Can You Forgive Someone Else’s Enemies?

I have written from time to time about the concept expressed in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, “Forgive everyone for everything.” It is a quote taken from the fictional Elder Zosima, but it is certainly a sentiment well within the bounds of Orthodox Christian thought. I have been challenged from time to time by people arguing that we cannot forgive those who have not sinned against us – that this right belongs only to the victims involved. I believe this is profoundly untrue. But to understand why, it is necessary to look deeply into the meaning and function of forgiveness.

I should add as an aside that those who argue loudly that they cannot forgive some else’s enemies find little trouble in blaming someone else’s enemies. They do not think this to be beyond their reach.

What happens when we forgive? A very important example is found in St. Mark’s gospel:

Then they came to Him, bringing a paralytic who was carried by four men. And when they could not come near Him because of the crowd, they uncovered the roof where He was. So when they had broken through, they let down the bed on which the paralytic was lying. When Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven you.” And some of the scribes were sitting there and reasoning in their hearts, “Why does this Man speak blasphemies like this? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” But immediately, when Jesus perceived in His spirit that they reasoned thus within themselves, He said to them, “Why do you reason about these things in your hearts? “Which is easier, to say to the paralytic,’Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say,’Arise, take up your bed and walk’? “But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins”– He said to the paralytic, “I say to you, arise, take up your bed, and go to your house.”  (Mar 2:3-11)

What sin did Jesus have in mind when he forgave the paralytic? Had the man done something wrong to bring a punishment of paralysis upon himself? There is no such indication. Indeed when Christ healed the man born blind He was asked who had sinned, the man or his parents such that he was born that way. Christ says, “Neither.” But it would seem clear from the greater context of the gospels that Christ could have said to the man, “Your sins are forgiven,” and he would have received his sight. There is a simple conclusion to be drawn from this: forgiveness is not, strictly speaking, the remission of a legal debt or wrong that has been done. It is far greater.

There are parallel passages in the gospels regarding the forgiveness of sins:

If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained. (Joh 20:23 NKJ)

and

Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. (Mat 16:19 NKJ)

Forgiving is “loosing.” Refusing to forgive is “binding.” The imagery of loosing and binding helps move the imagination away from a legal construction. When we sin, or even when we are involved in sin, we become bound. There is a binding that occurs because we ourselves were the cause of the sin. There is a binding that occurs because we ourselves were the victim of a sin. There is a binding that occurs because we simply witness the sin. There is even a form of binding that occurs to the whole of humanity because of the diminishment of even one of its members. If everyone were somehow only responsible for their own actions the world would be quite different. As it is, the action of one involves the binding of all. Adam’s sin has left us bound ever since. We are not being held legally responsible for Adam’s action. We are existentially and ontologically bound by Adam’s sin. Through his sin, death enters the world, and all men die (Ro. 5:12).

And just as there is a binding that occurs in each of these things, so there is a loosing that is appropriate to each. Obviously, the injury that a victim suffers binds them far tighter to their enemy than someone who is at a remove. And such a loosing is greater and represents a greater spiritual effort. But that effort is itself impeded by the refusal of all around to share in the loosing. And just as the refusal of all around impedes the loosing, so the participation of others makes the loosing easier.

These things are difficult to understand if we insist that all of reality is, at best, psychological or legal. But the death of Adam is not shared in a merely psychological or legal manner: we all die. And the resurrection of the Second Adam is shared in a manner that encompasses the whole of creation. The Paschal Canon contains the verse: “Let us call brothers even those that hate us, and forgive all by the resurrection.” It is a perfectly strange thing to sing unless we understand the true nature of forgiveness – and how it is that the Resurrection of Christ makes it possible for us to forgive everyone for everything.

Of course, it jars us to hear that someone dares to forgive the killer of a child. “Only the child could offer such forgiveness!” These words were spoken by Ivan Karamazov as he professed his refusal of God’s mercy. He demanded justice for an injured child. Forgiveness that works by justice is no forgiveness at all. Forgiveness is not the child saying, “What you did to me is ok.” It is loosing the bonds that are forged in sin. The forgiveness of sin is the trampling down of death by death – an act of radical, undeserved resurrection. 

We often think that not forgiving someone is only destructive for them. But the lack of forgiveness is often equally devastating for a victim as well. I had opportunity some years ago to be involved with a Victim-Offenders Reconciliation Program. In it, mediators helped work to bring restitution and reconciliation for various crimes. I eventually became involved with efforts of ministry with families that had suffered a murder (as had my family). The darkness of the crime extended mercilessly beyond the victim alone. Forgiveness was the only way forward. Murder is the triumph of a lie. Forgiveness is the triumph of an even greater truth.

It is striking how utterly central forgiveness was to the ministry of Christ. It dominates almost everything He did. Many observe that He kept company with “sinners.” But He first and foremost forgave them. Their loyalty and devotion to Him flowed from the spiritual loosing that they found in Him. A woman “who was a sinner,” bathes Christ’s feet with her tears and anoints them with fragrant spices. Those around Him are offended. But He says:

Therefore I say to you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little. (Luk 7:47 NKJ)

I cannot make your enemy be reconciled to you, nor can I do for you what you alone must do. Your enemy is yours to forgive. But he is mine as well, and the bond of unforgiven sin that links my life to his is still mine to loose. It is for this reason that we are bidden in the wisdom of the Fathers to forgive everyone for everything. Anything less is a bondage of destruction. Forgive all by the resurrection.

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