The themes of forgiveness resound heavily in this week’s readings from Genesis 50, Psalm 103, Romans 14 and Matthew 18. Joseph forgives his brothers who had sold him into slavery; the Lord forgives us; the Lord tells us to forgive (or not pass judgment on) our brothers and sisters; and Jesus tells us to forgive each other 77 times in preparation for telling a parable about the master who forgave his servant.
The immediate lessons for all of us are obvious: God wants us to offer a spirit of forgiveness to each other whenever we can bring ourselves to do so. Again and again (77 times!) we should forgive, and forgive, and forgive.
But the readings also make clear that ultimately it is God and only God who can provide the ultimate forgiveness — that God, not us, is the judge of transgressions, and God who knows our hearts well enough to know if our remorse is genuine enough for us to truly seek forgiveness. (Repentance is an almost-always-necessary predicate for forgiveness, although God’s mercy is unfathomably deep and thus He holds within Himself the power to forgive whenever He pleases.)
There are times, though, when it is not in our power at all to forgive. There are times when the original transgression was not directly against us, or against us personally, but against others, or against society as a whole. In those times, it would be presumptuous for us to pretend to be offering absolution; we have no business providing — as it were — a “third party” forgiveness.
But what we can do, perhaps, is to help a transgressor find and open himself up to God, so that the transgressor, the sinner, can repent and truly seek the forgiveness that is God’s to give.
All of which leads me to a remarkable book about a remarkable, ongoing, faith-based endeavor. The endeavor is called Kairos Prison Ministry; as its name indicates, it is an organized program via which criminals (even ones who have committed heinous acts) are ministered to in a way that, if all goes well, will open their hearts to God. (“Kairous” is a Greek word loosely translated as “God’s special time.)
The book about Kairos (alas, I’m only a third of the way through it so far), Called to Heal the Brokenhearted, is written by my longtime friend, a former minister of the church I grew up in, the Episcopal Rev. William Barnwell. In it, he tells remarkable stories of volunteer lay ministers who visit prisons and help change the hearts of hardened criminals. The criminals aren’t faking: Prison wardens from across the country praise the program and cite statistics of a highly significant reduction of in-prison violence, or reduction of recidivism rates, among the prison populations in which Kairos has consistently operated.
The Kairos ministers aren’t there to offer forgiveness. That is not in their power. But they are there to open the convicts’ hearts to the love and grace of God — so that the prisoners can repent, and strive to make themselves able to accept God’s grace whenever and in whatever way God is moved to grant it.
The Kairos ministers do not minimize the crimes for which the men and women are imprisoned, much less excuse them. They are just there to act as vehicles through which God can offer His healing power.
(Before I go any further, let me be clear that Barnwell himself makes clear that Kairos is not heedless of the feelings of those hurt by the criminals: “The victims/survivors of crime must have a place at the table as prison reform is envisioned. While the survivors are not the focus of this book, I join with all who support them. I realized early on that I needed to understand what the victims of crime go through, especially the loved ones of those murdered.”)
To understand Kairos, it helps to know that it isn’t merely the province of woolly-headed liberal do-gooders. For four years, the president of Kairos Prison Ministry International was John Musser, a conservative former federal prosecutor who served at one time as a Republican National Committeeman from Louisiana. (I’ve known John for decades, and can vouch for his solid conservatism.) There really is no political agenda to Kairos, liberal or conservative; it’s pure Christian service to a population desperately in need of it.
Barnwell tells story after story of prisoners whose attitudes and lives were changed once they were introduced to God in the right way. In one, a prisoner names James, serving a life sentence for killing a cop (he claimed it was in self-defense), became such a trusted exemplar of decency that when another prisoner threatened the life of a prison guard by holding a “shank” at the guard’s windpipe, the warden put the whole prison on lockdown — except for James. They asked James to go serve as intermediary.
“It took James half an hour or so,” Barnwell writes, “but quietly and carefully he talked the inmate into handing over the knife.” He saved the jailer’s life.
We surely do not know which of our fellow humans will be forgiven by the Almighty. But we know He is a God of forgiveness, a God of grace. Where we can help till the soil in which that grace can be planted and grow, we not only help even the most hardened among us to discover our God of love, but we also expand within our own hearts the capacity to forgive.
And, in turn, to repent for our own transgressions and seek God’s forgiveness.
“Each of us will be accountable to God,” writes Saint Paul in today’s epistle. Such accountability is not to be avoided, but welcomed — for as the Psalm says, “As far as the east is from the west, so far He removes our transgressions from us.”
Give thanks for that, and say Amen.
Quin Hillyer is a veteran conservative columnist with a degree in theology. His faith-themed satirical novel, Mad Jones: Heretic, is due for publication later this month by Liberty Island Media.