Aurora and the Question of Forgiveness

07/23/2012 03:59 pm ET | Updated May 14, 2013

The images are arresting: A man with a bloodstained shirt staggers out of a movie theater. Small groups of young people wrap their arms around each other and bury their faces in their hands. Glass shatters as bomb technicians push in a third-story apartment window. The face of a neuroscience student smiles from a university ID. The last lines from a young woman's Twitter feed appear on the screen: "Movie doesn't start for twenty minutes!"

In the aftermath of the mass theater shooting in Aurora, Colo., broadcasters still have no answers to the most pressing question: Why did this happen? The shooter is jailed and silent. Every few hours, a new story emerges: A man who died shielding his girlfriend from the assault, a 6-year-old victim who just learned to swim, a family's harrowing escape with their infant. Makeshift memorials are already visible at the scene. In the wake of a meaningless attack, victims and witnesses and bystanders struggle to find meaning.

Shooting victim Christina Blache was interviewed from her hospital bed by a CNN correspondent. She had attended the movie with her friend Alex Sullivan, who did not survive the rampage. She spoke calmly to the reporter, answering questions about her initial reaction -- it was a stunt -- and her combat experience in Baghdad -- this was much worse. And then the reporter asked, "Can you forgive him, the gunman?"

"Probably not today, not tomorrow," she answered. "Eventually. I like to move on, I don't want to keep dwelling on the past, so eventually, yeah, I'll be able to forgive him. Just not right now. He killed somebody I cared about, and he injured a heck of a lot of my friends, so for right now? No. Down the road? Yeah."

As someone who researches and writes about forgiveness, I am less concerned with Blache's answer than I am the reporter's question. As he sits beside this woman's bed, with her leg obviously seriously wounded and just hours after she learned of the death of her friend, how could this reporter ask such a thing? It is as if he says, "Ms. Blache, after all you have experienced in the last 24 hours and will continue to deal with for the rest of your life, what do you have to offer the man who did this?"

Another survivor from the theater makes an immediate leap to forgiveness in an interview on "Good Morning America." Sixteen-year-old Justin Davis escaped from the theater without injury. He reported that his faith tells him the shooter deserves forgiveness. "We should just forgive," he said. "You don't know what he is going through, you don't know why he did it."

Here Davis seems to invoke Jesus' cry from the cross, "Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:34). But does this kind of forgiveness imply that there is a separate category for those who commit crimes with all mental faculties intact? And for this teenager, what is the substance of that forgiveness? Will he visit the perpetrator in prison when all of this is over? Reach out to his family? Fight for a lesser sentence?

Finally, on "Dateline NBC," Ann Curry interviewed Craig Scott, a survivor from the massacre at Columbine High School in 1999 that killed 13 people, including his sister, Rachel Scott. The piece opens with footage of Scott sitting quietly on his bed reading a leather-bound Bible. For Scott, forgiveness was a way to let go of his anger. "A part of my healing process was forgiving and letting go," he reports.

Ann Curry looks up, "Forgiving?"

Scott continues, "I'm just talking about my healing process. It's not saying what someone did is OK, it's a letting go of, so that you can move on. There's a quote, that forgiveness is like setting a prisoner free and finding out that prisoner was you. And I felt like I was that prisoner. For people who have faith, that was part of the process."

Here Scott quotes a popular aphorism from theologian Lewis Smedes. He grounds his forgiveness in faith, yet he does not name the shooters or spell out the meaning of that forgiveness in any practical terms. For Scott, as with the two Aurora survivors, forgiveness is an individual act for the individual's own good.

Let me be clear. Moving forward from a traumatic event is painful and confusing and can seem impossible. If this understanding of forgiveness -- a letting go of anger, or a setting the self free -- helps anyone move forward in a meaningful way, then I am all for it. However, the conflation of this kind of vague, individual-focused forgiveness with what is described in the New Testament is not always helpful.

Biblical forgiveness is not unconditional. It does not happen in the absence of the offender, and it is not without practical implication. The forgiveness that Jesus taught -- and some say demonstrated -- is not a psychological exercise, or as one scholar puts it, "ethical bungee jumping." It is a bilateral process that at its best includes apology, repentance and reparation. When those things are lacking, forgiveness does not take hold. It is for this reason that when he was hanging from the cross, Jesus uttered a prayer for his attackers rather than forgiving them directly.

The reporter sitting beside Christina Blache's bed presented her with an imperative when he asked, "Can you forgive him?" How could she answer this? He may as well have asked her, "Are you a good person?" Because the forgiveness question contains that kind of charge. To say no in today's popular culture might mean that one is not a good person, or a good Christian. The question itself is a trap. The biblical text doesn't demand this kind of inquiry -- not in the aftermath of a violent attack by an unrepentant stranger, not today in Aurora, Colo., and maybe not ever.