The recent college admissions scandal offers an example. A con-man convinced a number of wealthy couples to pay large sums of money to ensure that their spoiled and underqualified children would be accepted into some of the best universities in the country. In the process the college applications were falsified, arrangements were made to cheat on SAT tests, and some college officials were bribed. The con-man was eventually arrested.
Prosecutors also went after the parents who paid outrageous sums of money to get their kids into college. Some of the parents pleaded guilty to the charges leveled against them. The prosecutors, however, want the parents to do some jail time and not just get off with a slap on the hand. The argument is that the parents knew what they were paying for and that it was illegal and unjust. A sentence requiring some jail time would send the message that it is wrong to use your wealth to cheat the system and deprive more talented and worthy youth from an education they have earned. Sending this message is a form of deterrence.
At its worst, retributive justice becomes a form of revenge. This takes us back to the first example I offered in this reflection. A perpetrator harms us. It is a gut reaction to want to harm the perpetrator simply because the perpetrator had the gall to hurt me. This is vengeance, plain and simple. While an argument can be made for deterrence, there is no argument for the Christian to allow vengeance. This doesn’t deny that the supposed Christian might act in a vengeful manner, but it does mean that when he or she acts in a vengeful manner it is done contrary to Christian teaching and values.
It is one thing to refrain from vengeance but another matter entirely to be forgiving. Scripture reminds us that vengeance is off limits. “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord.” (Deuteronomy 32:35). Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” (Romans 12:19).
Jesus calls us to a higher road than just refraining from vengeance. “Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not just seven times, but seventy-seven times !” (Matthew 8:12)
Forgiveness is about restoring good relationships but even more, it is about the spiritual and mental health of the one who is doing the forgiving. When one refuses to forgive, he or she is cultivating anger in their heart and cutting themselves off from relationship with the offender. John 4:8 tells us that God is love. Anger and vengeance leave little room for love; that is, for God.
This anger can spill over into other relationships and become rooted in one’s personality. The more we cultivate anger in our hearts It can isolate the person and make them bitter. This is certainly not a healthy spiritual profile, but it also does damage to us physically, as it raises our stress levels. Now this is nothing new to most of us. We know that we are called as Christians to be forgiving. The challenge is to do it!
Many people say that forgiving another person from one’s heart is asking the impossible. It may seem to be impossible, but it is within the realm of possibility. It is possible when we work up to it. Rather than attempt to deny our emotions, we begin the process by acknowledging the emotion of anger that churns in our hearts. Yet, we also acknowledge that we need to forgive, even if it is only to take the burden of anger from our hearts. We can decide to forgive, as an act of the will. We may still feel the churning in our heart but at least we have made the decision to forgive. If we begin forgiveness as an act of the will, as a decision that we make, we are taking a degree of control over our lives and not letting our emotions determine our choices. It may take time but eventually our heart will follow the decision of our will.
It is helpful to remember that this dynamic of justice and forgiveness is at the heart of our Christian faith. God is just. We can depend on God to see that we receive what we deserve, which is the meaning of justice we spoke of earlier. The problem is that while we have the capacity for moral greatness, our actions often have the character of selfishness, cruelty and vengefulness. The consequences that flow from such behavior are evil and poison us. They lead us in a direction that is anything but Christian. The resulting suffering is the just result of such behavior. God doesn’t rejoice over such suffering. God is love and feels the pain of those who are suffering. God doesn’t just sit back and watch events unfold but gets involved. Through Jesus God’s forgiveness touches our lives and attempts to make things right. Through Jesus God’s forgiveness impacts our society and attempts to transform society into something closer to the Kingdom of God.
What about accountability? Does saying “I’m sorry”, automatically save you from the consequences of your behavior?
I suggest that the answer is both “yes” and “no”. Matthew 25 describes the Last Judgment, humanity is judged on the criteria of love and service. Did you tend to the needs of the poor and suffering among you? Those who did receive their just reward. Those who did not meet these criteria end up condemned to the flames of Hell. Consequences flow from their actions. Accountability is demanded of them. Generations of sin and evil actions have built up so that society is corrupted at so many levels. Yet, God sent his son as the medium for divine forgiveness and as a healing medicine for the world. The world still suffers the effects of sin and evil, even as the divine medicine attempts to bring healing.
Justice demands restoration and retribution to an appropriate degree. This is part of the demand for accountability. This is part of a broader social demand that is necessary for an ordered society that hasn’t descended into total chaos. Accountability reminds us that we are responsible for our actions.
Forgiveness doesn’t lessen the necessity of accountability. Rather forgiveness focuses on letting go of the anger and the demand for vengeance that flares in our hearts when we are hurt by others. While there is a social element to forgiveness, its focus is personal. Accountability or justice is primarily a social necessity. Each has their role to play.