This year on Sunday 5 August—and on the first Sunday of August every year—many people around the world observe International Forgiveness Day. Although the observance is not connected with any specific religion, organizers note:
”Most world religions include teachings on the nature of forgiveness, and many of these teachings provide an underlying basis for many varying modern day traditions and practices of forgiveness. Some religious doctrines or philosophies place greater emphasis on the need for humans to find some sort of divine forgiveness for their own shortcomings, others place greater emphasis on the need for humans to practice forgiveness of one another, yet others make little or no distinction between human and divine forgiveness.”
Since much of CNEWA’s world is home to the three great monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—it’s worth considering how each of these faiths treats the notion of forgiveness.
The three religions all differentiate between God’s forgiveness of humans and human beings forgiving each other. Each of the three monotheistic faiths strongly emphasizes that God is merciful and ready to forgive.
In Judaism, this idea recurs repeatedly. Almost like an antiphon, the phrase “tender and compassionate, slow to anger, rich in graciousness and ready to relent” (Joel 2:13) is applied again and again to God in the Hebrew Bible. The entire book of the Prophet Jonah is dedicated to God’s mercy.
In Christianity, God’s mercy and forgiveness are a constant theme of the preaching of Jesus. In the New Testament, God is presented as a loving Father who is always ready to forgive. In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus’ connects the forgiveness of God with our own readiness to forgive: “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”
In Islam one finds the Ninety-Nine Beautiful Names of God. They are God’s titles and characteristics. The first two names of God for Muslims are: rahmani and rahim, “the Most Merciful, the Most Gracious.” For Muslims these are the two primary and most important characteristics of God. Of the 114 chapters of the Qur’an, all of them except one (Chapter 9, al-Tawba) begins “In the Name of God, the Most Merciful, the Most Gracious.”
Of course, almost all religions have a form of the “Golden Rule:” do unto others as you would have them to unto you. Nevertheless, forgiveness of those who harm and offend us is treated slightly differently in the three monotheistic traditions. Part of this may be due to the fact that the Hebrew Scriptures and the Qur’an contain legal material and are concerned in some cases with retributive justice. In these scriptures, the action of the offender is important: the offender must repent and ask for forgiveness. The Qur’an 42:41 is, however, instructive here. After reiterating the Law of Talion (an eye for an eye, etc.), it adds “but whoever forgives and brings about reconciliation, his reward is with God.”
But in Christian teaching, the New Testament is unique in its call for “gratuitous forgiveness.” In Matthew’s Gospel (6:14-15) Jesus connects his followers’ willingness to forgive with God’s willingness. When in Matthew 18 Peter askes Jesus how often he must forgive, Jesus responds “seventy times seven” or indefinitely. .” In Matthew 5:43-48 Jesus demands something unique in the monotheist faiths: love of one’s enemy. Jesus challenges his followers to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. In Luke 6:27-35 he expands the challenge and says “love your enemies and do good, lend without hope of return.” While dying on the cross Jesus asks God to forgive his executioners, although they clearly have not repented of what they are doing.
In our world today, mercy and forgiveness are needed perhaps now more than ever. There is a saying which is attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, the great Indian pacifist: if it is an eye for an eye, it won’t be long before the whole world is blind. Gandhi recognized that while forgiveness is very difficult and at times seemingly impossible, it is ultimately in our own self-interest too.
The world in which CNEWA works has seen more than its share of evil and violence. Genocidal attacks against Yazidis in northwestern Iraq, persecution of Christians and other religious minorities, destruction of churches, monasteries and sacred places, rape and slavery as tools of war and other atrocities are all crimes which cry to heaven. The drive towards vengeance can be very strong and very understandable.
But regardless of how strong or how understandable, vengeance must be resisted and must give way to mercy.
Wherever we work, CNEWA tries to be promote understanding, rebuilding of relationships, reconciliation and forgiveness — not only on International Forgiveness Day but every day.
In the words of a well-known commercial: it’s what we do.