As Jesus is being crucified, he asks his Father to forgive his killers. These are his words: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing!”
Karl Rahner once made an interesting comment on this. He pointed out that, in fact, they did know. The people crucifying Jesus knew exactly what they were doing. They knew he was innocent, they knew their own jealousy, and they knew too that they were doing something wrong; just as we know, at least most of the time, when we are doing wrong. Our sense of right and wrong is not that easily derailed, even when we are caught up in a mob action where there is a certain moral blindness and safety in numbers.
So what does Jesus mean by this? What were his executioners ignorant of? How could they be innocent when they knew better? For Rahner, the statement, “they know not what they are doing”, refers to something beyond conscious awareness. What those crucifying Jesus didn’t know is how much they were loved. They weren’t ignorant of their own motivation. They knew their own deceit. But they had too little knowledge and awareness of God’s love for them. It’s that ignorance that made them – and makes us – mostly innocent of real sin.
Scholastic thought used to distinguish between “culpable” and “inculpable” ignorance. It termed the latter “invincible ignorance” and defined it as a darkness, a lack of understanding, for which we are not responsible. In this framework of thought, you are not considered to be committing a sin when you do something wrong if you do it out of an ignorance that isn’t your fault. For the Scholastics, in order to sin, you first have to have a certain awareness. Of what? Of love. Allow me an illustration:
Some years ago, I received a letter from a woman in her late forties. She began the letter by telling me that she could, in all truth, say that for the first forty years of her life she had not committed a sin.
Her words: “I grew up in a terrible home and was abused and unloved as child. I became bitter, suicidal, and acted out in every way. I bit in order not to be bitten and broke every commandment except murder (which in fact I contemplated), but I really don’t believe I ever sinned, even though I knew I was doing wrong at the time. Why don’t I think I sinned? Because sin is a betrayal of love and nobody, as far as I knew, had ever loved me. God was loving me, I know that now, but I had no way of knowing or believing that then. I did what I needed to do to survive.
Sometime after my fortieth birthday a miracle happened. I fell in love and that person fell in love with me. I experienced love for the first time. I know now what it means to sin because I’m loved. Now when I do something wrong it’s a sin because I am betraying love. But you first need to be loved in order to betray that. When I didn’t know love and had no way of sensing God’s love for me, I had nothing to betray, at least as far as I knew. That’s why I believe that, even though I did many wrong things, I didn’t sin.”
Sin is a betrayal of love. However, you first have to be loved and, however dimly, sense that before you can betray it. In Rahner’s view, this is what lies behind Jesus’ plea to his Father to forgive his killers because they don’t know any better. At one level, of course, they do, but at the another, a far more important one, they don’t. Like the woman whose letter I just quoted, they don’t know how much they are loved. They are biting in order not to be bitten.
There’s more jealousy, hatred, anger, murder, adultery, slander, lying, and blasphemy at God in our world than there is sin. We’re not so much bad as ignorant, inculpably so. Often times when we do wrong, we aren’t betraying love because we don’t know love to begin with. That doesn’t mean our behaviour isn’t destructive, that it doesn’t ruin lives, wreak havoc with happiness, and that it doesn’t continue (as scripture so graphically puts it) to murder God out of ignorance. Our actions have real and often permanent effects. Those effects may never be trivialized. When we do wrong we hurt others and hurt ourselves, even if we aren’t sinning. Darkness is always the enemy of light. It’s just that, more often than not I suspect, our actions may be wrong, very wrong, but they’re not sinful because we don’t know what we’re doing. Our darkness is invincible, inculpable, something for which we aren’t really responsible.
Mercifully God’s compassion and understanding are deeper than our own and God’s love can descend into hell itself and, even there, forgive and redeem us.