The above title is, of course, an extract from the Christian Lord’s Prayer: in theory, a daily devotion to remind us of our duties. The prayer comes from Luke 11:2-4, and the words above are followed by, “as we have forgiven those who have sinned against us” [or different translations to that same effect]. Some – perhaps many – would believe that to sin means to transgress the laws of God: the laws that Moses received on Mount Sinai (Exodus:20-23). But is that the only ‘sin’? And why should we forgive the sins of others?
There are a good deal more than the ‘ten’ commandments that many presume, in what is reported in the book of Exodus. As indicated above, there are four whole ‘chapters’ dedicated to recording rules and strictures. And although most of us, now, would not have bonded servants, or keep an ox, we can find equivalents in our modern life. Even Muslims hold that the laws given to Moses are to be kept by them: interpreted, but not replaced, through the words of the Qu’ran. So are these the basis for ‘sin’?
Some would argue that although these laws are clearly relevant to an older time, we have not the right to update them. We should wait until a new prophet comes – a prophet of our times – and until then obey what we have received. Some Muslim teachers might argue that we have had a later prophet, and therefore the Qu’ran provides the updated commandments; but those, too, speak to the customs and people of a past age. Some would argue that we should only take the later version of the interaction with Moses – in Deuteronomy:5 – as being true. In that version, God did not give all of the rules and strictures, but stopped at the stricture not to covet. [It is from Deuteronomy that the ‘ten’ commandments derive.] It does seem to be a bit of a minefield.
Even though the rules and strictures were aimed at a certain people, in a certain age, that does not mean there are none that apply now. The more obvious, such as the injunction not to kill, could clearly be applied – even literally – in these times, too. And that ‘literal’ manner of interpretation is often taken, both by teachers and by lay people. But this omits a number of rules and strictures that were based on more than just ‘good morality’ of that time and place. Indeed, they sometimes went against the latter: requiring the Jews who came out of Egypt to be different to those others, around them. And in the teachings of Jesus – and those of Mohammed – we see those crucial differences being re-emphasised.
I’d get myself into really troubled waters if I proposed an alternative set of holy commandments. I’d be accused – rightly – of being a ‘false prophet’. No, what I advise Christians, Jews and Muslims to do is to go back to their existing rules and strictures – to all of those in the book of Exodus – and to seek God within them. I urge them to go beyond the form of those commandments and to seek to understand their object: the kind of being that God wishes human beings to have. To ‘sin’ is surely to stray from this object, and not just to break commandments of a bygone age.
A large part of the object of the commandments [some might argue, the whole of it] is to lead a life that respects and values all other life. Even that life which one must use up, or command, for one’s own well-being should be respected within its purpose. Those who do not respect life – who take it or harm it without proper purpose – permit others (by their act) to exact the same upon them. Likewise with property, action against which grows from disrespect of the proper owner or keeper and harms that proper owner or keeper. Even the commandment to “have no other God but Me” stems from the same respect for all life.
So even today, we can forgive the ‘sin’ of others against us: the lack of respect that we perceive they have had for us. And if we cannot do that, then we do not respect them. Their act may well have given permission for the same to be done against them, but we have the choice – as Jesus taught – to turn the other cheek. Let the community judge whether punishment is due, and let that be based on whether there is genuine remorse, or an evident lack of it. And let he who is without that sin cast the first stone, and endorse punishment. But even when the community judges that punishment is due, we should, ourselves, forgive.
To forgive does not mean to exonerate: to change the past. It means to continue to give respect to another life, even though it has caused harm to oneself. If we cannot forgive, how should we expect even God to forgive us our own sins? It is surely the essence of remorse, too, that we forgive others in advance for the just retribution that we are due – even if the community chooses not to exact it. Taken this way, forgiveness is a really big thing. It means that we do not hold the hurtful actions of another as a grudge against them.
Ah, so perhaps some bible thumpers (or Qu’ran thumpers) would accuse me already of having tried to seduce people away from the written words of God. Not so, of course: I have merely asked even them to look beyond the mere words and to see God, and the object of His desire for them, behind what the words say.
And even if you say you’re not a Christian (nor any of the Abrahamic faiths) then you can surely still see the sense in a respect for life, and in forgiveness as a part of that respect. Certainly the Buddha could.