From Steven Spearie's article in NorwichBulletin.com: Pope John Paul might have been subscribing to the most basic, but hardly the easiest, of Christian mandates: If you want to be right with God, you have to forgive others.
Religious leaders and others say forgiveness is within reach, even for those convicted of horrific crimes.
Last month, former football star Michael Vick was released from federal prison (he’s under home confinement until mid-July) after serving the majority of his 23-month term on federal dogfighting conspiracy charges.
The dogfighting charges, and reports that dogs were treated inhumanely — even killed if they fought poorly — shocked the nation and indefinitely drummed Vick out of the National Football League, where he was an All-Pro quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons.
But his release from prison brought to light questions of redemption and forgiveness.
Before entering prison in August 2007, Vick publicly said he “found Jesus and I asked him for forgiveness and I’d just turned my life over to God.” Media reports state Vick’s high school football coach acknowledged the ex-star is a changed man because of the prison experience, and that Vick has also met with former NFL head coach Tony Dungy, who is involved with Fellowship of Christian Athletes and with the Prison Crusade Ministry.
The Rev. Roy Newman, senior pastor of Fresh Visions Community Church in Springfield, Ill., says Vick has completed his prison time, and whatever skills allow him to succeed in society, “so well for Michael Vick.”
“One can be restored,” Newman says. “It’s not for me to look at that person in condemnation.”
As for redemption, that’s a matter of God’s judgment, says the Rev. Richard Chiola, pastor of St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church in Springfield.
Chiola says Vick can be “re-socialized” by reforming his way of seeing his own social position, asking for forgiveness and making amends and waiting patiently until a sufficient number of people grant him social acceptance.
“Redemption is not a social decision; it is God’s alone,” Chiola says.
Faith traditions have always valued forgiveness, citing God’s mercy toward sinners and the possibility of reconciliation and, ultimately, redemption.
In Christianity, Christ’s parables about the unforgiving servant and the prodigal son illustrate the centrality of forgiveness. In Judaism, the high holy day of Yom Kippur itself atones for one’s sins against God, who stands ready and eager to forgive. For Buddhists, the notions of compassion and loving kindness compel one to forgive transgressions.
So what is the starting point for those seeking forgiveness?
“One needs to desire it,” says author and theologian Jill Raitt, who is on the faculty at Fontbonne University in St. Louis. “If not, forget it.”
The sincerity of the petition for forgiveness, says Springfield psychologist Kirk Boyenga, “is between God and us. If the purpose is to manipulate God (into forgiveness), it won’t work. But I can’t judge someone else’s heart.”
“Forgiveness is always an act of God’s grace,” Chiola adds. “If a person asks for forgiveness, from a Christian perspective, God grants it.”
In Judaism, the offender must seek forgiveness from the wronged party. If the offender is rebuffed three times, the sin falls upon the person initially wronged, says Rabbi Michael Datz of Temple B’rith Sholom in Springfield.
There are conditions, however. The offender must acknowledge the transgression, identify it and express sincere remorse before seeking forgiveness. The offender should then perform acts of penance — fasting on Yom Kippur, for example, Datz says.
Michael Lang of the Springfield Baha’i community says people in his faith are “told to strive to instantly forgive others. Mercy is an attribute of God. If we have that thought of hate, we’re asked to have a thought of greater love.”
Hinduism, explains Harish Bhatt of Springfield, is a tolerant religion whose followers are willing to give transgressors the benefit of the doubt. But God ultimately has the last word.
“If someone has done something wrong, God gives that person a chance to do better in the next life, or that person might suffer in the next life,” Bhatt says.
Bhatt decries the fact that forgiveness is an attribute of the weak.
“(Mohandas) Gandhi would forgive anybody for anything not because he was a coward,” Bhatt says. “It’s only strong people who can forgive.”
The act of forgiving, Chiola says, goes through stages. And it isn’t without struggle.
“Forgiveness demands that I embrace my suffering and move through the wound in order to thrive,” Chiola says. “Forgiveness does not forget the injury, but it does transform it.”
It can happen
Where does this leave figures who have betrayed the public’s trust?
Some, like the Rev. Newman, applaud contrition while acknowledging there is still much work to do.
“Redemption is one step at a time,” Newman says. “While you’ll never gain everyone’s acceptance, the important thing is that he has to be at peace with himself.”
Maryam Mostoufi of the Islamic Society of Greater Springfield says society has a stake in re-welcoming offenders and empowering them to have better lives.
“You have the responsibility to change the environment, the culture in which that person lives,” Mostoufi says. A society can only judge that person’s behavior in the aftermath, she adds, to measure that person’s sincerity of contrition.
Raitt, the Fontbonne professor, says the sacrament of reconciliation, or confession, is important because there is a strong social component to sin — cutting off that person from God, but also from the church community.
Seeking forgiveness from the public, however, “seems to me just to be posturing,” says Holy Cross parish’s Laughery. “Instead of a blanket ‘pardon’ from a nameless public, a person seeking forgiveness must identify the concrete individuals whom he or she has hurt.”
Only the one who was wronged can forgive the wrongdoer, Rabbi Datz adds — no forgiveness by proxy. That’s why public displays of forgiveness are “an insult to the memory of those who have been harmed,” he says.
“There’s no provision in society for forgiveness,” St. Frances Cabrini’s Chiola says. “A person can be restored to society but not forgiven (by society).”
The road back is well-paved, however.
In sermons, Newman says he often cites President Richard Nixon’s former chief counsel, Charles Colson, who served a prison term for obstruction of justice related to attempts to defame a government whistleblower. Colson later founded Prison Fellowship, which seeks to rehabilitate former prisoners.
And, Newman points out, who would have thought Kobe Bryant basketball jerseys would sell in the aftermath of the sexual allegation charges against the Los Angeles Lakers guard in 2003? (Charges against Bryant were later dropped, and he remains one of the NBA’s top players.)
Michael Vick’s redemption as a person, says Sacred Heart-Griffin High School football coach Ken Leonard, “has nothing to do with what he’s accomplished as a football player. I tell my players, ‘Your value as a man has nothing to do with football.’ I hope we’re forgiving (toward Vick) not so much by what he could give us as an athlete, but what he could as a potential role model or father.”
“Most people focus on redemption as society’s view of them,” Mostoufi says. “(Vick) needs to be working on redemption before God.”
That public redemption, Mostoufi acknowledges, would realistically find Vick working with police authorities against dogfighting. The Animal Protective League in a statement encouraged Vick to use his celebrity to show young people what he did was wrong.
If Vick is interested in making amends, “it’s important that he be reconciled with the community,” Raitt says. “It restores a balance.”
“When there is true repentance — Godly sorrow — actions will go hand-in-hand with behavior,” Newman says. “(Vick) can still rise above (what’s in his past.) When you make mistakes, you don’t allow them to hold you bondage the rest of your life.
“I still see him as a person, someone created in God’s image. I still see him as impacting the lives of others.”
Steven Spearie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thoughts on redemption
- In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace which he lavished upon us. — Ephesians 1, 7-8
- They should rather pardon and overlook. Would you not love Allah to forgive you? Allah is Ever-Forgiving, Most Merciful. — Qur’an 24:22
- Hide thy face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. — Psalms 51, 9-10
- To understand everything is to forgive everything. — Buddha
- Forgiveness is the might of the mighty; forgiveness is sacrifice; forgiveness is quiet of mind. — Mahabharata, Vana Parva, Section XXVIII
- For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others, neither will your father forgive your trespasses. — Matthew 6:14
- I pray Thee by Him Who is the sovereign Lord of Names to write down for me with the Pen of Thy bounty that which will enable me to draw nigh unto Thee and will purge me from my trespasses, which have intervened between me and Thy forgiveness and Thy pardon. — “Tablets of Baha’ullah Revealed after the Kitab-i-Aqdas” (pgs. 24-25)