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The Reactionary Utopian
June 24, 2008

Crime and Mercy
by Joe Sobran

[Breaker quote: Forgiveness for the asking]

Reports of some criminals in the news media fill me with furtive delight and admiration: the clever embezzler who bilks a huge corporation, the gifted swindler who passes off his forgery as a Picasso. I can almost excuse a crime that requires talent or wit, as long as nobody gets seriously hurt. Part of me whispers enviously, "Why didn't I think of that?"

But now and then a reported crime will move me to murderous indignation. Today I remembered one I'd nearly forgotten: a generation ago a man who was engaged in a bitter custody fight with his estranged wife tried to hurt her by burning their young son to death. But the boy survived, horribly maimed.

This was the kind of diabolic act you can't chalk off to a tough childhood or unfavorable socioeconomic conditions. Hell is not hot enough for the man who would do such a thing. I couldn't begin to imagine a normal human being doing it. It wouldn't cross the mind of a savage, a cannibal, an abortionist.

By now that boy must be middle-aged. I wonder if he has forgiven his father.

Modern warfare results in equally horrifying injuries to children, but they are typically unintentional and the perpetrators can say, "We were defending freedom" (as at Hiroshima or Dresden?). A couple of years ago an American rocket struck a house in Baghdad, killing six children and both of their parents; the only survivor was one of their brothers, both of whose hands and forearms were burned off. And, of course, the U.S. government has enough weapons to kill and maim a billion kids. Defense.

But wars are not quite everyday occurrences.

Divorces are. Fights between spouses are. Jesus said that murder can be implicit in angry words, just as adultery can be implicit in a mere look. Children can be hurt, deeply and lastingly, by a parent's anger, whether it is directed at them or at the other parent.

It took me a remarkably long time — many years, in fact — to realize how badly I had wounded people close to me with my cruel words. The wonder is that so many of them forgave me, God bless them. Now I try to give them a little less to forgive.

After all, we can be in the wrong even when we're technically right. And what we think is a little needling may feel, to our target, like a poisoned dart or a harpoon. I have to keep reminding myself of the wise words of old Gonzalo in The Tempest:

My Lord Sebastian,
The truth you speak doth lack some gentleness,
And time to speak it in.

Maybe I'm not quite as different from that cruel father as I'd like to think.

Our merciful Lord will forgive anyone who really asks forgiveness and is willing to forgive others. When I ponder the harm I've done, that's a deal I have to snatch while I can. I'm amazed at how much he's already pardoned me for, given all he knows about me. But I certainly don't want to leave the impression that there is anything glamorous about my sins; they may be as numerous as grains of sand in the Sahara, but most are embarrassingly petty — childish things one is ashamed to confess to a priest.

Once, during my teens, I made my confession to a dour old Scottish priest, who reacted with shock to the secrets I whispered to him through the screen. Looking back, I'm sure he heard similar confessions from boys my age all the time; but you'd have thought from his manner that I had just owned up to a notoriously gruesome murder he'd read about in the morning paper.

Exaggerated or not, his response reminded me of the essential horror of sin, which I'm sure was his intent; but at the time I was stung. I didn't realize how charitable his severity was. He was a saint trying to turn me into a saint. If I ever get to heaven, it will be partly thanks to him.

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