Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.

My father taught me how to pray the Lord’s Prayer when I was a little girl—much too young to understand what trespasses or forgiveness meant and too young to read the words in the Bible for myself. I’ve also taught the Lord’s Prayer to my children, for two main reasons: because I promised I would at their baptisms, and because my father taught it to me.

Forgiveness is an inescapable aspect of the human condition, touching nearly every facet of our lives. Yet it seems as if the concept of God’s forgiveness has been co-opted by pop culture, which has left it somewhere between a buzzword and a spiritual practice. For people of faith, forgiveness is more than a self-help step to a better you. Forgiveness is a sacred, miraculous activity of divine origin.

However, when we hear news stories of heinous, racist acts of violence, an expectation for forgiveness often follows closely. Witness these examples.

On June 17, 2015, white supremacist and ELCA Lutheran Dylann Roof entered Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church (often called “Mother Emanuel”) in Charleston, S.C. He sat with church members for about an hour during a Bible study. After gaining the trust of his fellow Christians, Roof, hoping to initiate a “race war,” executed nine members of Mother Emanuel.

As I look back over 20 years, I don’t recall demands to forgive Osama bin Laden and the perpetrators of 9/11.

After this massacre, the families of the Emanuel Nine were immediately asked about forgiving Roof. It’s almost as if this faith community needed to prove its readiness to forgive in order to demonstrate its right to pursue justice in a domestic terrorist attack.

In 2018, Amber Guyger, a uniformed, off-duty police officer in Dallas, mistakenly entered the apartment of Botham Jean, a Black man, thinking it was her own. When she saw Jean sitting on his couch, eating ice cream, she assumed he was an intruder. She shot him twice, killing him.

During Guyger’s trial, Jean’s brother, Brandt, declared his forgiveness of her and said he didn’t want her to go to jail. He was praised by some as being an ideal Christian.

More recently, during the trial and sentencing of Derek Chauvin, I had numerous conversations and interviews during which I was asked about forgiving him.

Fortunately, forgiveness and justice aren’t mutually exclusive. They may be both/and. We can forgive someone and still hold them accountable for their actions. Isn’t that what God’s justice requires of us?

I’ve prayed the Lord’s Prayer nearly every day of my life, and I’m still not sure I fully comprehend what our Savior means when he teaches us to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

As we stand in the shadow of 9/11, I notice an absence of conversation on forgiveness. As I look back over 20 years, I don’t recall demands to forgive Osama bin Laden and the perpetrators of 9/11. What strikes you when you hear the words “forgive bin Laden” or “forgive terrorists”?

Perhaps it sounds more palatable coming from our Savior. Jesus encourages us to “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you … pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27-28).

To be clear, forgiveness can’t erase pain, nor does it eliminate the need for justice. Injustice doesn’t escape God. And forgiveness isn’t easy or instantaneous. But whether we choose to move toward forgiveness or not, forgiveness remains God’s gift to us, and the spirit of God empowers us to share that gift.

I’ve prayed the Lord’s Prayer nearly every day of my life, and I’m still not sure I fully comprehend what our Savior means when he teaches us to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

I may not know exactly what God’s forgiveness is, but I am sure what it is not. Forgiveness is not a weapon to be wielded against people who have experienced generations of oppression. Nor is forgiveness a distraction to deter members of the nondominant culture from speaking truth to power or seeking God’s justice this side of eternity.

We are able to forgive our enemies not because we feel like it or because we are so good and holy, but because Jesus entered humanity and, through his life, death and resurrection, brought forgiveness to the entire world.

Angela T. !Khabeb
Angela T. !Khabeb is a pastor of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Minneapolis. She enjoys an active home life with her husband and three children. 

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