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The God Squad: Forgiveness is not absolute; it must be earned

April 26, 2013|By Rabbi Marc Gellman

Q: Would Joseph's brothers have asked for forgiveness if they were not about to starve to death? — R., Kenosha, Wis., via godsquadquestion@aol.com

A: Gandhi once famously remarked, "To a starving man, God is bread." His point is that our spiritual horizons are often defined by our physical circumstances. That may have been true of Joseph's brothers, but it's definitely true for all of us after the Boston Marathon bombings. To me, now, God is safety for my family and friends and nation.

However, there is a pressing theological question that links the story of Joseph to the story of the bombings. Like Joseph's brothers, the suspected Boston bombers did not repent of their deeds. Joseph's brothers could not say a word to him when he revealed himself to them (Gen. 45:3), and later, after the death of their father, Jacob, when they feared Joseph's retribution for selling him into slavery, they made up a story about how Jacob had asked them to tell Joseph to forgive them (Gen. 50:15-21). This was hardly a full-hearted apology on their part, but Joseph forgave them anyway.

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The Joseph-like question for us now is, should we forgive the surviving terror suspect? His brother died in an unrepentant, suicidal shootout, so forgiving him is moot. As for the surviving brother, we don't yet know if he is repentant, but his behavior up until his capture doesn't argue for contrition.

Christian readers often press me in emails, arguing in an abstract, theoretical way that forgiveness is an absolute commandment from God. I don't hear that command.

I believe forgiveness must be sought before it can be granted, but after Boston, that question is certainly not theoretical any longer. I don't feel one shred of compassion for a murderer and maimer of children and adults. I don't believe that justice is revenge. I don't hear God calling me to forgive a young man who had other bombs ready to kill other 8-year-old boys.

It's not only that I don't want to forgive him. I also truly don't understand what it would mean to forgive him. But as always, I could be wrong, or I could be right but excessively severe. Do you believe we should forgive him now? What does it mean to you to forgive the alleged Boston terrorist?

Q: Do you think we go to heaven when we die, or are we going to be risen after Jesus comes back? — L., via godsquadquestion@aol.com

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