“Forgive them Father for they know not what they do!” Jesus said this of his executioners. But a question can be asked: Is this true? Were Jesus’ executioners really that naive? Did they really not know what they were doing? A lot indicates that they were far from innocent. They knew they were shedding innocent blood. So why does Jesus say what he said?

I like Karl Rahner’s explanation of this. He suggests that those who crucified Jesus knew exactly that they were doing, at one level. They knew that they were acting in jealousy, being dishonest, putting an innocent man to death. In one way, they weren’t innocent at all. But they were innocent in another, more important, way. How? How were they innocent?

There is a place inside us, a place we are rarely aware of, where each and everyone of us is being touched and held unconditionally in love by God. The people who crucified Jesus didn’t know what they were doing because they didn’t know how much they were loved. That is the real blindness, the real ignorance, that can excuse bad behaviour.

This is an insight with many ramifications. Far too often we crucify others and ourselves because of this ignorance. We feel unloved. For this reason we are harsh in our judgements of others and unaware of why we ourselves are so prone to weakness and to compromise our dignity. We are judgemental and weak because, at the end of the day, we don’t know any better. We don’t know how much we are loved. We have the innocence of the child who hurts herself in ignorance. This is not a new insight.

In classical theology there is a distinction between CULPABLE and INCULPABLE ignorance. The latter, also called INVINCIBLE ignorance, was seen to excuse one from sin and responsibility. The idea was that you could do things that were wrong but not sinful because you were acting in ignorance. The idea was that you acted morally and responsibly only if you actually knew what you were doing. To sin, you had to act “knowingly”. That’s a tricky caveat.

Looking at our world today, I would risk saying that in many important moral matters, we are acting in invincible ignorance. Simply put, we don’t know any better. Only the type of ignorance that allowed sincere people to crucify Jesus can explain why so many good, sincere people can be so massively blind, communally and individually, to the economic and social demands made by our faith. The real reason we can live so comfortably as the gap between the rich and the poor widens is because we don’t know how much we are loved by God, not because we are bad and without conscience. We feel unloved and so we feel we have to take life for ourselves.

The same holds true for our attitude towards sex. We have been able to trivialize sex, split it off from the sacredness of marriage, and turn it into a simple extension of dating (or something worse) only because of a certain invincible ignorance. We don’t know any better, not because we lack conscience, but because we lack any real sense of being loved.

We are like Jesus’ executioners. We have an astounding capacity to rationalize, trivialize, and compensate precisely because we don’t know what we are doing. We don’t feel God’s love for us. Instead we feel unloved and all that goes with that – the sense of being tired, discouraged, lonely, hurt, excluded, fearful, and in need of doing the things we do in order to survive. Small wonder we settle for second-best or for almost anything else that promises to fill an aching void inside us. Jesus, no doubt, is looking at us and saying: “Forgive them Father for they know not what they do!”

But don’t we? Can we really plead ignorance, innocence, say that we don’t know any better? I think yes. We are ignorant, inculpably unaware of how much God loves us. Too few of us, at any real, personal level, have ever heard God say to us: “I love you!” Too few of us have ever heard felt what Jesus must have felt when, at this baptism, he heard his Father say: “You are my beloved child, in you I take delight!” Indeed, most of us have never heard another human being saying this to us, let alone God. Is it a surprise then that, like Jesus’ executioners, we have this amazing capacity to rationalize, to be cruel, to be dishonest, to be unforgiving, and to sell ourselves out?

Darkness is only bad because there is light. Sin can only happen if first there is love. Betrayal is only possible if first one has heard the words: “I love you.” Morris West used to say: “All miracles begin with the act of falling in love.” Jesus’ executioners acted in a darkness that came from never having had that experience. The same is true for us.