Judgment or Forgiveness

I wrote this article, hoping that after nine years Reality magazine might be willing to take a risk and publish it. It didn’t get in, despite the best efforts of the acting editor. The ultimate authority question – “Did you get permission?” – was enough to keep it out.

Judgment or Forgiveness

The courage, and the commitment, of Pope Francis is a source of wonder to me, generally for the past eight years, but especially now. He is eighty four years of age – a full ten years older than myself – and he is experiencing increasing difficulty walking. And yet, while the pandemic is still widespread, and while many criticised him for going, he still went to Iraq. Even more amazingly, considering all the destruction and death that the people of that country have experienced, including years of savagery from Isis, years of oppression from a dictator, he still managed to speak a message of forgiveness. And he spoke it in such a way that, as far as I can ascertain, the people responded to him. A sterling example of preaching the Gospel ‘in season and out of season’.

While this was going on, we here in Ireland were conducting a very public judgment and condemnation of a racehorse trainer. Social media, as is its wont, was virulent. Many commentators, and talk shows, in the more regular media were also wallowing in condemnation. No punishment would be sufficient for the terrible crime committed.

I have little or no interest in horse racing. I didn’t happen to grow up in a region where that sport was popular, and my father never owed a horse of any type. I never placed a bet on a horse and I know nothing of Gordon Elliot, except to see his name in the paper and know that he has been a very successful trainer. What he did was wrong, but considering the widespread violence perpetrated against animals of all sorts, it hardly ranked among the more serious of offences. I suspect that racing people generally love their horses, but to think the industry is driven by anything more powerful than money would, in my view, be a mistake. 

In all of this, as I have said, social media has played a significant part. The hate filled comments that are to be found in Facebook and Twitter are very damaging. But we also have a multiplicity of talkshows on regular media that specialise in negativity and judgmental attitudes.

       The Elliot saga is only one of many public outrages we have experienced in recent years. Last year we had golfgate, which led to the hounding out of office of a man who would have been a significant voice for us during the Brexit negotiations, and who was badly missed. More recently we have had the widespread condemnation of nuns. Even as I write this the radio in the background is promoting an upcoming programme which promises again to specialise in condemnation, bordering on hatred. 

Many people do wrong, and some do terrible wrong, which has repercussions on the lives of others. Sometimes judgment has to be passed, and sentence imposed. But most civilised societies have systems and structures for doing this. It should not be left up to populist opinions of the more extreme type.

 If we are honest, all of us in one way or another do wrong. None of us is totally free from judgment and condemnation. Perfection is something that humans are not capable of reaching and sustaining. That reality would be a healthy awareness for each of us before we spring to condemn others. 

Forgiveness and compassion are fundamental to the message of Jesus, as Francis keeps reminding us. I don’t know that we in the Irish Church have successfully presented that message in recent years. We have been too absorbed in controversies over moral, and mostly sex-related issues. We also had to deal with incidents of clerical sexual abuse, which pushed us more towards judgment rather than forgiveness. Forgiveness of abusers was seen as facilitating and excusing them. That was somewhat understandable in the context of cover up and failure to act. So we ended up with what became know as zero tolerance. Now attitudes of zero tolerance are common in many areas of Irish life. 

I do believe in a life after death, though I find some of the traditional teachings about what to expect no longer credible. The notion of an Almighty God sitting on a throne ticking off the good and the bad of our lives and passing judgment is not what I anticipate. Neither do I expect zero tolerance. If that were the case there would be very little hope for any of us. For me the only believable conclusion to the life, teaching and death of Jesus is that we will be welcomed into eternity by infinite compassion and forgiveness, and that our ultimate destiny is to share in the love of the Divine Presence. 

I only wish we could display some more of these attitudes in this life, and turn away from endless negativity, judgment and condemnation. Apart from anything else forgiveness and an understanding of each other’s weakness would enhance our mental health.