According to a recent survey conducted by the Michigan-based Fetzer Institute, more than 60 percent of Americans feel the need for more forgiveness in their lives. And more than 90 percent feel the need for more forgiveness in our country.
Ironically, the study also found a striking level of unforgiveness from this same group. In fact, the survey found that most Americans believe that there are some behaviors for which there is no forgiveness. Interestingly, most of these behaviors involve criminal activity.
This doesn’t surprise me at all. After 35 years in the ministry, I have long noticed a sort of class system among sinners. I heard a man speak in a church after winning a long battle with drug addiction. His addiction cost him his career and his family. He also spent some time in prison where he went through a drug rehab program and became a Christian. The church welcomed him with open arms.
But let someone commit a violent crime, or God forbid, actually kill someone. They can go through all the programs and conversions they want, but it is very unlikely you will ever hear them speak from the pulpit of a church on a Sunday morning.
Richard Snyder, academic dean at Bangor Theological Seminary, formerly served as professor of theology and ethics at New York Theological Seminary. While there, Snyder volunteered to teach classes in theology in Sing Sing prison. His time there put him up close and personal with some of America’s most hardened criminals.
What he took away from that experience, however, was not a deep resentment for the criminal class, but a renewed sense of compassion. He detailed his awakening concerning the plight of prison life in his book “Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Punishment,” in which he argues that a lack of grace on the part of Christians in America contributes to a culture of punishment for those who break the law.
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Snyder bemoans not only the contribution that Christianity makes to this spirit of punishment, but also to a lack of interest in bringing help and healing to those in prison. Christians seem more interested in “getting even,” Snyder says, than in “making well.”
This “overly retributive spirit,” as Snyder puts it, leaves an inmate with no hope. If they are forever condemned to live as a member of an unforgiveable class of people, where is the hope that life can be different for them? If they are told that because of their crime they are forever rejected by God and out of reach of God’s love and forgiveness, where is the motivation for change?
And this remains true even after a prisoner’s term has been served. Alabama, along with several other states, refuses to restore voting rights to convicted felons even after they have paid their debt. We continue to punish them even after they have done everything the law said they had to do to pay for their crime.
In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus teaches us to say, “Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Jesus concludes by saying, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.”
Maybe that’s why there are so many people who feel the need for more forgiveness. They can’t experience forgiveness because they won’t grant it to others.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.