I’ll bet none of the Kings of England who for three hundred years spoke only French, ever apologized for it. And yet we are forever begging people’s pardon, for all sorts of things, from arriving late to walking on toes to bursting into the wrong toilet to interrupting a conversation to breaking promises (” I beg your pardon”, the song says, “I never promised you a rose garden”). Sometimes people find it difficult, even impossible, to ask for pardon : John Howard, three times Prime Minister of Australia, simply could never bring himself to say “Sorry” for the genocide of our Aborigines. God, in the Bible, is known to have refused pardon and even to have meted out what can only be called excessive punishment in the form of crimes against humanity. Jesus Himself warned us of the punishment awaiting the unrepentant and unpardonned sinner in Hell, where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth”, though He did beg His Father to forgive His executioners, “for they know not what they do”.
Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement (“at-one-ment”), the Day of Pardon, when Jewish people ask God to forgive them. Christians in their “Our Father” go a step further and take the risk of asking God to forgive them their trespasses just as they themselves forgive those who trespass against them (a dangerous yard-stick, given that such human compassion is more often honored in the breach . . ).
“Par – don”, we should remember, has to do etymologically with a donation, a gift. Some people who have been offended, spontaneously offer forgiveness and generously wipe the slate clean. But often pardon has to be requested. And sometimes the last thing that some offenders would do is ask for pardon. The bastards are glad they committed the offense and would readily repeat it. Fortunately most of us are willing to admit our wrong-doing, ask for forgiveness, and, as far as possible, make reparation.
Whatever about our begging pardon of our fellows for trivial or serious breaches in acceptable, permissible, legal behavior, asking God for forgiveness deserves a moment’s reflection. The Catholic practice of examining one’s conscience and confessing one’s sins to a priest, goes beyond the non-sacramental begging of divine forgiveness practised in other Christian churches and in other religions. But whatever form it takes, asking God for pardon is salutary enough, if it is accompanied by the “firm desire to sin no more”, as we used to say. Of course there have always been the smart guys who imagine they can sin mightily, knowing that they can count on a merciful God to forgive them (even if He were so merciful, He would not be so stupid as to allow Himself to be conned so egregiously).
Asking for God’s pardon is, of course, pointless, because He doesn’t exist. But too many people think He does. I hope they will pardon me for pitying their naïveté and credulity. What I find difficult to pardon myself is the outrageous deformation of consciences brain-washed into believing that so many things are forbidden when they are patently mere contraventions of silly rules religion itself has invented, or the result of silly, baseless beliefs about what is right and wrong. The domain of sexual ethics alone offers multiple examples of the religious source of many people’s hang-ups. The truth could make them free, if only they were prepared to recognize where the inhibitions and restrictions came from. I am prepared to pardon the perpetrators, but only when they cease and desist.