This past week, two public figures died: one British and one American. One was publicly mourned and the other mainly scorned. Both were wealthy, at least for the majority of their lives. One chose public service while the other chose financial services. Whatever paths they decided to follow during their lives, they were both imperfect people and should be forgiven for their transgressions. The most recited prayer of the Christian faith is the Lord’s Prayer: “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” (Matthew 6:12 NRSV) Forgiveness is foundational to the Christian faith.
The British nation mourned the death of Queen Elizabeth’s husband Prince Philip. They married on November 20, 1947 and enjoyed 73 years of married life. As consort to the queen, his role was secondary, and he complied with royal protocols like walking behind her. The queen and their numerous offspring received the bulk of the attention. But Phillip consistently served his country. After Elizabeth was crowned queen in 1952, Philip made 22,219 solo public engagements and gave 5,493 speeches. His life was public service, but he was also remembered for his gaffes that were construed as politically incorrect or even offensive. He made mistakes, just like you and me.
Few Americans mourned the recent death of Bernie Madoff, the New York financier convicted of the world’s largest Ponzi scheme. He died in a North Carolina federal prison while serving a 150-year sentence after pleading guilty to 11 federal felonies. It is estimated that he lost $11B of investor money. Thousands lost money—some their entire savings. He was so reviled that he wore body armor during his trial. After sentencing, he apologized to his victims: “I have left a legacy of shame, as some of my victims have pointed out, to my family and my grandchildren. This was something I will live in for the rest of my life. I’m sorry.”
In a recent Financial Times (FT) opinion, Forgiveness should also extend to the living: The demise of ‘problematic’ figures shows that cancel culture can be suspended, at least for the dead (Jemima Kelly, April 14, 2021), Kelly states: “Why are we so often merciless towards one another when we are alive, yet forgiving of the deceased?” She quotes Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute: “Religion, in theory, allows us to postpone judgements until the next life, but if you have a kind of a this-worldly approach to things, everything is about the now. … You can’t postpone judgement because there is really nothing after this world, there isn’t any kind of broader metaphysical reality.”
Another theory is that once a powerful person dies, “they lose their power and we generally lose the need to knock them from their perch.” People relax when powerful people die and tend to remember their positives and discount their negatives. I was living in London during the funeral of Margaret Thatcher and saw her funeral procession through the streets of London. Most people stood silently but there were pockets of protesters still angry at her policies.
Kelly concludes her opinion: “We would all be happier, it seems to me, if we learnt to accept—even to celebrate—one another before we reach the grave. It seems a shame to reserve redemption for the dead.” She views forgiveness as a path to internal happiness for those still living and she is correct; forgiveness does bring internal cleansing and removes the weight of anger towards those who have hurt us. But forgiveness does so much more. Sin breaks community and forgiveness rebuilds community. Why wait for the healing?
Waiting until death to forgive a person’s faults only delays wholeness. The death of a public figure reminds us of our own mortality and how we would like to be remembered. Jesus states in his prayer “And forgive us our debts,” before stating “as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Christians need first to remember that all of God’s people are fallen individuals who need forgiveness. “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3 NRSV) Forgive both the speck and the log, thus enabling a giant step towards the new creation.