"We pray for the victims today, may they rest in peace," Pope John Paul said last week, on the first anniversary of Sept. 11. "And may God show mercy and forgiveness for the authors of this horrible terror attack."
Mercy and forgiveness? For the men who coldly plotted and pitilessly carried out the slaughter of thousands of human beings? How can the pope seek God's pardon for such monsters? How can he imagine that God would grant it?
Now, I am an admirer of this pope. "An abiding commitment to truth has been a hallmark of John Paul's stewardship," I once wrote and still believe. I am sure that an honored place awaits him in Heaven for his role in undoing the Soviet empire, one of the most awful engines of cruelty in human history. The pope is a decent, feeling man who understands quite well the enormous suffering that tyrannical zealots are capable of inflicting on the innocent. In praying for forgiveness for the hijackers, I know he does not mean to minimize the hideousness of their crime or the agony of those they martyred.
Nonetheless, his prayer is an affront.
For forgiveness must be earned. It is no part of Christian compassion (or Jewish or Muslim compassion) that forgiveness be extended automatically, no strings attached, to someone who has committed a terrible sin. There is a term for the notion that forgiveness is a freebie that sinners are entitled to as a matter of right: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Protestant theologian killed by the Nazis, called it "cheap grace."
Yet countless Christians embrace cheap grace. They believe their religion requires them to forgive every offense and pray for every offender, no matter what the offender did or even whether he wants to be forgiven. No crime is too heinous, no cruelty too monstrous, to qualify for this instant absolution. In 1997 I wrote about the Rev. Jon Miller, who preached at a Martha's Vineyard church one Sunday when President Clinton was in attendance.
"I invite you to look at a picture of Timothy McVeigh and to forgive him," Miller said. "If we profess to be Christians, then we are called to love and forgive."
This attitude is worse than theologically unsound. It eats away at the very foundations of civilization. As Dennis Prager, who has written and lectured widely on ethics and religion, observes, "it advertises the amoral notion that no matter how much you hurt other people, even unto murder, millions of your fellow citizens will immediately forgive you -- and you don't even have to say you're sorry."
And what of the effect of all this easy forgiveness on the criminal's victims, or the victims' loved ones? When Michael Carneal killed three of his fellow high school students in West Paducah, Ky., a sign went up in front of the school the next day: "We forgive you, Mike." Wrote Prager: "If a child of mine were murdered at school, and my child's classmates hung out a sign announcing that they forgave my child's murderer, my despair would be beyond description." How many grieving 9/11 families were brought to fresh despair by the pope's misguided prayer?
Sundown tonight marks the start of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. Jewish tradition teaches that God does not forgive the pain one man inflicts on another until the victim has forgiven his tormentor. And He does not forgive in any case until the sinner admits his guilt and makes it clear that he regrets what he has done. "Let the wicked forsake his way and the unrighteous man his thoughts," urged Isaiah, "and let him return unto the Lord and He will have mercy upon him; and to our God and He will abundantly pardon."
This principle is as fundamental to Christianity as to Judaism. In the New Testament, Jesus tells his disciples, "If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him. And if he trespass against thee seven times in a day, and seven times in a day turn again to thee, saying, I repent: thou shalt forgive him" (Luke 17:3-4). Repentance must come first; only then is forgiveness possible.
But far from repenting, Osama bin Laden laughed at the bloodshed of Sept. 11. Far from expressing regret, Mohammed Atta urged his fellow hijackers to feel "joyful, happy, open of heart, and at peace" as they boarded the planes and set about committing mass murder. God does not forgive such men. He damns them.
As part of the Yom Kippur liturgy, Jewish congregations read the Book of Jonah, a story best known for the "great fish" that swallows the fleeing prophet. But its real message is the power of repentance. Jonah was sent to warn the people of Nineveh, "an exceeding great city," that because of their wickedness, God intended to destroy them. Instantly they were filled with remorse for their evil acts. They fasted and prayed and vowed to sin no more. When God saw their sincere contrition, He forgave them, and their intended punishment was revoked.
In the moral universe as in the physical universe, there is an order to things. Repentance comes before forgiveness, not the other way around. Those who forgive unrepentant evildoers make the world not a better place, but a worse one.