“And Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ And they cast lots to divide his garments.” Luke 23:34, ESV
He was betrayed into the hands of his enemies by one he had allowed into his inner circle, one who, even at the last, he singled out for favor in offering bread. The religious teachers he had met over table fellowship and openly debated, indicted him in a twilight trial that made a mockery of even their idea of due process. A brutal Roman governor caved to political pressure, sentencing him to death. He was mocked, spit on, crowned with thorns, and brutally flagellated, where his back was turned into hamburger (Mel Gibson’s The Passion was no exaggeration of the brutality he endured). He was forced to carry a heavy cross piece to the place of his execution, weakened though he was. He was stripped of clothing, utterly humiliated. Nails were driven into wrists and ankles. What was brutal about crucifixion was that the way one hung made it difficult to breath. To get a good breath mean raising oneself against the spikes through one’s ankles and wrists.
Crucifixion was a political act to terrorize subject populations. Words alone struggle to capture the brutality of all that Jesus underwent. So many kinds of human evil from betrayal to cowardice, to cravenness, to banal delight in torment, to the executioner’s efficiency come together in the last twenty-four hours before the death on a Friday afternoon.
And then the prayer pleading for their forgiveness. We may wrap this up in our atonement theology that Christ died that all may have the possibility of forgiveness, which is utterly, and unbelievably true, as I read it. But to say these words in the midst of such agony, in the face of such brutality and mockery, injustice and betrayal, when to all appearances the people who put Jesus to death knew very well what they were doing, were utterly culpable for their acts–this staggers my imagination.
Yet isn’t this how it is with all the evil we and others do? We know what we are doing, and yet we don’t fully grasp what we are caught up in, whether it is the web of our own hidden motivations and fears, or the external natural and supernatural powers of evil into which our acts play.
Those who follow Christ believe the dying act of forgiveness indeed broke the power of evil, a power that exacts a punishment or a vengeance for every wrong. The Forgiving One in word and act takes punishment and vengeance upon himself and bears it to death.
Do we believe the word of forgiveness and “they know not what they do” for the ISIS bombers in Ankara and Brussels and their compatriots who even now are likely plotting further evil? Do we believe the word of forgiveness for those closer to home who may have deeply hurt us? Do we believe the word of forgiveness for ourselves, who in our most honest moments wish we could erase many deeds from the record of our lives, and perhaps have done more ill than we know?
The forgiveness of enemies is hard. None of this mitigates efforts to prevent someone from causing further harm. Nor is forgiveness the same as reconciliation which involves a truthful and genuine admission of wrongdoing. Forgiveness is hard because it means bearing the wrong done against me on myself and putting it away, dying to the option of obtaining either judgment or vengeance against the other. Forgiving ourselves is hard because it means giving up on either justifying ourselves, or trying to pay back what can’t be repaid, to undo what can’t be undone.
For Christ followers, forgiveness has been done before us, for us, and in us. And the Christ who died and rose wants to forgive through us. The scriptures tell us that we have a choice between living in a forgiveness world and a world of vengeance and punishment. The world we choose for our enemies is the world we choose for ourselves as well. I know the choice isn’t easy. Perhaps all we can do at times is acknowledge the challenge and ask to be helped to begin on the road to forgiveness, and even to the love of our enemies. A former colleague of mine just posted an article that included this prayer from the Book of Common Prayer that may help us take the first step on the road:
O God, the Father of all, whose Son commanded us to love our enemies: Lead them and us from prejudice to truth: deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge; and in your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Perhaps there is no better day than today to begin praying that prayer.