My recent blog articles on forgiveness as well as my article, “Remembering the Past and Building a Better Future,” have led to discussions with people on the subject of accountability. The question at hand is “does forgiving someone mean they are not accountable for their actions?”.
The question of accountability comes up in discussion of sexual abuse of children by clergy (the same can be true of any organization working with children). Such abuse was not handled well to say the least. Before continuing, `please allow me to take a moment to say such abuse should never happen and, to anyone who has been a victim or knows a victim of clergy abuse, I am sorry. I pray for you. Saying I’m sorry is not much but please know that I mean it sincerely.
The perpetuators were “sent away” for treatment and then given new assignments without any public acknowledgment of the terrible act done. Thus, accountability was severely lacking at best.
We are to be a people of forgiveness. However, forgiving someone does not mean people are not to be held accountable for their actions. It begins with making amends. For example, if one steals, one is to make amends for the value of what was stolen if possible. Forgiveness does not release from making amends when possible.
Some feel that the Church’s position against the death penalty fails to hold the killer accountable for the murder. In arguing against the death penalty, the Church is not releasing the killer from all punishment. When a murder has been committed, the killer should face an appropriate punishment. However, that does not require a death sentence. It is true that we read in Leviticus 24:20 an “eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The same injury that one gives another shall be inflicted in return.” Jesus responds to that in Matthew 5:38-42. We should not seek revenge.
Amish people have a reputation for forgiveness. Kraybill, Nolt, and Weaver-Zercher wrote, Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy” (Published by Jossey-Bass in 2007). In Amish Grace, they discuss the Amish perspective on forgiveness reflecting on the Amish response to the shootings at an Amish school in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. It is a very good book. In the introduction the authors state, “Whereas in forgiveness the victim forgoes the right to vengeance, pardon releases an offender from punishment altogether” (xiv). Forgiveness and pardon are related but are not the same.
How do we view God’s abundant forgiveness? Do we take it for granted and knowingly commit sin? Do we think that God’s forgiveness means that we are not accountable for our actions?
The Amish do believe than crime comes with consequences (75). The author goes on to say:
“Nonetheless, because they believe that the state is ordained by God to maintain order in the larger world, they expect that the state will organize a police force, imprison lawbreakers, and conduct war. “We fully expect a killer to go to jail,” said an Amish elder. “We’re not naïve. We would never want a killer turned loose,” added a deacon. “It’s the government’s job to punish evildoers.” As the tragedy unfolded in Nickel Mines, the Amish readily accepted the intervention of the police and thanked them profusely for their help” (170).
Our journey to eternal life begins in Baptism. In Baptism, salvation is given to us. Can we lose that salvation? There are those who say, “once saved, always saved.” The reality is that we continue to sin after Baptism. To sin is to reject God. Let us be thankful that Jesus died and that God makes reconciliation possible as we confess our sins in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
God’s forgiveness does not give us free reign to do whatever we want. For instance, we are expected to keep our word. We should not say we will do something when we never really intended to do it. The Eighth Commandment to not bear false witness is still in effect. Jesus himself says, “Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’ Anything more is from the evil one” (Matthew 5:37). If we lie, we might be forgiven. However, even if we are forgiven, there are still consequences to our lie, trust is lost.
Jesus says “Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘yes’.” We are to keep to our word. For example, when we accept a job, we accept the obligations that go with that job. If we marry, we don’t get to choose the terms of marriage. Marriage means commitment and fidelity. When we fall short, woe ask for the grace to do better.
Yes, Jesus dies so that our sins might be forgiven. To be forgiven, we need to be repentant, we need to be sorry for our sins. That means we pray that we sin no more. In fact, when we make our Act of Contrition in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we say to God, “I firmly intend, with your help, to do penance, to sin no more, and to avoid whatever leads me to sin.” We may sin again. When we do, we rejoice that Jesus calls to forgive not just seven times but seventy-seven times (see Matthew 18:22). In fact, God will forgive us countless times as long as we are repentant and firmly intend to sin no more.
That does not mean we are no longer accountable for our actions. As I said before, we must make amends where possible. We can also work for change. For instance, while it is sad that it took a public scandal to get things to change, the Catholic Church has made drastic improvements in policies regarding abuse, both in the handling allegations from the past and prevention for the future (there is still work to be done). Other organizations like the Boy Scouts have also made big changes towards prevention of abuse going forward.
If you have acted with anger, greed, or lust towards another, you cannot undo what has been done. You can work to change your behavior in the future.
If you have not honored your parents in the past, you cannot change the past but you can work to do better in the future.
If you have had an abortion in the past, you cannot change that but is there a way you can help stop abortion in the future?
Do you find it difficult to change? You don’t have to do it alone. Jesus says, “For human beings it is impossible, but not for God. All things are possible for God” (Mark 10:27 – see Mark 10:17-31).