Christianity Is Meant To Be an Alternative to Violence.
Jesus came and stood in the room where the disciples were for fear of the Jews . . . . He said to them, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so am I sending you.’ After saying this he breathed on them and said: ‘Receive the Holy Spirit, for those whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven; for those whose sins you retain, they are retained. (John 20:19-22)
These words from the gospel according to John have been interpreted for Roman Catholics as the occasion on which Jesus gave his priest-apostles the power to forgive sin.
Yet Scripture gives every indication that, in the days after the crucifixion, the disciples who gathered in a locked room for fear of the Jews were not just the eleven named apostles (Judas, of course, was dead), but an unspecified number of the followers of Jesus — men, women, and children. It was this larger, mixed gathering that heard these first words of Jesus after his resurrection: “Receive the Holy Spirit; whose sins you forgive they are forgiven, whose sins you retain they are retained.”
The meaning of Jesus’ words expands if we hear him enjoin on all of his followers a commitment to the profound truth to which his death/resurrection have just given witness: if you forgive sin it loses its power over you; if you refuse to forgive, or if you exact revenge and call it “justice” — the sin will remain within and among you.
If we had the courage to believe it, says Jesus, the same Spirit who inspired him to demonstrate the healing power of mercy and forgiveness could release our abilities, genius, creativity to provide meaningful alternatives to violence in our legal system, in politics, in economics, and in human relationships.
Alternatives to violence require not only individual effort, but serious group and societal effort, enormous energy and commitment. Thus Jesus’ admonition to seek alternatives to violence and justice was addressed to an entire community. These early Christians quickly became known for their love of one another, and surely included the way they responded to each other’s needs for healing and forgiveness.
In the period of history in which Jesus lived, the many individuals who were branded and killed as criminals might easily have been pushed to desperation, rebellion, crime, or even insanity by the cruelties in their social system, by a grinding poverty, by crimes committed against themselves and their loved ones. It is difficult for us to see that our present social order might do the same for many whom we brand today as vandals, criminals, felons. When the unsafe streets are our streets, when the endangered possessions and lives are our own, it is difficult to look inside to find our own or our community’s complicity in the criminal behavior.
When our society, our justice system kills those who commit murder and violence, do we not all join the ranks of those who take life violently, however careful our society is to make that kind of violence appear legal? We will at least have made a start if we let ourselves pause to consider that harsh judgment, punishment, revenge and retaliation are as destructive to those who are in the right as they are to the wrong-doer.
An attitude of non-retaliation has the unnerving effect of forcing us to look at the offender as at another human being. If we can’t slam a prison door between us, if we can’t throw the hangman’s hood over a criminal’s face, if we can’t order a battalion to attack, we must look at the offender and take the chance that the anger, desperation, frustration, or sickness revealed in those eyes may reflect our own; may reveal that we, too, have guilt, that we, too, are wrong-doers, that we are an active part of a society that isolates people, impoverishes people, oppresses people, closes its eyes to the suffering of its poor and helpless, pushes some people to anger, desperation, even insanity.
Once we begin to look beneath the surface of the violence in our world, it becomes less and less obvious who is guilty and who is the victim. It becomes increasingly obvious that we all are victimized by crime, yet we also share guilt for the criminal’s behavior. Thus, the primary response is not to build larger prisons and higher walls around our secured townhouses, nor to call out our armies, but to call on all of our intellectual, emotional, and spiritual, as well as our political and economic resources to eliminate that violence in which we participate.
When we Christians actually listen to Jesus when he said “Whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven,” we realize he wasn’t ordaining a few with power over sin. He was speaking to all of us about the power of forgiveness and the danger of refusing to forgive : The sins we forgive will be removed from our midst because we will have attacked sin at its source: within our own hearts; however, the sins for which we insist on exacting revenge take root in our hearts and they will remain within us, our homes, and our society, and will continue to haunt us.