An essential companion teaching to Jesus’s primary teaching on radical love is what He has to say about radical forgiveness. Forgiveness is difficult for most of us, because most of us feel that being harmed by someone creates an imbalance; and simply forgiving out of the goodness of our hearts doesn’t really fix it for us. In some cases, civil or divine judgment and punishment seem together to restore that necessary balance, while in other cases we can wrestle down our indignation and reluctantly forgive and try to get along. But Jesus wants us to learn to forgive every wrong in an immediate, wholehearted, and radical way that fills that sense of imbalance with our radical love, as if nothing ever has been lost at all. Radical forgiveness is a corollary to radical love. It works with it, and at least at first it will make sense to us only in conjunction with it; but as a stand-alone, radical forgiveness feels to us like too big a gift to give until after we have learned to match it with a whole lot of radical love.
While it likely does not surprise you to learn that Jesus is a big fan of love and forgiveness, it may surprise you very much to learn that Jesus did not have to die to save you from God’s judgment for your sins, because no such sacrifice ever has been necessary. No matter what you may have done in your life, God has forgiven you for it, immediately and completely. God’s forgiveness is automatic, and it always has been, and Jesus tells us that plainly in the Gospels. Those words have been there in the Christian Bible all along, and still Christianity has insisted on making us feel guilty about Adam’s sin, and also about Jesus’s crucifixion. Why else do Catholic churches have crucifixes hanging all over them, if not to make us feel ourselves to be somehow at fault?
Here again are those words from Jesus in black and white, or in red and white if you have a red-letter Bible; and they have been part of the Christian Bible for the past two thousand years. Jesus says, “For not even the Father judges anyone, but He has given all judgment to the Son, so that all will honor the Son even as they honor the Father” (JN 5:22-23). Jesus then goes on to tell us in the same Gospel of John that He doesn’t judge us either: “If anyone hears My sayings and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world” (JN 12:47). It is moments like these that make you wonder whether anyone ever actually reads the Gospels. If God never judges us, and Jesus never judges us, then the whole Christian notion that Jesus died for our sins goes out the window.
Forgiving people who steal from you or who otherwise do you wrong is difficult, and yet Jesus insists that we must always and immediately forgive every wrong. His disciple Peter asks Him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Jesus says to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven” (MT 18:21-23). In the Lord’s day, seven was a magical number meaning “a lot,” so “seventy times seven” means something like, “so much that you needn’t even bother to ask.”
And we must not judge! Jesus says, “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; and do not condemn, and you will not be condemned; pardon, and you will be pardoned. Give, and it will be given to you. They will pour into your lap a good measure—pressed down, shaken together, and running over. For by your standard of measure it will be measured to you in return” (LK 6:37-38).
“But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two” (MT 5:39-41).
About the only thing that Jesus tells us is truly unforgivable is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit – against God, in other words. “And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man, it will be forgiven him; but the one who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him” (LK 12:10).
Forgiveness is love’s handmaiden. And those who follow Jesus and have been inspired to put love and forgiveness together have been able to soar to some amazing heights! Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., combined Jesus’s teachings on radical love and radical forgiveness, and he was able to bring down the whole era of Jim Crow in the American South. Dr. King wrote, “To our most bitter opponents we say: ‘We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws, because noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. Throw us in jail, and we shall still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom, but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.’” This is from Dr. King’s essay, “Loving Your Enemies.” And Dr. King wrote from experience, since his enemies had lately bombed his home with his wife and infant child inside. As is true of Mahatma Gandhi and others, Dr. King proved that the teachings of Jesus on radical love and radical forgiveness work together in practice amazingly well!
The more resolutely you learn to practice radical forgiveness, the more easily you will find that you also can love. Together, Jesus’s teachings on radical love and radical forgiveness create a peace-weapon of such extraordinary leverage and power that it is doubtful that anything can prevail against it, provided that those who resolve to use it have the courage to persist in using it well.