“Can’t good people teach bad people to be good?” Madeleine asked her mother, with the innocence of a seven-year-old.
It is the kind of question that, coming out of the mouth of a child, not only sounds disturbing, but also requires a moment of deep reflection. That’s because, although adults regard it as redundant information, Madeleine’s question is the naïve expression of one of man’s most important existential questions. Why, for millennia, is evil behavior more present than good? And why, in spite of all efforts, can’t good people have an influence strong enough to lead to the extinction of evil things—the apparently incurable disease of humanity?
To find the most coherent answer to this existential question, we should start with a fascinating and especially revealing detail—the reason that caused the emergence of this question in the mind of a seven-year-old. In the sphere of her knowledge, things were probably clear until then: if good is superior to evil and if there are people who love good, then good people should be able to teach evil people to be good, up to the point that, one day, good would triumph forever.
After all, a child educated in the spirit of obedience and appreciation of goodness cannot understand the idea of arbitrary and persevering opposition to what is obviously superior and desirable—the good.
Therefore, although the simplicity with which a child looks at such a problem can generate bitter smiles, it must still receive credit. In a simplified version of the world, Madeleine’s thinking is correct, and we all have the springs of such a mechanism of thought working inside us.
When we ask, “If God is good, why is there so much suffering?” we actually ask, “Why can’t a good God teach bad people to be good?” This is Madeleine’s question placed in a different context, and behind it is the same thinking, partly justified, partly immature. The good God cannot automatically make all bad people good because they have the right, and they use it, to choose irrationally, to prefer evil, despite the suffering they inflict on themselves, on their loved ones and on those who fall victim to them. Imperfect people make imperfect decisions and we are all imperfect.
In other words, it is not enough that God is good and it is not enough that God forgives the wicked, because the rehabilitation of a bad man, although built on forgiveness, also requires a choice of the one who has been forgiven, the choice to abandon the bad things which have come to define them. The healing process here requires a willingness from both parties to put aside anger and negative thoughts and focus on creating a positive relationship instead.
If God is good, why is there so much suffering?
Hence the painful and pervasive question: “What is the use of forgiveness for someone who does not want to be rehabilitated?” An adult question this time which is worth looking at through the eyes of children. If she understood that some bad people never change, would Madeleine become cynical and convinced that she should not be kind to bad people—would she believe that it was in her own self interest to avoid extending empathy towards them? Or would she consider, perhaps with even more idealism, that good people should not tire of being good to bad people?
It’s no coincidence that Jesus urged adults to meditate more on how children view the world. The idea that forgiving people does not make sense to someone who does not regret their deeds or does not want rehabilitation is the same as teaching a child not to be good to bad people. To be good to the wicked, you must forgive.
This is the essential lesson that the Heavenly Father has taught us for millennia by the way He Himself forgave each of us while we were still evil (see Romans 5:8). To be a forgiving person is proof that you have understood the essence of God’s character. Moreover, forgiveness is a precondition for love. “It is clear that before love can operate, there is the necessity for forgiveness,” said theologian Howard Thurman, who inspired Martin Luther King Jr.
What is the use of forgiveness for someone who does not want to be rehabilitated?
Such thinking is counterintuitive in a society where forgiveness is only ever offered at the end of a person’s rehabilitation path (and sometimes not even then). It is also difficult to understand such thinking when today, in many cases, forgiveness means nothing more than acquitting someone of the consequences of their evil deeds.
That is why so much evil is manifested in the public space towards those who commit unlawful acts. People are afraid to forgive, lest forgiveness bring with it a diminution of the consequences they want the evil person to bear. Forgiveness is therefore misperceived as a dilution or sterilization of justice.
In God’s model, forgiveness does not claim change, it is not offered as a currency. It is not change that gives birth to the prospect of forgiveness, but forgiveness is what brings the offer of reconciliation and the prospect of change.
Before the astonished eyes of millions of viewers, the relatives of those killed in the Charleston attack assured Dylann Roof, the killer of their loved ones, that they had forgiven him. They didn’t do it to impress anyone or get a confession from the killer. They also didn’t do it out of an instinct for survival (inherited from the time they faced white supremacy in the United States), nor because African American people have a culture of forgiveness, as was noted in the press.
They did it, some of them barely holding back their tears, first of all, because they knew God that way and because, like Madeleine, in their hearts, they wanted to be good people who teach bad people to be good.