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Sunday, December 16, 2012

Forgiveness of Sins



One day after the most horrible crime ever committed in this country, the killing of twenty children in an elementary school at Newtown in Connecticut, a question comes to mind: How responsible are we for our sins? Are we going to be punished in the afterlife?  

For a moment, imagine that you have committed a horrible crime, but you were not aware of its gravity. A good example of this kind of situation is described in the movie “An American Crime“, a true story. A single mother of six, approximately from age seven to seventeen, hosts in her home two adolescent girls whose parents had to travel for work. The woman is good to her children, but she hates her life. She’s involved with a much younger man who uses her for money and sex, and she has to struggle to support her family. She starts to take out her frustrations on the two girls, and soon the prettiest one becomes her favorite victim. She
locks her in the basement and tortures her, telling her children that she deserves to be punished. All of them visit their victim together with their friends, and incredibly none of them fully realizes the horror that is being perpetrated on that girl. They take turns in torturing her, until one day she dies.

The thought that this really happened made my blood turn to ice. I wanted that woman and all those children 
to physically taste the pain they had inflicted on that poor girl. I wanted them to burn in hell. But then I tried to look at the movie with some perspective. The woman was obviously insane, or she would have realized 
that the parents of the two girls were going to return and find out about her crime. But she seemed to be oblivious of its implications, for which in the end not only she, but also her children were convicted. 
Those children… that is the most awful aspect of the story! None of them seemed to have a mind of their own. They thought what they were doing was OK because the adult in the house said that it was OK ( by they way, the whole family went to Mass every Sunday). So, ultimately, nobody was truly guilty, because they were all incapable of recognizing evil. Yet, if there is a divine justice, they ought to be punished for what they did.                                                                                                                              

Now imagine what would happen if, after we die, we would finally get in contact with our moral conscience. The awareness of a crime that we have committed, of the pain we have inflicted upon another human being, would be almost impossible to bear. That would be our punishment, it would be hell.

Let’s recall the only prayer that Jesus taught us, The Lord‘s Prayer: “ … forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors…”

 Maybe, in the afterlife, only the pardon of those we have offended will alleviate our pain. The good news is that they will want to forgive us, if they want God to forgive them. Nobody is completely without sin, not even a child. As soon as we acquire a sense of self, we become capable of faulty thoughts and behavior. If we have hurt many people, we won’t be able to heal until each and everyone of them will have offered us his or her pardon. Think of Hitler…he will certainly burn in his mental hell for a long time, as the millions of Jews he had burned in the gas chambers will slowly forgive him, one by one.

What does the New Testament say about hell? St. Paul never hints at an eternal life of punishment for the sinners. He seems to believe that they will perish at death, soul and body. But in the Gospels, a recurrent image for punishment is that of fire. Jesus speaks of Gehenna, the valley south west of Jerusalem where, during the monarchy, children were offered in sacrifice to an idolatrous cult. In the synoptic Gospels the verses about Gehenna come after Jesus, who is sitting with the twelve, place a child in their midst and put his arm around him. He says:                                                                                                                            
“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe (in me) to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.
Then he threatens the sinner with the unquenchable fire of Gehenna. The New American Bible explains that the little ones were probably the lowly in the Christian community, but in my modest opinion a warning against sexual abuse of children can be read in Jesus’ words. He hugs a child and he threatens the hypothetical sinner with the fire of the place where children were offered in sacrifice. He lived in a time when the Romans regularly sold children as sexual slave. They even had them perform in theaters together with prostitutes. I believe it makes sense to conclude that Jesus was identifying the abuse of the “little ones” as the most horrible sin, one to be punished with eternal fire.

There are people who have a hard time coping with the menacing aspect of Jesus personality, but I don’t. He was an eschatological prophet and his threats were well deserved.  
Instead, I have a hard time coping with the fact that, in the wake of a crime as horrible as the one that was committed in Connecticut, there are so many Americans who still support the law that allows the purchase of arms. It's very simple: if that boy had not possessed a machine-gun, those children would still be alive. And the gun belonged to his mother!