GOD’S MERCY AND HUMAN PARDON
1. There is a well known saying which goes like this:“God always forgives, human beings sometimes forgive, nature never forgives”. This statement is an expression the fact that the issue of forgiveness is quite complex and not so straight-forward as it may appear to be. In this message I intend to talk about the mercy of God and human pardon. I leave for a different forum the discussion on nature and its implacable laws. All that we need to say in this regard is that we can never consistently go against the law of nature and expect to go scot free. This is a lesson which modern science must learn as it delves into ever new areas of life. Similarly, contemporary democratic developments must take the natural law into serious account: man must not presume to approve and “legalize” what God has condemned in the natural law. Current cases in point are the debate over the legalization of abortion and same sex unions.
2. In this Easter season, in this message, I wish to reflect on the issue of God’s mercy and human pardon, especially in the light of two recent news items which have raised considerable debate in our land. The first is the call for amnesty for Boko Haram terrorists allegedly made by His Eminence, the Sultan of Sokoto, Alhaji Sa’ad Abubakar. The second is the announcement by President Goodluck Jonathan of a presidential pardon to certain high level convicted persons, in particular, the case of the former Governor of Bayelsa State. That the discussion has been rather chaotic is largely due to the fact that there is little or no clarity in the terms of the debate. I believe therefore that we need to carefully analyze the issues at stake.
I: GOD’S MERCY.
3. Pardon, forgiveness, amnesty: these are beautiful concepts. It is often said that “to err is human, to forgive is divine”. Pardon, forgiveness and amnesty belong to the divine. Of course God is just but he is also merciful. It is precisely through the Omnipotence of God that He can reconcile His justice with His mercy. The Old Testament says clearly that God shows His almighty power above all by his mercy, offering a forgiveness that wipes out our offences as if they never took place. Only God can do this. It is also a basic tenet of the New Testament and of our Christian faith that we worship a God that is a God of mercy. I understand too that in Islam, the mercy of God is a most important aspect of His qualities and appelatives.
4. God’s mercy however, is not without condition. Normally God forgives whoever is repentant. Repentance includes the commitment not to repeat the offence, as well as a readiness to amend the havoc caused by our bad behavior. This is very clear in the New Testament. The prodigal son whose story is well known, (Lk 15:11-32) was forgiven by his father the moment he realized that he had made a big full of himself and decided to go back to beg his father for forgiveness, “I have sinned against heaven and against you, I do not deserve to be called your son”. (Lk 15:21) That was what he said when he met his father, who however, immediately embraced him and welcomed him fully into the family household.
5. The forgiveness from God also entails that we make up our minds not to sin any more. The story of the woman caught in adultery in the Gospel is instructive in this regard. (Jn 8:3-11) After all her accusers had gone because none of them had the moral credential to accuse her, Jesus who could have condemned her said, “Neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more”. (Jn 8:11) Yes, go and sin no more! While Jesus was very lavish with his mercy for this woman, he also demanded of her that she should not continue in her sinful ways.
6. As regards restitution and amendment, we have the story of the call of the tax collector, Zaccheus. (Lk 19:1-10) As soon as he repented, he promised: “If I have cheated anybody, I will pay him back four times the amount.” (Lk 19:8)
7. To continue to wallow in our sins, claiming forgiveness of God because of his mercy is tempting God and running grave spiritual danger. Under the right conditions, God’s gate of mercy is always open. The Psalmist tells us that our God is “slow to anger and rich in mercy”. (Ps 145:8) There are no limits to the number of times that God can forgive us. Our new Pope Francis referred to this in his first Sunday Angelus to the crowd gathered in St. Peter’s square. He reminds us that God is always ready to forgive our sins, never tired of forgiving us. Therefore, we, he says must not be tired of asking for forgiveness.
II: HUMAN PARDON
8. What about human pardon? This is highly recommended, in imitation of God’s own virtues of forgiveness but also in consideration of our own indebtedness not only to God himself but to one another. This is clearly spelt out in the famous Lord’s Prayer, the “Our Father”, where we ask God to “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”. (Lk 11:2-4) It is as if we are giving God himself a condition to forgive us namely that he should forgive us only if and to the extent that we forgive those who sin against us. The seriousness of this commitment is perhaps not well appreciated by many who recite the Lord’s Prayer so often. Christ further teaches this in the parable of the unforgiving servant, who after receiving a most generous pardon from his master, refuses to forgive a minor debt owed to him by a fellow servant. (Mt 18:23-35) Jesus teaches this in very clear terms when he says: “If you do not forgive others, your Father will not forgive your failings either.” (Mt 6:15)
9. As human beings, we have to pardon whoever comes to us repentant. Pardon wins us friends. The alternative of pardon is to seek revenge. But unfortunately, revenge does not cancel our hurt; it rather increases enmity. That is why even the non-repentant should be forgiven. Someone once said: “If you think forgiveness does not work, try revenge”! Even from point of view of the dynamics of human relations, revenge can only try to create a balance of injuries and anger, while pardon neutralizes the venom of hatred and builds friendship and harmony. It is also in line with the supreme example of Jesus, who on the cross prayed for his murderers; “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing”. (Lk 23:34) In other words, we must try to find excuse for those who hurt us. Perhaps they are acting out of ignorance or error of judgment.
10. Of course we have a right to seek justice and to claim our rights when we are injured. But to pursue vengeance is quite another thing, because vengeance deepens and doubles the hurt. God himself says: “Vengeance is mine. I will repay”. (Dt. 32:35-36) We know that this is easier said than done, especially in cases of grave injury which calls for redress in one form or the other; whether by just punishment or by seeking vengeance. But there is a limit to the redress that we can obtain for grave injury done to us. Have can one adequate redress for the life of a dear one taken in cold blood? Killing the murderer will not bring back the dead. At the end of the day, the full balance can only be restored through an element of gratuitous forgiveness.
III. STATE PARDON.
11. Human pardon is not only personal. It can also operate on the basis of group relationship. This brings us to the issue of state pardon. The duty of the State is to ensure justice, rewarding good behavior and punishing evil actions. It starts with making just laws to regulate good relationship within the society and to apply those laws justly. In a democratic setting, this is the noble role of the legislature: a duty that must be taken seriously. The greatest source of injustice is when bad laws are imposed on the people. It is a sacred duty for the legislators to ensure that our laws are just and fair to all, especially to the weak and the voiceless. This is important not only in the content of the provisions but in the form and procedure of administration of justice.
12. It is the duty of the judiciary to exercise the office of judging, to acquit the innocent and convict the guilty. The autonomy of the judiciary is precisely to enable it to freely carry out this duty, without undue interference from any quarters. If judges at any level fail in this duty, acquitting the guilty and convicting the innocent, passing judgments out of fear or favour, good order cannot be sustained in the society. At times, judges have the prerogative of tempering justice with mercy, reducing a sentence or commuting it to a lesser punishment. But even then, they should act in the spirit of the law. Tempering justice cannot be allowed to become tampering with the law.
13. Normally, it is not up to the State as such to be issuing forgiveness and pardon to those who have broken the laws of the land. Justice definitely is necessary if good order is to be maintained in the society. State pardon has to be under very clear conditions. In the first place, where the innocent has been condemned, State pardon is not only permitted but necessary to restore justice. The innocent who has been unjustly condemned must be restored to their full liberty. Our legal system is so faulty that many innocent people are languishing in jail. They ought to be released without further delay. It is highly to be commended that members of the judiciary occasionally visit our prisons to find out how many are there for no just cause, especially those in the crowded awaiting trial cells.
14. State pardon also becomes relevant when we have cases that are either totally or partly political. We know that very often people are considered criminals because of the political positions that they have taken. The State often has to seek reconciliation by offering pardon to those who may have been condemned under particular political circumstances.
15. In our country Nigeria, a special case is that of those who have been involved in plotting coups, especially during the military era. Theoretically, to stage a coup is to commit treason against the State since it involves overthrowing a legitimately constituted authority. In fact, when coup plotters fail, they are generally lined up and shot. The dilemma of Nigeria however is that when plotters succeed, we never ask the question of whether indeed they have respected the right of the State not to be overthrown. Instead, the successful coup plotter becomes “President and Commander-in-Chief” and is accorded or takes upon himself the highest titles and honour of the land, Grand Commander of the Federal Republic, (GCFR). Under such circumstances, it is obvious that we are not operating on the basis of any moral norms but rather on the accident of who succeeds in the dangerous game of military take-over. Until we are able to condemn all unconstitutional take-over of government, including the successful ones of the past, it is only fair that the nation be ready to pardon those who tried and failed.
IV: PRESIDENTIAL PARDON.
16. Finally, let us now look at the two cases with which we started these reflections. These, in my opinion, are cases where moral issues are at stake, where people are condemned, or liable to be condemned, for breaking the law and going against moral norms. The Boko Haram may claim to have all kinds of grievances. But the fact is that they have killed innocent people. How does the state forgive murderers? How can the government grant amnesty to people who have killed innocent citizens, some in their places of worship? The pardon to politicians who have been convicted of criminal misuse of power and massive corruption raises the issue whether the State should pardon someone who has stolen public funds, our money. Obviously, the State must handle very carefully whatever powers it has to forgive criminals otherwise, the whole structure of law and order in the society will be seriously compromised. There may be political considerations but these cannot be allowed to overthrow moral imperatives. This does not mean that the State cannot forgive moral wrong doing. It has been done in other countries that claim high level of democratic culture. But it seems to me that in order to do this, there must be at least two conditions, namely genuine repentance and a sincere effort to make amendments as far as possible. Let us see how this applies to the two cases under discussion.
17. As regards the case of an offer of amnesty to the Boko Haram I believe that we should not throw away outright the consideration of such amnesty. Faced with an intractable problem, we have to explore all possible avenues of solution. The security response in terms of arms, gadgets and trained personnel is useful and necessary, but obviously not enough on its own. Government does well to reach out to all political forces and currents, so that the nation can be on the same political page and jointly address this common menace, which terrorism is. The issue of poverty and unemployment, which is cited as an excuse, needs to be addressed – and this boils down to the critical issue of good governance, at all levels, Federal, state and local government. The growing danger of community polarization gradually tearing the nation apart must be urgently and effectively tackled, on both the ethnic and religious bases. Here comes the important role of traditional and religious leaders. And finally, and most important of all, all these have to go together and government must take on the duty and responsibility to encourage and coordinate such initiatives, to ensure maximum overall effectiveness. Under such an atmosphere of common efforts, the call for amnesty would seem to me quite appropriate and even necessary. I therefore see the call of the Sultan as an invitation to further discussion and dialogue among Nigerians to sharpen the focus of government action in this matter. That discussion has started, for which we should thank the Sultan and his courageous proposal. In every conflict, a time comes when dialogue and talking must be brought into the equation, in view of final solution. It would seem that for Boko Haram, that time has come.
18. But before the Boko Haram can be seriously considered for amnesty, they must meet the two conditions mentioned earlier for forgiveness, namely repentance and amendment. Before they are eligible for any amnesty, they must at least admit that they were wrong to be killing innocent people, whatever may have been their grievances. If this is not done, they could well continue to feel that they did the right thing and perhaps, it is the rest of us who ought to beg them for pardon. As for amendment, it is impossible to bring back those who have been killed. But at least a gesture of repentance and apology goes a long way to assuage the sorrow, the hurt and wounds of those who have been gravely hurt and bereaved. The modalities of how, in practical terms, the conditions of repentance and amendment are to be met can itself be a matter for discussion and dialogue. In such a dialogue, government would be well advised to involve the right kind of people, across the board. It should certainly include religious leaders. Furthermore, we need not wait for every terrorist to surrender before engaging those who are ready to repent and reconcile.
19. As for pardoning people with cases of corruption on their heads, again, there ought to be some form of repentance which should be clear to everyone. Furthermore, a sincere effort must be made to pay back as much as possible of what has been stolen. It is alleged that a lot of the stolen money is not lost. It is said to be somewhere invested in one way or the other. That money belongs to the Nigerian people and it must be given back to them. How this will be done should be part of the conditions that would have to be worked out in the process for pardon.
20. Whatever government decides to do in this matter, it must not forget that the issue of massive corruption in high places is of major concern to Nigerians. Much has been said about fighting corruption. But people are fast losing confidence in the sincerity of government to turn the tide. Pardon for high profile corruption cases will certainly reduce further whatever is left of the confidence of the people. This has serious political and social fall-out that government cannot afford to ignore. We must tell the truth that anger is mounting in the land, especially among the youth whose patience is running out. The clock of social tension is dangerously ticking towards explosion. The nation is in danger. What is needed are clear and visible gestures of reassurance that a real change and genuine transformation for the better has started.
A lot of evil has been committed in our nation. The two most serious ones have to do with insecurity and massive corruption, both of which are destroying the nation. We have to find ways of getting ourselves out of the tight grip of these two evils. It will require not only legal approach but also wise political moves and quiet diplomatic efforts as well as the impute from the spiritual leadership of the country. This means that the problem of Nigeria is the problem of all of us and we must find a way of putting our heads together to change our ways of doing things so that a great nation can emerge. The period of Easter is a good time to reflect on this because Easter means the victory of goodness over evil, of truth over lies, of justice over injustice and of life over death.
May the blessing of Easter be with us all. Amen.
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