In both the old and new testaments, forgiveness plays a central role for the people of God. Most of the temple codes and laws in the Torah relate in one way or another to forgiveness, either God’s forgiveness of His people or His people’s forgiveness of one another. The cross has rightly become the symbol of forgiveness for Christians throughout the centuries.
When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray so the world would know they were His followers, He taught them a prayer in which one of the central tenets is to “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” Forgiveness is not optional for Christ followers. In fact, it stands as a primary virtue that defines Christian faith. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. In fact, true forgiveness is not fully possible apart from the work of the Holy Spirit. Platitudes like “just forgive and forget” not only trivialize the challenge of forgiveness, but also heap additional guilt on people struggling to forgive those who have hurt them. How can the people of God learn to forgive as Christ has forgiven us?
The film Dead Man Walking portrays the story of Sister Helen Prejean as she struggles to serve as spiritual advisor to Louisiana death row inmate Matthew Poncelet. Although fictional, the story illustrates Sister Helen’s real experiences ministering to convicts like Matthew. I love the beautiful and complicated way the film portrays Christian forgiveness. It also reveals at least three important truths about forgiveness.
First, I am reminded that in order for forgiveness to take place, sin must be taken seriously. In the film, other spiritual leaders remain unconcerned about Matthew experiencing forgiveness. Their primary concerns are that he partakes in the Eucharist (simply as ritual) and that he goes peaceably to his execution. But Sister Helen refuses to pacify him or bestow an empty blessing. She keeps working, talking, probing, and loving until Matthew—who consistently blames others for his horrific crimes—tells the truth about himself and his actions.
In a powerful moment of genuine confession, Matthew breaks down with Sister Helen and reveals the truth about his responsibility in the brutal murder of two young people. In that Spirit-filled moment of confession, Sister Helen looks at him, extending the grace of Christ. She quotes John 8:32, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Genuine forgiveness and absolution take place when Matthew faces the truth about himself.
Christians often desire forgiveness without confession of sin. Forgiveness requires that we take sin seriously. Humankind is very good at blame. When God finds sinful Adam hiding from Him in the Garden of Eden, He asks him if he had eaten from the forbidden tree. Adam replies, “The woman you put here with me, she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it” (Genesis 3:12). Did you catch that? Adam worked in a double-blame. He blamed the woman and her Creator for his sin. From the beginning, humankind has excelled at covering sin, ignoring our rebelliousness, or shifting the blame for brokenness to others. Forgiveness cannot begin until we recognize, name, and confess the ways we have been hurt and the ways that we have hurt others.
Second, forgiveness means moving toward reconciliation and not just retribution. The ancient concept of justice focused on restoring balance in the world. For most people, however, justice is more about retribution.
In Dead Man Walking, the devastation wrought on the families of Matthew’s victims overwhelms. But even more horrific is how their anger and bitterness begin to define their existence. Both families work diligently for, and finally get to witness, Matthew’s death as punishment for his actions. But as is always the case, retribution fails to bring longed-for peace.
Which leads me to my final observation. Forgiveness takes practice, or more precisely, it takes practices. My favorite quote from the movie is toward the end when the father of one of the victims encounters Sister Helen after Matthew’s funeral. Still filled with hate, he tells Sister Helen he wishes he could move on, but he simply doesn’t have her faith. She responds with some exasperation, “It isn’t faith. It’s work!”
In that one brief line, the contrast between Sister Helen and the others in the film becomes clear. Sister Helen isn’t a model of Christian forgiveness because she believes in God more than others. She isn’t some kind of “super saint”—far from it. Sister Helen embodies forgiveness and grace in the most challenging of circumstances because she works every day at peace and reconciliation. In small and large ways, she works at and practices forgiveness.
Becoming people of forgiveness requires our participation in the Spirit-filled practices of forgiveness. Forgiveness in the most challenging moments occurs only when we have learned to forgive in the small moments. John Wesley led his Methodist small groups to begin their weekly encounters with the question, “How have you sinned since the last time we got together?” How much better would the people of God be at forgiveness if we took sin seriously enough to practice confessing and forgiving one another?
Dead Man Walking ends with Sister Helen and the victim’s father kneeling in prayer. Forgiveness isn’t easy. It takes work. But it is one of the primary qualities that define us as Christ’s disciples. He forgives us our debts and we, by His grace, work at forgiving our debtors.
T. Scott Daniels, Ph.D., is dean of the School of Theology at Azusa Pacific University and senior pastor of First Church of the Nazarene of Pasadena. firstname.lastname@example.org