In the story of Beowulf, which I’ve just finished reading for my English Lit class, there’s a lot of emphasis on the culture of revenge that existed among early European tribes in medieval times. If someone killed someone in your family, your responsibility was to kill that person, or force them to pay a certain amount of money to bring justice to the situation. Even though these tribesmen claimed to embrace Christianity, there was no mention of forgiveness, and wars continued back and forth without end. Beowulf kills the evil Grendel, because he killed a lot of Hrothgar’s men. Then Grendel’s mother comes looking for Beowulf, seeking revenge on the killer of her son, and she kills one of Hrothgar’s most beloved advisors. So Beowulf, the “good” guy, kills her, and it’s okay because she’s evil.
We can pat ourselves on the back and congratulate ourselves that we have become so much more enlightened since then.
Or have we?
Remember the genocide killings in Rwanda and Darfur? Seen any suicide bombings in the news lately? It only takes one glance to see that forgiveness is still a problem in general for the human race. It seems to be mostly a Christian idea in the first place, although being a Christian doesn’t make forgiveness an easier thing to do.
It’s much easier as well to look at other nations and say that they should forgive, and not go to war or commit terrorist atrocities, but much different when we’re personally wronged. The question always seems to be whether or not we should get some of our own back. Does forgiveness mean that you have to open yourself up to being hurt? Does forgiveness mean that you must also forget? Should we as a nation just “forget” 9/11 ever happened?
We do love to see justice done. Look at all the superhero movies that Hollywood churns out, where the bad guys who are beyond the reach of law receive supernatural justice at the hands of vigilantes with super powers who are also beyond the reach of the police. We almost get a thrill from hearing about stories where victims fight back and win. From a very early age, even children have a sense that things should be fair and just, and will complain if they don’t feel like justice is being done.
It gives us a sense of empowerment when we are able to gain some measure of justice when we’ve been wronged. But how far should we go? When does it stop? The following are some more personal scenarios to consider.
Scenario A: You’re backing out of a parking space, when someone comes tearing through the parking lot and your cars connect. The damage isn’t bad; just some paint damage on the back fender. You exchange insurance and leave the scene. When you contact the company to make your claim, you find out that the insurance policy they gave you hasn’t been in force for 6 months. They have made a claim on your insurance and gotten $600 for a paint scratch. Your policy has also been canceled, and you now have no car insurance. Is it appropriate to forgive this person, or appropriate to seek justice?
Scenario B: You and your spouse are having problems. Your spouse gets angry, and you exchange harsh words, often in front of the children. Afterwards your spouse shows remorse and apologizes, and perhaps tries to make up for it with gifts and promises to do better in the future. But things do not get better. You continue to have blowup after blowup, and your spouse continues to try and try. The children are hurting. You are hurting. Is it right for you to continue to forgive your spouse?
Scenario C: You approach the minister of your church for help when your family is financially suffering. You are working in sales, trying to make enough money for your wife and two young children, and things are not going well. Instead of sympathizing and offering counsel, your minister insinuates that you are a lazy infidel and should perhaps get a “real job” instead. Would you forgive him for his comments?
Scenario D: You are driving to work. It’s an ordinary day, until you drive under a highway overpass. Suddenly a frozen turkey comes through the window of your car, dropped from the overpass by a teenager who is bored and looking for excitement. The car’s windshield explodes inwards, cutting your face and hands. You require hours of painful reconstructive surgery and physical therapy afterwards. The teenager is caught and you are facing him in a courtroom. If you charge him, he will go to jail for many years, and his life will be ruined. He will not be eligible for parole until he is in his forties. Do you forgive him, or do you throw the book at him?
These scenarios are based on experiences that actually happened, and they are deliberately complicated, in order to make you think. What would you do if you were in any of these situations? Would you seek justice/revenge, or would forgiveness seem more appropriate? Is forgiveness even possible? You decide.