The Limits of Forgiveness: A Respectful Response to Pope Benedict's Christmas Homily

The Limits of Forgiveness: A Respectful Response to Pope Benedict's Christmas Homily

In his Christmas homily this evening, Pope Benedict XVI invited Christians to consider the passage in the Gospel of John in which Mary and Joseph arrive in Bethlehem only to find there was no room at the inn “because his own people received him not.” (John 1:11) Pope Benedict asked the world to consider whether we had closed our hearts to God–and how we might open ourselves both to God and to fellow human beings.

Pope Benedict’s words brought to mind a story from the Book of Judges that I had read in my synagogue recently (when my had mind wandered from the service itself). The story involves a Levite–a member of the holiest tribe–who had, rather unusually, taken a concubine. She was born, as it turns out, in Bethlehem, in the tribe of Judah (Judges 19:1). She was, the Bible says, “faithless” and stole away, back to her father’s home.

The Levite pursued her, and arrived at her father’s home, whereupon they arranged a series of meals together, as they might have done in a regular wedding. The Levite accepted repeated invitations to remain longer and celebrate. Yet on the fifth day, the Levite, brushing aside his father-in-law’s entreaties to stay, set out on the road with his concubine. The hour was late, and they soon needed a place to stay for the night. 

They considered Jerusalem–in those days, before King David’s conquest, a foreign city–but the Levite insisted on staying in a city that belonged to the people of Israel. They came to a city called Giv’a, where the inhabitants were of the tribe of Benjamin. Yet at the late hour when they arrived, no one agreed to take them in. So they settled down in the town square and began preparing for an uncomfortable night outdoors.

Soon, a man who was from the same area as the Levite walked past and offered the travelers food and shelter in his own home. No sooner had they eaten, however, then the people of the town arrived and demanded that the owner of the home give up the Levite to them, “that we may have our desire of him” (19:22). The confrontation is a shocking reprise of the encounter between Lot and the people of Sodom (Genesis 19).

As Lot had done, the man offered the mob the women of his household instead of his male guest. But while the people of Sodom rejected Lot’s offer, the people of Benjamin seized the Levite’s concubine–and raped and murdered her. In the morning, they left her body at the door of the house. The Levite took her home–and in a grim act of revenge, cut her body into twelve pieces, sending them to the other tribes to rouse their anger.

The other tribes of Israel, outraged that the people of Benjamin could have committed such an act, rose up against the people of Benjamin. And though the men of Benjamin were fierce warriors, they were eventually beaten brutally in an act of collective vengeance. Their anger sated, the people of the other tribes felt remorse towards Benjamin–and, in a reconciliatory gesture, accepted a son of Benjamin as their first king, Saul (I Samuel 10).

That is justice as determined on earth. But heavenly justice follows a different path, and when Saul later failed, the kingship passed to David, a child of Bethlehem–as if to compensate for the wrong committed by the people of Giv’a generations before. 

The New Testament continued the connection with Bethlehem in the story of Christmas: this time it was the people of Bethlehem who denied hospitality to a traveling family (they were slightly more merciful).

The Christian story adds a new dimension: rather than retribution, the Gospel offers forgiveness as both an earthly and heavenly response to injustice. The Jewish thinker Hannah Arendt admired that aspect of the Christian text, writing in The Human Condition that forgiveness was the political contribution of Jesus as a solution to the problem of unintended consequences, without which retribution would continue forever.

But forgiveness cannot be a moral guide in itself if it fails to distinguish between right and wrong. And here I would respectfully challenge one aspect of Pope Benedict’s homily–his request that Christians consider not just the story of Bethlehem, but the physical town of Bethlehem today, asking the world to pray “for the people who live and suffer there today,” and for peace and freedom for both Israelis and Palestinians.

No doubt most would agree with those sentiments. Yet we must recognize that the suffering of the people of Bethlehem today is largely the result of political decisions they and their leaders have made–decisions to reject peace and freedom in order to deny peace and freedom to the people of Israel. Israel is not blameless–just as the Levite was not morally pure–but has taken great risks for peace. The two sides are not equal.

The concept of forgiveness regardless of blame is perhaps a uniquely Divine capacity. Yet it is not one that we humans on this earth can afford–not on its own, at any rate. It falls to us to seek justice–tempered with mercy, and mindful of repentance, but always distinguishing between right and wrong, regardless of who is weak or strong, rich or poor, great or humble. That, too, is part of Christian tradition–and Jewish as well.

When David approached Jerusalem, the people there taunted him, deliberately putting the lame and the blind–the most vulnerable–in his path (II Samuel 5). Palestinian terrorists do the same today, placing children in the path of rockets and bombs. Retribution is not the solution. But for such injustice, there can neither be forgiveness nor tolerance–at least, not in this world. Yet there has been, for too long.

America, like Israel, was founded by people for whom there was no room at the inn–people fleeing religious persecution, people seeking to create a new society in which they, and others, could be free and enjoy peace. 

There is room for Palestinians among the nations, too–but not on condition that Israel accept its own demise. Let us pray that the people of today’s Bethlehem, and those who govern it, come to accept that–soon.


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