Last year, I worked as a student attorney defending the underprivileged in my community. A few had committed heinous crimes. People ask me how I could defend someone convicted of sex trafficking, drug trafficking or murder.
Somehow, after overcoming the initial shock, I never hesitated in my representation. I think part of it came out of my convictions as a Catholic. Francis Cardinal George once wrote: “In the United States, everything is permitted, even encouraged. … But, while practically everything might be permitted, practically nothing is forgiven. By contrast, in the Church much is not permitted. … But while much is not permitted, everything can be forgiven. Our culture pulls us towards vengeance, our faith towards mercy.” In my mind, everyone deserved representation and hope for a future, by virtue of their humanity.
But this representation was easy in a way that never really challenged my convictions. They didn’t rape me. They didn’t facilitate addictions for my family members. They didn’t kill my friends. There’s a wall dividing what they did from my own life.
In a similar way, many activists have easy work. Forgiveness is easy when you’re fighting “policies”: “the death penalty,” “mandatory minimums” or “life sentences without parole.” That fight might be different if you’re the victim behind those policies. And in some ways it’s even harder when you’re someone close to the victim.
If we believe that forgiveness should never be withheld, in these situations it might be easy to sprinkle a little “I forgive you” fairy dust over the situation and then walk off. As a feisty Franciscan priest once said, “Most people would give you the shirt off their back as long as you promise to take it and go away.” For some, Maria Goretti is a role model, as long as we don’t have to do what she did, go back to a jail cell and visit her murderer. I sometimes wonder if people persecuted by Saul ever met Paul and, if they did, how they responded.
In the Gospel of John, Peter betrays Christ by denying their friendship three times. Later in the story, the resurrected Christ asks Peter three times: “Do you love me?” The English translation doesn’t catch that the ancient Greek uses two different words for “love” here. Christ first asks, “Agapais me?”, “Do you love me with agapic love?” Peter doesn’t respond as you might expect: “Agapo se,” “I love you with agapic love.” Instead he responds, “Philo se”, “I love you as a friend.” Christ asks a second time, “Agapais me?”, and Peter again responds, “Philo se.” Finally, Christ asks the question Peter desires: “Phileis me?”, “Are you my friend?”
The Greek Orthodox tradition treats this as a significant shift, in which Peter longs for more than agape, the selfless love which Christians must grant even to strangers and enemies. Peter fights for philos, the intimate love of friendship, and he refuses anything less. His relationship with Christ cannot be made whole until they are made friends again. Pavel Florensky writes that “what Peter really needed was the restoration of friendly, personal relations with the Lord. … He had injured the Lord as a friend injures a friend,” with a betrayal. “Therefore he needed a new covenant of friendship.” Likewise Remi Brague, in his remarks at Notre Dame this fall, argued, “Forgiveness is not a philosophical concept. … Forgiveness is the possibility of starting again.”
But often forgiveness is awful. It’s grueling and painful, sometimes preceded and followed by tears. The human cost of befriending a betrayer is great. Jesus said that you have to forgive your brother 77 times. This could mean two things. First, it could mean that we have to forgive each individual instance of hurt or betrayal or injustice committed against us. But it might also speak to the ongoing pain of betrayal and the corresponding need for ongoing forgiveness. When we’re really hurt by someone, hurt in the deepest ways, the hurt often goes on beyond the “I forgive you” fairy dust. We experience the pain over and over again. To forgive someone isn’t just to say that we offer forgiveness. It’s also to affirm that forgiveness, both for ourselves and the other, each time the pain is remembered and experienced again.
In a way, this might create stronger bonds with those who have hurt us than with those who are strangers, because we have to make a decision for mercy and love repeatedly, possibly for the rest of our lives. Every time it hurts, you’re presented with a new choice. Forgive, or withdraw your forgiveness? Turn away in vengeance, or turn in towards friendship?
This column was published in The Observer on Thursday, February 4, 2016.