Belmont Club

The Unforgiven

The man who shot Jimmy Hoffa, or so he himself says, was Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran, who told author Charles Brandt where, how, and when he put Hoffa down in a book based on his deathbed confessions. He told Brandt that his chief qualification for killing Hoffa was that Hoffa trusted him. Which kind of tells you what kind of guy he was. But the most intriguing part of the story is how, after he had committed more than a score of murders for the mob, Sheeran figured he could still square things with God. Brandt writes:

During his final illness … he told me he had made his confession and received communion from a visiting priest … the following day, a week or so before he lost strength and stamina, Frank Sheeran asked me to pray with him, to say the Lord’s Prayer and and Hail Mary with him, which we did together.

Some of the reviewers at Amazon were struck at how Sheeran would try to con God and get a “shot” at heaven. Now, before anyone on the Left starts to laugh at religious manias, let’s hear it from Hugo Chavez, that paragon of Marxism. The Wall Street Journal reports:

Concern about Venezuela President Hugo Chávez’s health grew Friday amid reports the cancer-stricken leader will seek emergency medical care in Brazil, a day after the president broke down during a religious service and begged Jesus Christ to grant him life.

Mr. Chávez, who faces a potentially close presidential contest in October, made his plea during a televised Catholic Mass in his home state of Barinas Thursday. “Give me life, even if a life in flames, or in pain, it doesn’t matter,” Mr. Chávez said as grim-faced family members looked on and clapped.

Or as it goes in Spanish, “Dame vida, aunque sea vida llameante, aunque sea vida dolorosa, no me importa.” Chavez was almost echoing Fyodor Dostoevsky, whose character Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment said almost exactly the same thing: “let me live; any which way, but let me live.”

“Where is it?” thought Raskolnikov. “Where is it I’ve read that someone condemned to death says or thinks, an hour before his death, that if he had to live on some high rock, on such a narrow ledge that he’d only room to stand, and the ocean, everlasting darkness, everlasting solitude, everlasting tempest around him, if he had to remain standing on a square yard of space all his life, a thousand years, eternity, it were better to live so than to die at once! Only to live, to live and live! Life, whatever it may be!…How true it is! Good God, how true! Man is a vile creature!…And vile is he who calls him vile for that,” he added a moment later.

The problem with forgiveness is that it runs counter to human notions of revenge and justice. A search through the Internet will bring up such such nettlesome conundrums as Can God forgive the Nazis? Inevitably someone online argues that the problem of forgiving the Jew-killers is analogous to the false problem of forgiving the Christ-killers.

Dostoevsky once again is there before us. He understands that accepting the possibility that vile deeds could be forgiven is so revolting that we would rather condemn ourselves than accept so unjust an outcome. Ivan in Brothers Karamazov maintains that a world in which forgiveness was possible is one in which God condemns himself. Here’s the famous argument from the chapter “Pro and Contra”:

“I must have justice, or I will destroy myself. And not justice in some remote infinite time and space, but here on earth, and that I could see myself. … I want to see with my own eyes the hind lie down with the lion and the victim rise up and embrace his murderer. I want to be there when everyone suddenly understands what it has all been for. All the religions of the world are built on this longing, and I am a believer. But then there are the children, and what am I to do about them? …

“It’s beyond all comprehension why they should suffer, and why they should pay for the harmony. Why should they, too, furnish material to enrich the soil for the harmony of the future? …

“From love for humanity I don’t want it. I would rather be left with the unavenged suffering. I would rather remain with my unavenged suffering and unsatisfied indignation, even if I were wrong. Besides, too high a price is asked for harmony; it’s beyond our means to pay so much to enter on it. And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I am bound to give it back as soon as possible. And that I am doing. It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return him the ticket.”

“That’s rebellion,” murmured Alyosha, looking down.

Rebellion it has of necessity to be, for as CS Lewis puts it, we are not so innocent ourselves. “Only, I think, by remembering where we stand, by meaning our words when we say in our prayers each night ‘forgive our trespasses as we forgive those that trespass against us.’ We are offered forgiveness on no other terms. To refuse it is to refuse God’s mercy for ourselves.” In the end Ivan’s cry is truly one of defiance. “God if you exist, why did you make me thus?”

But for Sheeran and Chavez, the question may be more basic. “Only to live, to live and live! Life, whatever it may be!” What could forgive someone with so vile a desire as that? Perhaps the greatest obstacle to faith is not in accepting the possibility of a loving God so much as in believing that anything could exist which could love us.

(Thumbnail on PJM homepage by

How to Publish on Amazon’s Kindle for $2.99
The Three Conjectures at Amazon Kindle for $1.99
Storming the Castle at Amazon Kindle for $3.99
No Way In at Amazon Kindle $3.99, print $9.99

Tip Jar or Subscribe for $5

Join the conversation as a VIP Member