Universalism and God's Forgiveness
...I opened my mail to find that a friend had sent me a passel of programs from recent cultural outings and among them was the Baltimore Opera Company's program of the new opera "Dead Man Walking," based on Sister Helen Prejean's book, and of course, you all saw the movie with Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon, right? And you felt shattered by it? I know I did. I watched it with a church group and had to really fight myself not to be found in the fetal position on the floor when the lights came back up.
So this opera was composed by Jake Heggie and the libretto was written by the marvelous Terrence McNally, whose dialogue I have been delighted to speak on the stage (even though his character Chloe Haddock from "Lips Together, Teeth Apart" has one glaring inconsistency that makes for one very difficult actor's moment, but I digress).
This from the synopsis of the opera "Dead Man Walking:"
"On the night of his execution, Sister Helen and [convicted murderer] Joe make small talk as she tries to convince him to seek forgiveness. Joe's family arrives for a tearful farewell. Left alone, Sr. Helen ponders the situation. The victim's parents arrive to witness the execution and chastise Sr. Helen for siding with Joe... As Joe is prepared for execution, Sr. Helen continues to press Joe to confront his guilt. As she continues to probe, he breaks down and confesses, begging for forgiveness. Sr. Helen assures him that he has it -- not just hers, but God's."
I read this and every fibre of my being went WHOA! Wait a minute, Sister Helen! You may speak for yourself in forgiving Joseph DeRocher for brutally murdering two young people, but to deign to speak for GOD!?? I'm so sorry, but even though you are Joe's spiritual director, do you have the right to speak for the Almighty in this case? Even if it comforts a dying man?
This is really hard for me.
As I have said before, I am trying to be a Universalist. I think it's a far more complicated theological tradition than can be summed up in "all souls shall be restored to harmony with the Divine" (although I believe that to be true). But although I believe that God knows what to do with Joseph De Rocher's soul, and while I don't believe in Hell (and frankly, the concept of karma has never held much sway with me, unless you mean in the sense that we build our own spiritual fate in this lifetime by our behaviors here in this lifetime), I have no idea if God literally forgives us for murder.
I know the Lord's Prayer, and I believe that Jesus was certainly pointing toward a forgiving God, but let's not forget about that contingency clause "as we forgive those who trespass against us." In the case of a murderer who's going to the Death Room any minute, does he have the time to forgive the state for executing him? Does he have time to forgive himself for destroying so much life and causing so much pain?
In the Jewish tradition, forgiveness can only be granted by those who have been harmed. Therefore, a murderer holds the most profound guilt of any criminal: he can never be forgiven in this lifetime. I may be wrong about that, and I hope Jewish readers will correct me if I am, but if that's true, I'm more in step with Jewish tradition on forgiveness than with Sr. Helen Prejean.
My Unitarian sense of self-culture and responsibility leads me to say that there are moments that cannot be redeemed by a soft word, that there are deeds too terrible to be salved by promises of God's forgiveness. To me, it is much more an affirmation of Joe De Rocher's dignity to let him walk with full awareness the path of responsibility for his own actions. As Universalists we can say that God loves him, loves the creation that he is, and perhaps even grieves with him, but can we say that God forgives him?
I hope you'll comment.