It’s Too Soon to Ask Forgiveness

Jacob Neusner is a professor of religious studies at the University of South Florida and professor of religion at Bard College

If you lost a daughter to the pre-pubescent snipers in Jonesboro last week and came to church for solace this past Sunday, you found only confusion. The message being preached was not why does a loving and just God permit evil in the world? It was a demand for Christians to forgive the children’s murderers.

Surely the grieving families, the community of Jonesboro and the nation are puzzled over the enduring mystery of monotheism: Why is there such evil in the world of the one and only, the all-powerful, loving and just God? The preachers didn’t deliver the message that we cannot explain what happens but have to accept and be grateful for what we have had--the lost children and heroic teacher, the legacy of memory. Nor did they preach what is certainly the human challenge of the hour: acceptance, reconciliation, solace in hope for life to come and the classical Judaic and Christian response to death of accepting the gift of faith.

No, the message the preachers offered the grieving town and the world beyond was that right now, on the spot, we have to forgive our children’s murderers. How brutal.


That grotesque distortion of monotheism hardly exhausts available Judaic and Christian responses to the crisis of catastrophic death. When Cardinal Richard J. Cushing committed John F. Kennedy to the ground, he spoke of how, even at that hour, the murdered president was entering heaven. The Catholic message of resurrection finds its match in the Judaic response of acceptance of God’s justice and dominion. When the state of Israel buried Yitzhak Rabin, it was in the silence surrounding the words of the Kaddish, the prayer recited, among other circumstances, as a requiem affirming God’s rule. Cushing did not ask forgiveness for Lee Harvey Oswald nor did the Israeli rabbinate bless Rabin’s assassin.

But what defines the Protestant-Christian message these days? At the moment of grief, the Southern Baptists tell us only that forgiving the sinner defines the urgent spiritual task of this hour, as though hatred and recrimination defined the human situation of parents who have lost their innocent children, a husband his heroic wife, a town its purity.

In the heavy months to come, the mourners will find ample occasion for recrimination. Then sermons on forgiveness and reconciliation will find their occasion; surely not now.

But the reason for the inappropriate sermons heard Sunday cannot really be, as one of the ministers explained on TV, merely that the sermon had been written, so why compose a new one? It is rather what that particular Christianity finds to say, defining what it deems the spiritual challenge of the moment.

The Jonesboro message finds its match in Billy Graham’s dispensation of cheap grace to an unrepentant president. Bestowing a kind of preemptive forgiveness, Graham invokes charismatic sexuality to explain away the president’s circumstances: Women go wild and he gives in to temptation. The president need not confess or atone or ask forgiveness. It’s all done up front.

That’s not a religion, it’s an exercise in fatuity. I wonder what Graham will have to say to Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler, whom, by his theology, he will meet in heaven. After all, a place of such easy access in the no-fault-theology of the times surely can’t keep out anybody.

On Sunday TV, responding to the same tragedy, a political conservative spoke of evil in the world and a political liberal of “rooting out the causes” for two youngsters’ premeditated acts of murder.

When the country turns to politics, politics rehearses its familiar routine. But surely we had reason to expect of religion a message that matched the moment.