“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” Luke 23:24.
Words change in their connotations. Cool, for instance, means something completely different from what it meant fifty years ago, transforming from an observation about temperature to a description of alignment with the latest fashion. Fantastic, another changing word, once meant of or about a fantasy, but now more often means simply very good.
Regretfully, amnesty is one more word whose meaning has shiftedin the last few years. Amnesty used to mean to forgive, to wipe clean. Amnesty was an act of love and compassion. These days it is a politically charged word, and means to let undocumented immigrants apply for citizenship without risk of deportation, something many people these days consider a serious injustice.
Amnesty used to be a great word. To forgive another person and wipe the slate clean is a very special kind of forgiveness, one that exceeds our ordinary sense of the word. Often when we find the courage to forgive, it is a half-hearted gesture. “Forget about it” or “don’t worry about it” is closer to what we mean. We want to forgive, but the casual way we do it means we have not completely set aside the hurt we feel.
But to wipe the slate clean, to give the other person a complete, new start, is a rare gift. It deserves its own word. It is regrettable that politics has deprived our language of the perfect term for it.
On the cross, Jesus forgives his murderers, and does so with compassion. This is not a typical act of forgiveness, but rather an act of amnesty, a complete forgiveness. Jesus looks into the hearts of his killers and finds that they do not know what they are doing. He is giving them the benefit of the doubt, and in a very compassionate way: When he says he forgives them because they do not know what they are doing, he is implying that if his killers knew what they were doing, they would not be doing it. Their fault is not in being evil, but in not knowing good from evil.
In our human eyes, we may not see things the way Jesus does, but since Jesus is divine, we must take his intuition very seriously. Jesus is saying that his killers would have done the right thing if they had known what it was, even though in reality the right thing is the opposite of what they do.
Amnesty is the root, the wellspring, of true forgiveness. Forgiveness only God can give. To understand that humans, being children of God, are always good at their deepest level, is an insight only an infinitely loving God can have. In God's eyes, even our worst acts have some motivation in goodness — we cannot escape being good; we cannot completely reject God, no matter how hard we try.
Evil is not the opposite of good, it is the absence of good. And this is very different from the way we usually think of evil. Absence can be filled up. Opposite can only be destroyed. Thus Jesus is no destroyer, but a redeemer.
It is crucial that we all seek out, and mete out to others, pure forgiveness -- amnesty -- before our deaths. Only in this way can we be redeemed after death. In these Last Words, Jesus is offering just such amnesty to us.
This is a very optimistic view of evil; perhaps too optimistic for most people. Many people may have difficulty with the idea that creation is good and that evil is only a perversion of goodness and is not a thing itself. Evil seems so real. But it is true, if one thinks about it. Beauty and and ugliness are considered opposites, but they not two equal substances. Ugliness is the absence of beauty, but not a thing itself. Or take hatred, which is also not a thing, but the absence of love. We know this because love can fill up and remove hatred, and beauty can fill up and remove ugliness, but it doesn’t work the other way around. Beauty defines ugliness but ugliness does not define beauty. We never think of something beautiful as an absence of ugliness. We never think of love as the absence of hate. It simply doesn’t work that way.
So, while it is optimistic to think of evil not as truly existing but as being the absence of the attributes of God, it is a fair way to view creation. And since sin and evil are the absence of God rather than the opposite of God, it is through forgiveness -- amnesty -- that God can fill up evil, remove it, and render it harmless.
For a complete list of links to the seven essays on this topic, please go here.