I started thinking about this post a while back on the last full day of Trump’s presidency. The last full day of a presidency is typically the day in which the more controversial presidential pardons are issued. The reason being that the outgoing president typically knows these pardons are going to have more political ramifications and they want to avoid as much of the backlash as possible. So they issue the pardons as they are going out the door. I, therefore, thought I would take this moment to talk about one of the aspects of pardons that I believe connects closely with forgiveness as articulated within scripture.
It is a bit of an oversimplification but presidential pardons typically involve a recognition of guilt.
I am not a lawyer, nor the child of a lawyer, so please bear with my analysis hear as that of a very ignorant layperson on the subject. What I know is that Burdick v. United States (1915) states that acceptance of a pardon implies a confession of guilt. Now there are other circumstances under which a pardon may be issued. For example, a pardon may be issued on the grounds that the person is now viewed as innocent or that the whole act was a miscarriage of justice. In addition, a person may have been legally guilty but morally innocent because the law was a bad law. I know there are other reasons but I want to focus on the recognition of guilt in regard to forgiveness because often those being asked to forgive can see such forgiveness as letting the perpetrator “off the hook” and even more often the perpetrator can hope that forgiveness is literally avoiding the rightful punishment for their actions.
Forgiveness implies guilt and that guilt needs to be recognized.
Of course, looking at and actually confronting our own sin is a difficult thing. It is so much easier to point out someone else’s sin than it is to acknowledge our own. I once ear Miroslav Volf say that it is always a work of the Holy Spirit when someone repents and acknowledges their sin because this is not something we typically can do in our own human strength. Forgiving someone is an act of taking back power, you, not them, are determining how you will respond to something someone else has done. Want an example of this? Watch Rachael Denhollander’s victim impact statement to Larry Nasher. There is nothing passive about that statement. It is an act of taking power back.
Repentance, on the other hand, is an act of vulnerability. It is opening yourself up to someone saying “No! I am not going to forgive you!” You can get hurt when you repent. I believe that is why it is so hard to do and so miraculous when it does happen. Laying our sin bare and truly admitting our guilt is incredibly difficult.
This is why the South African Truth & Reconciliation Commission was so powerful. The people who admitted to their crimes there weren’t “let off the hook.” No, they were seen clearly for the first time. They were no longer allowed the veneer of respectability. They were seen as murders and bigots because their guilt was made public for the whole world to see. There was no denying it any longer. This is why many decided they would rather face punishment than have the truth laid bare for all to see. Their sin being made public was simply too great a punishment for them to bear.
Like them, instead of admitting our own wrong we often would rather deny it, deflect to someone else’s error, or offer bland apologies that aren’t actually repentance. “I am sorry if your feelings were hurt.” There is no pardon that comes from such actions because no repentance has been made.
To be pardoned you have to recognize your sin. That is when we are really set free. That is when we receive the gift of forgiveness. We can be forgiveness without recognizing our guilt because that is the act of the one forgiving, but we never really receive the freedom that comes with forgiveness without acknowledging our error.
SIDE NOTE – none of what I just wrote is true for the turkeys that are pardoned each year by the President. To my knowledge those turkey have done nothing wrong, other than being delicious.