A reader writes:
As an individual I have no business forgiving someone who has harmed other people, not me directly. Perhaps the relatives of those who were murdered on 9/11 feel like forgiving him, then that is their choice, or their gift to be able to do so. But I think it is dishonorable for people to hand out forgiveness when others were hurt so horribly. Also in the case of a mass killing, can one forgive for all the other people who were killed, not only one's own? It is of course also not the business of government to forgive. For our government capturing and/or killing Bin Laden was a question of policy.
I'm sorry, did I miss something? Did bin Laden actually ask for forgiveness?
Loving and forgiving our enemies are different things. Loving our enemies is a base-line duty of Christians. Forgiveness is a response to people’s acts: forgiveness must be sought. Admission of error and guilt – acts of penitence and repentance – are necessary preludes to forgiveness. After all, God Himself loves all sinners, but He will still send them to Hell if they fail to admit to/repent of their sinful nature and ask Him for forgiveness.
I think it’s safe to say that bin Laden never repented or regretted the murders he ordered; and so while Christians may be obligated to love him as a fellow human/sinner, we are under no obligation to forgive him for his acts.
As an ex-Catholic, now apatheist, I disagree with Catholic theology. However, I give the Church full marks for having centuries of experience with practical human pyschology. Thus, I believe it has some good insights into the subject of forgiveness.
In the Sacrament of Reconciliation, there are several requirements before God, acting through the agency of the priest, will forgive sins. First, one must confess, with specificity, what one did. Second, one must acknowledge that it was wrong. Third, one must express genuine contrition and sorrow for the wrong. Fourth, one must perform penance to make amends for this wrong. Fifth and finally, one must sincerely resolve to never commit such wrongs again. Then, and only then, can one receive forgiveness from God, according to the Catholic Church.
I think these requirements make sense when a person is called upon to forgive other people, not just in the Confessional box. What works for God, works just as well for me and thee. This is the standard I now apply to myself and to others when forgiveness is called for. To ask for forgiveness, is to ask a very great deal. The standard is set high for the penitent. If the standard is not met, forgiveness is not forthcoming.
Osama bin Laden did admit with specificity that he was responsible for 9/11 and many other attacks. However, he never acknowledged that these acts were wrong, nor did he express genuine sorrow for them, nor did he perform penance, and he certainly never resolved to never commit such acts again. Therefore, I do not believe that Christians or any people are "required" to forgive bin Laden.
C.S. Lewis said a lot of things better than I will ever say them. You probably know his chapter on Forgiveness in Mere Christianity, but here it is anyway. I especially like the idea that if we want "to learn how to forgive, perhaps we had better start with something easier than the Gestapo."
I prefer the words of Reinhold Niebuhr:
Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.
My own view is that the imperative of Christian forgiveness is one enunciated by Christ on the cross. He forgave even those who nailed him there. It's a humanly impossible standard. But it is humanity at its highest moral incarnation.