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How much sin is too much to forgive?

“McVeigh took last rites before execution.”

That little headline stopped me in my tracks last week. I hate to admit that it was the unfairness of the statement that really grabbed me. A literal last minute confession seemed like cheating. After all, Timothy McVeigh detonated a massive fertilizer-powered bomb intending to take down the entire Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building and all its occupants. Wouldn’t confession in the waning moments of his life mean he was getting off easy? But was it even possible? Can such an atrocity such as the Oklahoma City bombing be forgiven? Could the bomber actually be in heaven with the child we saw cradled in the arms of a firefighter soon after the explosion?

The news reports say that as the last minutes of his life ticked away, McVeigh met privately with a Bureau of Prisons priest to share the sacrament of confession. The rite, officially known as “anointing of the sick,” normally includes a confession of sin, Holy Communion, and absolution from a priest assuring the forgiveness of God to those who truly repent. The sacrament of confession is not magic. Confession of sin and God’s forgiveness of sin depends upon the internal disposition of the person making the confession. Therefore, wondering what happened between McVeigh and God is inherently fruitless.

I have no idea what Timothy McVeigh thought or felt as his execution approached. Rather than struggling with the narrow question “Did God forgive McVeigh?” I struggled with the larger question “Could McVeigh have been forgiven?” The answer I want to give is no. The crime is too big. The suffering is too much.

I am reminded of the story of a concentration camp survivor meeting a former camp guard. The guard asked for forgiveness. The man said that he could not offer the guard forgiveness as it was not in his power to give. He had survived the camp. How could they begin to offer forgiveness when the victims were not there to give it for themselves? In that same way, who could forgive Timothy McVeigh? If the concentration camp survivor was on to something, then it would take an innocent victim to offer forgiveness.

An innocent victim is exactly what we have in the person of Jesus Christ. God humbled himself to be born in human flesh. He lived as one of us yet without any sin. Then as he stood against the powers of this world, the powers of this world put Jesus to death. God loved us so much that he would not give up on that love even when the cost was suffering and death. Instead, God, through his son Jesus, defeated the power of death and rose to die no more. The risen Christ then knows all too well what it is like to be the innocent victim. It is this Jesus who we can approach through prayer. We can offer up our true repentance in the sure knowledge that he has said that he will forgive us our sins and offer us a clean slate, a new start.

A change of heart in exchange for a clean slate sounds just grand when it applies to me and my sins, but it’s hard to understand if it can also apply to a mass murderer. Isn’t his sin too much? Perhaps. But if McVeigh’s sin is too much to forgive, then where is the dividing line? How much sin is too much?

The prophet Jonah found himself equally irate at forgiving the people of Nineveh. Jonah hoped that God would destroy all Nineveh in a show of force reminiscent of Sodom and Gomorrah. However, the people repented, God relented, and the peeved prophet headed out of town in a huff. Jonah stomped off yelling, “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”

Jonah makes this compliment sound like an indictment. Jonah was burning mad that God had the audacity to forgive a great future enemy of Israel. The atrocities of Nineveh were too great to be forgiven. And yet God said that even those Ninevites that, admittedly did not know their right hand from their left, were not beyond the love of God.

So I am left thinking the unthinkable. God indeed could have forgiven a truly repentant Timothy McVeigh. In fact, forgiving McVeigh would be so very like God.

(The Rev. Frank Logue is pastor of King of Peace Episcopal Church in Kingsland.)


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