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Looper column: Forgiveness acts as an identity marker

Shayne Looper
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St. James Plaindealer

Columns share an author’s personal perspective.

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Christians are expected to live differently. This has been universally recognized but not universally practiced. When it has, what ought to be different has been hotly debated. The Amish, for example, are different in the simplicity of their dress and their use of technology. Their submission to their leaders differentiates them, too. Further, like their Mennonite forebears, they are marked by a commitment to pacifism.

Most of those who follow Jesus are not as easily distinguished from their non-Christian friends and family. However, the difference, though not so readily marked, will inevitably manifest itself.

Some of the key markers that a person is truly following Jesus are generosity, truthfulness and faithfulness. Add to that humility, regard for enemies and a readiness to admit wrongdoing. These are not things that immediately catch the eye, but, over time, they cannot help but become apparent.

The characteristic that stands out most strikingly against the backdrop of today’s anger culture is the Christian’s willingness to forgive. Self-righteousness is spreading more rapidly than the coronavirus and causing inestimable harm. The self-righteous can boast about many things, but the one thing they cannot do is forgive.

The telltale sign of this occurred when the Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston forgave the white supremacist who killed nine of their members, including their pastor. They did so in obedience to their Lord. Yet their forgiveness sparked almost as much outrage as Dylann Roof’s mass murder.

This kind of thing is everywhere evident in our culture. Americans cannot forgive the failings (almost universal at the time) of their founding fathers nor their current leaders’ adolescent faults. Recently, the Sierra Club disowned its own founder for views he held as a young man and almost certainly came to abandon. People cannot even forgive themselves since they refuse to acknowledge their own sins.

Yet Jesus taught his followers to forgive everyone, brothers and sisters, and even enemies. They forgive as they have been forgiven. They forgive, knowing that they otherwise close the door to their own forgiveness. In today’s climate, forgiveness stands out as clearly as the dark clothes and beard of an Amish man.

In 1925, G. K. Chesterton published a short story titled “The Chief Mourner of Marne” that cleverly portrays forgiveness as a characteristic Christian virtue. The plot goes like this: A good man is forced into a duel with a younger cousin - an accomplished athlete, artist and actor - whom he has loved like a brother.

Everyone knows, including the duelists, that the one thing the younger cousin cannot do well is shoot, so why he chooses a pistol for the duel is a mystery. The older cousin reluctantly fires and the younger cousin falls. The older cousin rushes to his side, but death is unavoidable. Grief-stricken and burdened by guilt, he flees England to live abroad. Years later, he returns to his English estate but lives like a hermit in complete isolation.

His former friends try to make contact, but he refuses to see them. They insist his crime is understandable and forgivable. It makes no difference.

Then comes the twist. It was not the younger cousin, the actor, who died. He fell a split second before the shot was fired, waited for his cousin to come to his aid - as he knew he would - then killed him in cold blood. He then buried his cousin, assumed his identity and fled the country.

When the ghastly truth is finally revealed, the old friends demand a hanging. They were quite ready to forgive a sin they considered excusable, but staunchly unwilling to forgive something they considered truly sinful. One character says, “You don’t expect us to … pardon a vile thing like this?”

In reply, Chesterton’s protagonist priest answers: “No, but we [Christians] have to … pardon it. Go on your primrose path pardoning all your favorite vices and being generous to your favorite crimes; and leave us … with the men who commit the mean and revolting and real crimes.”

The point is clear. Christians must stand ready to forgive, though never excuse, sin. (Excusing sin is downright unchristian.) Forgiveness is what marks Jesus’s followers as different. It is their telltale sign.

Shayne Looper is the pastor of Lockwood Community Church in Coldwater, Michigan. His blog, “The Way Home,” is at shaynelooper.com.