no one is an accident or expendable, and where every broken relationship represents a loss.

We forgive others because we know (or ought to know) that we need forgiveness too. We forgive others because we know (or ought to know) the limits of our judgment on another person’s heart. We forgive because we’re made for communion, and mercy is a necessary condition of it in our fallen world.

And even if we don’t care about any of that, even if all we have is self-love, if we are thinking clearly we forgive because to fail to do so is to put ourselves in a prison of our own making. Even the pop psychologists have that much right. If we want freedom and healing from hurts we have suffered, forgiveness is a necessary part of it.

It saddens me to think of a world in which people seem eager to be permanently divided. We may not be able to talk them out of it. But at least we should beware the danger ourselves, and be even more the kind of people who forgive.

Deacon Kyle Eller is editor of The Northern Cross. Reach him at [email protected].