Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Justice and Forgiveness

James Skillen


December 22, 1997

In a recent Wall Street Journal column (12/15/97), Los Angeles talk show host Dennis Prager delivered a blunt challenge to Christians who are too quick to forgive.

There is something wrong, he says, when Christian students in West Paducah, Kentucky, quickly announce their forgiveness of Michael Carneal, the teenager who killed three fellow students. There is something wrong when Rev. John Miller invites his congregation to join him in forgiving Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh. Such expressions of forgiveness are misguided because Luke 17:3-4 says that forgiveness is granted by the one who has been wronged and comes in response to the sinner's act of repentance.

The victims of Carneal and McVeigh are, of course, no longer alive to forgive their murderers. So Prager says "humans cannot forgive a murderer." "If we are automatically forgiven no matter what we do—even if we do not repent—why repent?" Prager asks. "In fact, if we are to forgive everybody for all the evil they do to anybody, God and his forgiveness are entirely unnecessary. Those who forgive all evil done to others have substituted themselves for God."

Prager is right, but both a political point and a word of caution are in order.

The political point is this. One of the social conditions that creates the space and ease and distance for people to offer trite expressions of forgiveness is a political and legal system in which people like Caneal and McVeigh can be arrested, tried, and punished if found guilty. In other words, if we had no police and legal systems, it is difficult to imagine how those who have lost loved ones to killers would be able to respond other than by taking vengeance into their own hands. Vengeance would produce more vengeance. Few would be untouched by the carnage and animosities.

Instead of blithe expressions of forgiveness for murderers, Christians should be offering comfort to the grieving loved ones while also diligently working to make sure that the legal system achieves just judgments. Christians should be working to assure families and friends of murder victims that justice will be done, because the doing of justice is also one of God's mandates. Government has been established, according to Paul (Rom. 13:4), to mete out God's vengeance against wrongdoers so that individuals will be free not to have to take up vengeance themselves (Rom. 12:19).

Now, a cautionary note. Prager may be correct that humans cannot forgive a murderer. However, God can forgive a repentant murderer. This has implications for both the criminal and the families and friends of victims. Christians ought to be working overtime to tell murderers why God requires a just judgment (perhaps even capital punishment) against them, but at the same time that God has provided in Jesus Christ a savior even for repentant murderers. Killers may no longer be able to ask their victims for forgiveness, but they can turn to God in repentance and receive it.

For the families and loved ones of murder victims, as well as for those at a great remove, the message is this: You may not be able to forgive the murderer, but do not allow hatred and bitterness and a desire for personal vengeance to control you. God is able even to forgive murderers, if they repent, and God will certainly see that justice is done to all in the end. Therefore, give thanks that a legal system exists and work to strengthen it as a guardian of justice. Allow the judicial process to unfold. Cast yourself on God, recognizing that before the judge of the universe we all stand guilty of sins that could justify God's condemnation of us forever. Pray that God will allow each of us, including the murderer, to repent.

—James W. Skillen, Executive Director
   Center for Public Justice


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”