Pardon? Or forgiveness?


The recent discussion of whether President Trump could pardon his family and himself got me thinking about how pardoning and forgiving are two contrary things.

A pardon protects someone from punishment for their behavior. Forgiveness seeks not to protect the one who has fallen short, but to touch them and to change them.

Pardoning erases an outward debt. Forgiveness transforms a person or a world from within.

A pardon moves on from the moment without requiring a price paid or a heart changed by the person involved. Forgiveness seeks to redeem and change the person and the moment.

Forgiveness isn’t about avoiding a punishment; it’s about reconciling and renewing relationships. Forgiveness transforms recrimination into reconciliation, division into unity. It replaces rejection with acceptance and hurt with healing.

A pardon? All that does is keep you out of jail.

Two different things

Forgiveness does what pardon can’t do because it originates in a totally different place. Pardon is rooted in the law and legality; forgiveness springs from the heart and is based on love.

Pardon keeps a record of appropriate punishment and then erases it. Forgiveness doesn’t count or keep track; instead, it offers unrestricted reconnection.

Pardon says you deserve punishment, and you should just be happy you’re not getting what you deserve. Forgiveness says you deserve love, and you are getting what you deserve.

It’s unfortunate that our concepts of pardon and forgiveness – two very different things – have been twisted around. We confuse one with the other, or we think that one substitutes for the other.

For example, we see it in the fundamentalist thread of Christianity. Forgiveness has been replaced by pardon, and legality rules instead of love.

It wasn’t that way in the beginning. Classic Christianity was much different, emphasizing love, compassion, reconciliation and unlimited forgiveness.

As Bible scholar Marcus Borg noted, the theory of “substitutionary sacrifice” didn’t become a main thread in Christianity until 1098. It was based on the feudal system of the time in which a lord couldn’t just forgive a servant who had disobeyed because it would encourage further disobedience.

Instead, a price was demanded to obtain a pardon. The substitutionary sacrifice theory reduced Jesus to a commodity in a business deal – someone dies, you get your pardon.

Essentially, God is depicted as a feudal lord who is incapable of actual forgiveness — if strings are attached, it’s not forgiveness.

Of course, the story of the prodigal son — proposed a thousand years earlier — reminds us of how forgiveness actually looks and acts. The ungrateful son returns home with no remorse – he’s not sorry, he’s hungry – and yet his father runs to him, embraces him, declares him a full son again and throws a lavish party in honor of his return.

Forgiveness has no strings attached

The son is warmly, passionately, happily forgiven. The father lavishes him with love and is ecstatic over their reunion. Why? That’s the nature of love. It seeks only to reconnect and transform.

The father also tries to transform the older son who complains that the wayward son is getting off without any sort of punishment. The father responds to the older son with nothing but love as well.

The parable’s point: No matter what we’ve done, we get forgiveness wrapped tightly around our necks like a hug. And there’s a party awaiting us with great food and drink and music and dancing.

The parable’s other point: Just as the father forgives both sons, we must forgive ourselves and each other the same way.

It means we pay attention to our shortcomings not to beat ourselves up or mete out punishment or earn some pardon; rather, we do it so that we can grow in love and learn how to join the divine party more willingly.

It also means that when we’ve hurt someone, we facilitate forgiveness by going to them and working it out. Those moments transform and heal.

Extending forgiveness is much, much harder than granting a pardon. Forgiveness involves great humility, vulnerability, and a willingness to heal anything that ruptures our relationships and ourselves.

A pardon spares someone from consequences without changing them. Forgiveness saves and redeems everyone involved by transforming them.

A pardon sidesteps love; forgiveness embodies it.


The great resistance


We all resist things, which isn’t necessarily bad. We resist things that are harmful to us. We also resist things that are good for us as well. We resist things that grate on us and things that challenge us.

Our list of “Things To Be Resisted” varies by the person and is subject to change over time. But there is one thing that I think we all resist pretty much all the time.

We resist love, every single one of us. And that’s no news flash. Let’s be honest: Love scares the hell out of us.

Love – the real thing – turns us inside-out and upside-down. It scratches parts of us we’d rather leave untouched. It nudges us to change and grow, and that’s not easy.

Love challenges our fears and insecurities and self-doubts. It scales the walls of our ideologies and our theologies and our philosophies, trying to pull us out of those safe little boxes we’ve built.

Above all, love challenges us to be who we are meant to be.


All of us experience love’s powerfully transforming touch at various times. We have indelible moments that stir something inside of us in a new way.

Love touches and scares us

For example, the first time you held your newborn child and were overwhelmed by that sense of limitless love. Or the moment when you finally fessed up about something horrible you’d done and the person totally forgave you without even a moment’s judgment.

Moments like those make us feel deeply alive and loved. And they scare us by tearing openings into our tough outer skin, the one that’s scarred from a lifetime of hurt and embarrassment and shame.

Love leaves cracks that allow all kinds of new stuff to enter. Love makes us open and vulnerable, and that’s terrifying.

It’s no wonder we most often take the “safe” approach. We build mini-fortresses around our hearts. We erect religious and social and emotional walls. We hide inside superficial relationships. We insist that we don’t really need any more love than what we already have – we’re doing just fine inside our little space, thank you.

Best to avoid it

We understand that love is like that wooden horse in some ways. If we let it inside, it’ll unleash a force that will be out of our control and change everything. We can’t have that.

So, we try out best to avoid it.

As part of the process, we choose independence as our guiding virtue. Avoidance becomes a lifestyle. We judge others and decide they don’t deserve our love. We deem compassion and forgiveness as signs of weakness.

It’s especially sad that much of our “religion” gets twisted into resisting Divine love instead of embracing it. We concoct elaborate reward-and-punishment systems built on the idea that people exactly like me are acceptable and everyone else should be rejected.

Or we decide that we must make arm’s-length deals with an uncompassionate creator who is incapable of love and forgiveness. Instead, love and forgiveness are turned into bargaining chips in a cosmic business deal – you do this, I give you that. And that’s the deal. No substitutions.

Of course, love and forgiveness never come with fine print or strings attached. We can never earn them through our effort, or lose them because of our shortcomings.

Love persists

Love isn’t a commodity. Forgiveness isn’t a purchase. Both are freely and unconditionally given to all. Everyone is deserving.

I wonder if our reward-and-punishment systems are so historically popular because the idea that we’re all loved scares the hell out of us. It totally upsets how we think about ourselves and how we treat others.

But here’s the good part: No matter how many ways we try to pull away from Love, it never pulls away from us. Love never gives up on us.

Love persists.

Our actions have no effect whatsoever upon Love, whether it’s our attempts to tame it through reward-and-punishment systems, or our attempts to subvert it through power and wealth and domination, or simply our innate human reluctance to let it get deeply inside of us and transform us.

Nothing we do changes Love in any way.

Even when we try to crush it and kill it and bury it out of our fear, Love always rises again, as strong and as beautiful as ever, determined to go on transforming us and our world.  Like it or not.

The truly good news is that our resistance is ultimately futile. And thank God for that.

Whose crayons are they?


I was sitting in a restaurant booth waiting for my food to arrive. A couple and their two small boys were seated across from me. The boys were about 5 and 3, I’d guess. The restaurant provides a bowl of crayons and drawings to occupy children until their food arrives. My attention was drawn to how the two boys went about coloring so differently.

The younger boy took a crayon from the bowl, used it, put it back, and swapped it out for a different color. By contrast, the older boy would use a crayon and lay it beside him on the table, keeping it handy for when he’d need it again. Then he would take another crayon, use it, put it beside him.

Soon the older brother had a big stash of crayons next to him and few were left in the bowl. The younger brother noticed and complained, “Hey, I need those!” The older brother put his arm around his stash protectively and said, “These are MY crayons!”

If you’re a parent, you’ve lived through this many times and you know what happens next. The mother intervened and told the older son: “Put those crayons back in the bowl! Those are not YOUR crayons. They were given to you to share.”

Yep. We have to share.

Sharing is challenging for all of us, isn’t it? We tend to build our stash and think it’s all ours. In the process, we lose sight of what underlies our life and our faith: Everything that we have and all that we are is given to us by God in order to share.

Instead, we worry about not having enough and build and defend our stashes. The truth is, we have so much! More than we need. We’re reminded when we have to move and we go through our closets and basements and marvel at how much we have. We wonder why we’ve held onto it when we could have shared with someone in need.

Or we’re walking down the street, worrying about how we’ll pay the bills, and we see a homeless person asking for help. We’re reminded: I have SO MUCH and this person has nothing. So what do we do? Stop, offer some money, a few kind words, a handshake.

We need to share.

Sharing doesn’t apply only to our stuff. In a sense, there’s something even more important to share – ourselves. Each of us has God’s DNA woven into us: The ability to love, to be kind, to heal, to laugh, to encourage, to forgive, to create. Each of us has a unique set of talents and abilities and life experiences. We have SO MUCH good stuff inside each of us, and we need to share it.

I think our challenge on this one might be in recognizing just how much we are and how much people need us. We can make a difference – in ways big and small – in so many lives.

And then there’s our time. We need to share that, too. Time is our fundamental gift, in a sense. The universe has been bumping along for a very long time without you or me being part of it. And it’s done quite well without us. You and me, we didn’t have to be part of human history. Ever. But at this point in time, God decided that creation was incomplete without us. We were given time. What do we do with it? How do we share it?

Understand, none of this is meant to cause anyone guilt. That’s not God’s way. Instead of being shamed, we’re offered an opportunity to love and to be loved. We’ve all had moments when we’ve shared – our money, our self, our time – and recognized how deeply it touched someone. In those moments, we feel good because we’ve had an experience of God, who is love.

Those moments remind us of who God is: An overly generous parent who gives us more and more of all this amazing stuff around us and inside of us each day.

Those moments also remind us of who we are, too: God’s equally beloved children, sitting side-by-side at God’s table, sharing an overflowing cup of God’s crayons.

Bullet holes and the radical welcome

Radical Welcome

The night started with a radical welcome and ended with 90 seconds of horror.

Every Wednesday night at 6 p.m. in Charleston, S.C., one of the oldest historically black churches in the country opens its doors to whoever wants to join them for a Bible study in the church basement.

Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church traces its roots to the days when black people were unloaded from slave ships nearby and sold as property. The church has been attacked many times by people who didn’t want black people treated as equally beloved children of God. Church members have been arrested, beaten and executed. A crowd of angry white people burned the original church to the ground in 1822.

And yet, this church that’s been so often hurt and abused by outsiders has continued to open its doors to outsiders every week. They invite everyone to come and join them, even people who don’t like them.

People like Dylann Roof, a young white man who walked through the front doors last June 17, joined an hour-long Bible study, and shot nine church members dead in 90 seconds. He killed people who were doing the most Christian thing – welcoming him, just as he was, into the very center of their church.

He accepted their radical welcome and responded with hatred. The very same kind of hatred that led Omar Mateen to walk into a gay nightclub in Orlando last weekend and kill 49 people. His unthinkable act left us all wounded and numb and confused.

Once again, we’re angry and wondering why we as a people have allowed our hatred and our violence to become the defining traits of our nation. We wonder how many more times someone’s spouse or parent or child is going to be slaughtered before we acknowledge that that the status quo is unacceptable and it must change now.

After a while, we grow weary from the body count. The gun lobby and bought-off politicians refuse to even talk about the carnage. It’s easy to slip into despair and anger, to wonder what we must do next.

And then we look to Charleston on a Wednesday night and see the doors flung wide open.

Something incredible happened there after the murders. Family members publicly forgave the killer. People filled the church the following Sunday — some sitting on the very spot where blood had to be cleaned from the tile floor – and proclaimed their commitment to compassion and forgiveness.

And the next Wednesday night, they did what they’d always done on Wednesday night. They held a Bible study. They welcomed anyone who was interested. This time, news reports say about 150 people of different races, different faiths, different backgrounds sat together in the same room where nine people had died and committed themselves to the Spirit of radical welcome.

The very place that had been filled with such darkness seven days earlier was filled with warmth and life and love. The topic of discussion that day: The Power of Love.


And then there’s the reaction to the Orlando shooting. Many people have revved up the hateful talk that influenced both Roof and Mateen. They insist that some people are just too dangerous to be around, too evil to accept. They must be dealt with severely.

Build walls to ease our fears, they say. Bar entry to anyone who comes from a certain country or a certain background. Lock the doors to those whom we dislike.

Contrast that to what’s going on at Emanuel. To remember the shootings a year ago, they’re asking people to participate in a day of kindness. Next Tuesday, they want each of us to do something kind for someone and tell them about it on the church’s website. They’re calling it: Acts of Amazing Grace Day.

They take seriously the stories of a Jewish rabbi from long ago, and they try to live the way he lived. They accept everyone, because that’s what he did, even when he was harshly criticized for it.

They live the Spirit of radical welcome.

This welcome thing: It’s not a popular notion, then or now. It’s part of what got the rabbi killed. It’s what got the Emanuel church burned down and bloodied up. The truth is, this radical welcome stuff is challenging and upsetting and dangerous. It’s much easier and safer to hide behind walls. It takes great courage and great love to open ourselves to others, but it’s the only way out of the deep darkness we’ve chosen.

Then and now, great love is the only thing that can overcome. It overcomes by showing a different way – a way that cleans up the blood and opens the doors wide again.

And changes everything, bringing life into a place of death and grace into a world that needs so much of it.