Attorneys general and state’s attorneys across the nation must think they’ve been given special selective powers by the post-resurrection Jesus.
How else can we explain why they decided to forgive the sins of those who have inflicted great suffering across the nation and around the world?
My assumption is that these legal authorities believe Jesus had them specifically in mind when he said, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven those sins; and if you don’t forgive the sins of any, those sins remain unforgiven” (John 20:23).
This represents an old problem in church history.
Early on, those with high offices in the primitive church held that they alone had the power to forgive sins and refused to share it with the rest of the faithful.
The issue reappeared in Protestantism, when the Reformers interpreted the words of post-resurrection Jesus to apply to all the faithful as a part of their commission to preach the Gospel.
The Council of Trent reaffirmed that this power to forgive or not to forgive could only be exercised by an ordained priest through the Sacrament of Penance.
In the end, the ramifications of being forgiven or remaining unforgiven have to do with the possibility of leading a fairly fulfilled life-in-community or being condemned to a life of deadly isolation.
“The Financial Crisis Inquiry Report: Final Report of the National Commission on the Causes of the Financial and Economic Crisis in the United States” provides detailed and damning evidence of the sins of those associated with the banking, investment and rating services, as well as related industries.
The report concluded: “The crisis was the result of human action and inaction, not of Mother Nature or computer models gone haywire.”
Yet the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission referred only “a handful of cases involving potential wrongdoing to the Justice Department.” It is generally conceded there won’t likely be any criminal charges, only civil investigations.
Most Americans have to swallow hard to sputter “all is forgiven.” Clearly the very industries that caused such great suffering and loss have been given a pass.
Profits are rising in these sectors despite the fact that the economy is recovering slowly. Financial reserves are piling up despite a lack of money in the economy to fuel job growth. Executive salaries are climbing despite the incomes of the lower and middle classes remaining flat.
That kind of forgiveness was dished out to the most privileged of Euro-American descent, who caused millions of others to endure sustained suffering. Compare that with the plight of largely African-Americans and Latino-Americans, who have been imprisoned over the last three decades for the crime of drug use inflicted mostly on themselves – as opposed to selling or dealing drugs to others.
Talk about the unforgiven!
In “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” Michelle Alexander wrote that when the war on drugs was declared, illegal drug use was actually on the decline. Once declared, the arrests and convictions skyrocketed.
“The impact of the drug war has been astounding. In less than thirty years, the U.S. penal population exploded from around 300,000 to more than 2 million, with drug convictions accounting for the majority of the increase. The United States now has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, dwarfing the rates of nearly every developed country, even surpassing those in highly repressive regimes like Russia, China and Iran,” she wrote. “The racial dimension of mass incarceration is its most striking feature. No other country in the world imprisons so many of its racial or ethnic minorities.”
Although illegal drug use is fairly uniform across all segments of the population, African-Americans are about 9 percent more likely to be imprisoned than Euro-Americans.
For those convicted of drug crimes, there is no forgiveness once a sentence has been served. They are permanently prohibited from receiving food stamps, living with their families in public housing, receiving public assistance or securing employment because of their criminal record. It is a life sentence that has the consequence of their landing back in prison.
Normally, I don’t have a lot of sympathy for those engaged in illegal drug use. I’ve never taken an illegal drug in my 69 years and am firm in my commitment to remain “clean.”
I’ve become convinced that drug abuse, while probably a sin, is not a crime for which there is no forgiveness. It does represent a serious health issue, especially for addicts, and as such deserves a constructive response from health communities.
If illness is something one needs to be forgiven for, then I’m fully prepared to have such health treatments be creative ways for us to forgive those who are harming themselves and thereby those who love them.
That, however, still leaves the question open of what we should do with those who mete out injustice through selective forgiveness.
Here I reaffirm my Reformation and democratic commitments. Forgiveness, whether grounded in God’s mercy or in the provisions of constitutional democracy, rests not with a set-aside priesthood but rather with we the people, especially we the people who have experienced forgiveness for what are surely our religious and civic sins.
It requires of us – we the people – our own selective forgiving and unforgiving of those who abuse not so much the drugs of illegal substances but instead – and a lot more often – the drugs of greed, prejudice and power.
Larry Greenfield is executive minister for the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago. He also serves as editor and theologian-in-residence for The Common Good Network.
Larry Greenfield retired on Dec. 31, 2018 as the executive director of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. He served previously as executive minister of the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago, a regional judicatory of the American Baptist Churches U.S.A, and the theologian-in-residence for the Community Renewal Society.