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Forgiveness after the Pittsburgh Massacre

November 7, 2018 | by Rabbi Benjamin Blech

God does not forgive those who do not acknowledge that they did wrong and renounce the sinful behavior.

Last week, in a moment of solidarity, a pastor and a rabbi came together to grieve.

The pastor came from Charlottesville. He is the spiritual leader who now occupies the pulpit once held by Clemente C. Pinckney, the first of nine congregants murdered by Dylann Roof in 2015 in a South Carolina church, a massacre in a house of worship strikingly similar to what happened in Pittsburgh.

Pastor Manning embraced Rabbi Myers. As brothers in suffering, they, perhaps better than anyone else, understood each other’s pain. But it is important from a religious perspective to point out that Pittsburgh is not Charlottesville, just as Judaism has a different approach to the concept of forgiveness than the one which received headlines for the survivors in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina.

“I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you,” a daughter of one Charlottesville victim said in 2015. “We have no room for hating, so we have to forgive,” said the sister of another. “I pray God on your soul.” Given the heinous nature of the crime, the willingness of church survivors to forgive was remarkable – and earned particular praise from President Obama.

It is a kind of religious response we have witnessed numerous times. The day after the Columbine High School massacre, a group of students announced that they forgave the killers. A short while after the Oklahoma bombing, some people put out a call to forgive Timothy McVeigh. And on September 12th, 2001, on several American campuses colleges groups pleaded for forgiveness for the terrorists responsible for the horrific events of the previous day.

There are those who find this approach worthy of praise and emulation. They believe a God of love and of mercy would want us to extend these divine attributes to everyone – even brutal murderers and terrorists.

They are of course entitled to their beliefs. But as a Jew who also treasures the concept of forgiveness I strenuously disagree.

Just take a cursory look at the Torah. God does not forgive those who do not acknowledge that they did wrong and renounce the sinful behavior. God holds people responsible. Adam and Eve sinned and they were kicked out of the Garden of Eden. Cain sinned and was condemned to become a wanderer over the face of the earth. The generation of Noah sinned and a flood destroyed them. The builders of the Tower of Babel sinned and their speech was turned into babble. In one story after another, from the Five Books of Moses through the works of the prophets, we read of accountability and the withholding of automatic forgiveness.

Heavenly pardon is predicated on sincere repentance. God is willing to overlook the sins of the past for the sake of an altered future. He is ready to pardon the most terrible wrongs for the price of remorse, regret and the desire for a new beginning. But the one thing God's forgiveness is unwilling to do is to condone vicious crimes by simply accepting them.

An unrepentant sinner mistakes God's mercy for permission to continue his ways. To forgive such a person isn't kindness; its cruelty to all those who'll be hurt by the evil that wasn't stopped before it could do more harm.

Forgiving people who don't personally atone for the sins makes a statement: Repentance isn't really necessary. Can anything be more immoral than encouraging evil by refraining from any condemnation of those who commit it?

More, only the victim of a crime has the right to forgive that crime. In this world, that makes murder unforgivable under any circumstance. And in the next? Not even God will forgive a killer who has not confessed his guilt and truly repented.

Robert Bowers takes pride in his murderous actions. I pray that no one becomes his accomplice by an un-earned gesture of forgiveness – an act of forgiveness which does nothing less than condone the unforgivable.

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