There are two bedrock underpinnings of the Christian faith: belief in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting — admittedly a little hard to swallow — and the doctrine of forgiveness. Forgiveness comes easier because it doesn’t require belief in the supernatural, and you can do it yourself.
Almost immediately after Dylann Roof allegedly slaughtered nine parishioners of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., Christians stepped forward to forgive him. Most astonishingly, some of his victims’ relatives spoke out at Roof’s first court appearance and forgave him for his acts.
The relatives’ forgiveness may play a role in Roof’s sentencing. Because “victims’ statements” have wormed their way into American jurisprudence, they might save Roof from capital punishment.
But suppose we don’t want to forgive Roof? I don’t. It’s nowhere in my heart. Houses of worship aren’t always sanctuaries, but they should be. He killed people in the one place where they could reasonably expect to find shelter with their friends, with their beliefs, and with their God. His sick motives don’t interest me very much. I forgive him nothing.
Does the New Testament recognize an “unpardonable sin”? I think it does. The Gospels of Matthew and Mark both mention Jesus’ complicated battles with the Pharisees, the Jewish priests who felt threatened by his new teachings. The Pharisees accused Jesus of preaching Satan’s will; “He has Beelzebub.” (Mark 3:22).
Jesus counters that they have committed a sin subject to “eternal condemnation” — they have blasphemed against the Holy Spirit. He says the Pharisees, indeed all mankind, can sin, and can blaspheme against him, the incarnation of the Holy Spirit. But there is no forgiveness for denying the existence of God.
Isn’t this precisely what Dylann Roof did? By killing believers sheltered in what they understood to be the House of God? “Eternal condemnation” is a fate too good for this young man.
This opinion is an outlier, to be sure. Modern Christians “think the weight of Jesus’s teaching is that all sin is forgivable (seventy times seven in terms of how many times the neighbor’s wrong-doing should be forgiven),” according to James Bernauer, S.J., professor of philosophy at Boston College, alluding to the famous parable of the unforgiving servant.
Bernauer points out that forgiveness animates Christians even when evildoers don’t seek their absolution: “John Paul II forgave his attempted assassin, and I don’t think the latter had asked for forgiveness,” Bernauer wrote in an e-mail. “Did John Paul want to foster a community of forgiveness? That makes sense in terms of the words of the Lord’s Prayer, doesn’t it?”
In his 1976 book “The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness,” Simon Wiesenthal writes about a dying Nazi SS man who confesses to killing 300 Jews in cold blood, and asks for Wiesenthal’s forgiveness. Instead, Wiesenthal leaves the room in silence.
In 1976 and again twenty years later, Wiesenthal invited public figures to comment on his actions. Desmond Tutu reminded Wiesenthal’s readers that South African president Nelson Mandela, imprisoned for 27 years, invited one of his Robben Island jailers to his presidential inauguration in 1994. “Without forgiveness, there is no future,” Tutu wrote.
The German-born philosopher Herbert Marcuse opined that Wiesenthal acted correctly in withholding forgiveness from the dying man. “One cannot go around happily killing and torturing, and then when the moment has come, simply ask and receive forgiveness,” Marcuse wrote. “I believe that the easy forgiving of such crimes perpetuates the very evil it wants to alleviate.”
Dylann Roof’s victims aren’t here to forgive him, and we shouldn’t either.
Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.