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to forgive, divine

to forgive, divine


by Tom English


One of the most difficult concepts in Christianity is forgiveness. Perhaps that is because we almost always talk and think about forgiveness in the noun form, keeping us grammatically at arm’s length from the requirement “to forgive,” the verb form. We are required to forgive as we have been forgiven just as we are required to love just as we have been loved. And like love, to forgive and to be forgiven are not feelings, but actions. In fact, love and forgiveness cannot be separated. To love is the will to extend one’s self for the nurture of one’s own and another’s soul. And so it is to forgive. To forgive is an act of love.

The relatives of people slain inside the historic African American church in Charleston, S.C., earlier this week were able to speak directly to the accused gunman Friday at his first court appearance.

 “I acknowledge that I am very angry,” said the sister of DePayne Middleton Doctor.

“But one thing that DePayne always enjoined in our family … is she taught me that we are a family that love built. We have no room for hating, so we have to forgive. I pray God on your soul.”


To forgive is a decision, a hard one, not a feeling.


But the legal system grinds on in its pursuit of retribution. The South Carolina Solicitor General announced that she will seek the death penalty for Dylann Roof.


“… We repent of the evil that enslaves us, the evil we have done, and the evil done on our behalf…” In Advent, when my parish uses this alternate confession, I reflected on what it means to “repent of the evil done on our behalf.” I better understand the evil that enslaves us and the evil we (I) have done, but what about the “evil done on our behalf?” Immediately unjust wars and, for me, the death penalty jump to mind, followed by an immediate feeling of powerlessness. What can I do?


My ministry as a deacon at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Eugene has taken me and this congregation out of the pews and into Oregon jails and prisons for almost seventeen years. I could not help but think about what repenting “the evil done on our behalf” means for Christians in the context of a criminal justice system so broken and so brutal as to be a public scandal. When an offender is executed and someone pronounces that “justice was done,” they cannot be speaking of God’s justice, because God’s justice must always include forgiveness and mercy. Just as love and forgiveness cannot be separated, neither can love and justice. John Dominic Crossan, in his book, The Greatest Prayer (HarperOne 2010), describes this relationship best:

We speak of human beings as composed of flesh and spirit or of body and soul. Combined, they form a human person; separated, we do not get two persons; we get one corpse. Think, then, of justice as the body of love and love the soul of justice. Think, then, of justice as the flesh of love and love as the spirit of justice. Combined, you have both; separated, you have neither. Justice without love or love without justice is a moral corpse. That is why justice without love becomes brutal and love without justice becomes banal.”


My reflection was not on the morality of the death penalty, however as important that issue is, but on the lesser known, relentless brutality of a criminal justice system that sucks the souls out of judges and staff, inmates, victims, families and communities on a daily basis. This also is evil done on my behalf, perhaps more insidious because it gets no headlines, no “news at eleven.” It is routine, normal. God’s justice does require that offenders be held accountable, that victims be restored and communities be safe places for God’s people. And it would be naive not to recognize that some offenders are too dangerous to return to the community. But God’s justice must also be executed in such a way that is restorative and healing for victims, offenders and communities.


How did our criminal justice become so broken? Who is to blame? The answer for me is I am, we all are responsible. Christianity itself also bears significant responsibility for the use of incarceration. Seen as reform from torture and capital punishment, prisons were built throughout the United States in the mid-1800s with the intention not only of incarcerating but also improving prisoners through a mixture of work, discipline and personal reflection. But when the reform movement died, prisons became out of sight and out of mind for most Americans. We were glad they were there because they made us feel safe. But we paid scant attention to what went on inside the walls. Underfunded, understaffed and increasingly over-crowded, our prisons became warehouses or worse where inmates are punished. As members of the Church and of a polity where citizens are sovereign, we are called not only to be compassionate to those who violate our laws but to seek a justice which truly protects our communities, restores victims and holds offenders accountable while not blunting their chance at reconciliation with brutality.


The church has the tools to first acknowledge responsibility and call for reforms necessary to create a truly restorative criminal justice system. As a Church we meet, we teach and we preach. We have sent our people into prisons and jails to work with both inmates and staff. We have helped offenders return safely and successfully to our communities. We have provided care and comfort to victims. But is not enough. Repentance offers us the opportunity to right the wrong and to forgive ourselves for waiting too long to act. We are created free in the image of a freedom-loving God. “To take that freedom away from people is to exercise an awesome responsibility because it strikes at the heart of human dignity and identity. So the first thing the biblical record invites us to recognize is the exquisite pain imposed by imprisonment; why it hurts so much, and thus invites us to use great caution in resorting to it.


There are things we can and, as a Christian must do, to repent the evil done on our behalf. Not to act is to be complicit.

  • As people of God we can add our voices, and that of the Episcopal Church, to the growing recognition of a broken and brutal criminal justice system. We can educate ourselves and, as citizens, demand humane and effective reform.
  • We can visit the prisoners. If your state is like Oregon, roughly 40% of prisoners receive scant or no visitation at all. Recent research demonstrates that even casual visitation make a positive difference in prisoner mental health and success in returning to community. In Hebrews13:3 we are told, “Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.” In Matthew 25 Jesus identifies himself with those in prison, so that those who care for prisoners actually encounter the anonymous presence of Christ. “I was in prison and you visited me.”
  • Finally, we must take action to meet those returning to the community with generous hospitality and the resources they need to make a successful re-entry into our communities.


If we focus prayerfully and lovingly on these three elements, we are actively repenting.



The Rev. Deacon Thomas R. English is Co-Chair of the Episcopal Diocese of Oregon Prison Ministry Commission.








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JC Fisher

A further thought (continued from my response to Nancy, above) about support:

Not just anyone CAN visit a prison. I’m not talking about physical, or even legal barriers, I’m talking about psychological/emotional/even spiritual ones.

I was a prison visitor for a time. While I learned a lot (am grateful for the experience), I stopped when I realized I wasn’t able to persist in it, in a psychologically healthy way [The woman who helped the prisoners escape in New York State, is an extreme example of what can happen]

Christ commands us to love one another, and he gives visiting prisoners as a concrete example of the love. But those who do this ministry need on-going SUPPORT of everyone who doesn’t/can’t. What are we in the church doing to support prison visitors?

Philip Snyder

You can support various prison ministries and/or after care ministries. For example, the Kairos prison ministry is an ecumenical ministry (and one I have been involved in for over 20 years) that doesn’t just have a “come to Jesus” weekend, but actually supports the inmates during their incarceration by coming back to meet with them. One of our Kairos volunteers in Texas started another program, “One Man’s Treasure” that collects used clothing to give to men who are released and don’t own a decent set of clothes in which to go to job interviews and/or work. There are many other ways to visit those in prison. You can’t just show up and ask to visit a random inmate; you have to be on an approved visitation list. But you can write prisoners (you letters will be read as well as the inmates responses to you). You can also support direct care ministries that donate toothpaste, deodorant, etc. to the incarcerated.

As I tell people when they ask how they can support sending me to prison (with a smile on my face), I say that they can pray (and sign up to pray), they can play (by joining a team and/or coming to the closing servie), or they can pay – by providing the ministry the financial means to operate. (A typical Kairos weekend costs about $13k).

Philip Snyder

I have been involved in prison ministry for over 20 years. Our criminal justice system is very broken. One reason is that District Attorneys and other prosecutors are rewarded, not based on the truth coming out, but on convictions. DAs often make multiple charges for the same offense and then urge the defendant to “cop a plea” rather than going to trial. This is recorded as a “confession” and is a plus in the DAs history.

After a person is incarcerated, the dehumanizing process continues as correctional officers (who do a very difficult and dangerous job for little pay and zero recognition) often treat the inmates like animals – because that is safer than treating them like human beings. A maximum security prison is geared to protect society from some very bad actors, but does not protect the inmates from those same actors. Gangs are rampant and prison often becomes a graduate level education in breaking the law.

In addition, the prison system often further harms the inmates by forcing them to pay even more for things like phone calls, commissary food, etc.

I have seen (and talked with and prayed with) the worst of the worst. I have also seen these worst changed by the overwhelming love of God.

Given that the topic of this post is, primarily, about forgiveness, I want to share the Kairos prison ministry forgiveness ceremony.

On Friday, we speak quite a bit about accepting God’s forgiveness. Many of the men believe that what they have done is so bad that it cannot be forgiven. We try to let them know that there is NO sin that cannot be forgiven and that God wants to forgive them. That is His nature. We tell them that THEY are the Pearl of Great Price that God gave everything He had (His Son, Jesus) to purchase.

On Saturday of the weekend, we talk about forgiving others. Just as the participants are the Pearl of Great Price, so are their enemies. We hand out pieces of paper for them to write down names of others they need to forgive.

The last exercise on Saturday evening is the burning of the lists. Each man (if he wants to) comes forward and offers his list into a large cast iron woc with an empty coffee can in it. Then one of the clergy members of the team speaks about being forgiven and forgiving others and how the two are intertwined. He then lights the lists on fire.

When I am privileged to lead this ceremony, I will speak of the smoke rising to heaven as our “burnt offering” to God – the aroma of which shows our desire to offer to God our unforgiveness so that He can help us forgive others and to be forgiven.

It is very powerful and a very holy moment. I have had gang leaders cry in my arms as they realize that they can be and have been forgiven.

Rod Gillis

Thanks so much for posting this comment!

Ann Fontaine

Nancy – thanks and yes there is a point of saying – “no more” – forgiveness can be an acknowledgment of the reality of the past and not to enable abuse going forward. You have been faithful to the truth.

As to what can be done on a larger scale – perhaps studying other countries and their justice and prison systems to so other possibilities.

Nancy Platt

My son has been in prison for 18 0f 26 years for robbing a motel with a gun. He had been in prison before. He is one of those drug addicted felons who has no sense of honesty. I have followed him in almost every prison in my state and others. I decided when he threatened to sue me for the money we had set aside for his help when he was released that after 40 years I had had enough. You are right prisoners often do not get visited and some of the reason is because their families have “had it” with the whole mess. He’s on his own when he gets out as I will be 84 and unable to do it any more.

Philip Snyder

Nancy – I am saddened by your experience and I know many of the sons of which you speak. Often when one person is incarcerated, the entire family is punished – often by being shamed by the very people they should be supported by. You can often feel alone and cut off from society – just as cut off as your son.

If I may be so bold, Kairos has a program for wives, mothers, sisters, etc. of incarcerated inmates called “Kairos Outside.” I’ve known many women who attended and were touched by the love and grace and acceptance offered in Jesus’ name. Many (if not most) of the women team members also have a son/father/husband who is incarcerated.

JC Fisher

Nancy, I don’t judge you at all. I am struck, however, that YOU have probably had precious little outside support in your family’s extremely painful circumstances. Where IS the church here? (To say nothing of civic society, beyond the legal system?)

Rod Gillis

A very engaging point of view. Many of the issues discussed are equally applicable to Canada, where our current government has been using a “tough on crime” agenda, over crowding prisons, and equating justice with retribution, as part a slick wedge politics agenda.

I’d like to have more from (deacon) Tom English. What is the relationship between the notion of forgiveness and the notion of redemption? Forgiveness can be extended even if there are no outward signs of redemption. However, might the offer of forgiveness by a victim contribute to a sense of redemption for a perpetrator? Redemption, of course, does not mean the absence or avoidance of consequences; but it seems to me that the holding on to the notion that redemption is always a possibility is as important as forgiveness.

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