Chastity may be the most unpopular Christian virtue, but it has some stiff competition from forgiveness. Everybody loves forgiveness in theory, but most people hate to practice it. And it seems that there must be some limits to forgiveness—one wouldn’t, for instance, expect a Jew to forgive the Nazis. Lewis acknowledges that forgiveness can be a “hard pill to swallow,” but insists that it’s an important part of the religion.
One of Lewis’s most common rhetorical strategies is to begin by acknowledging the difficulty of the argument he is about to make, and then proceeding to make that argument. People pay lip service to forgiveness, he says here, but they rarely practice it in their daily lives. Nevertheless, it’s important to try to forgive one’s enemies, as we’ll see.
To wrap our heads around forgiveness, Lewis says, let’s start with a simple point: how do we go about loving our neighbors “as we love ourselves,” as Christ taught us? Lewis confesses that he doesn’t really feel a strong sense of affection or desire for himself, nor is he always happy with himself. It would seem that, if we take Christ’s advice literally, we should love our neighbors even if we disagree with them, dislike them, or feel no affection for them. Christianity doesn’t tell people to lessen their hatred for sinful behavior. But perhaps we should hate sin in the same way that we hate our own mistakes: feeling sorry for the people who sin, while also hoping that somehow they can be “cured.”
Lewis chooses to take the Golden Rule very literally here. Thus, he advises his readers to love other people without affection or desire, but simply because they’re human beings (much as we “love” ourselves simply because we are ourselves—even when we don’t like ourselves). Lewis’s argument reflects the familiar Christian principle that we should “hate the sin and love the sinner”—Christ wanted people to forgive one another, even as they fought sinful behavior.
A question arises: how should we punish our enemies while staying true to the doctrine of forgiveness? Lewis claims that we should punish our enemies when they do wrong, just as we punish ourselves on occasions. There are times when the proper penalty for a crime is death—being a Christian doesn’t necessarily mean refraining from killing people. The sixth commandment in the Old Testament is usually translated, “Thou shalt not kill,” but a more accurate translation would be, “Thou shalt not murder.” Not all killing is murder, in the same sense that not all sexual intercourse is adultery.
Lewis’s interpretation of Christ’s teaching is that there are many occasions when a good Christian is morally justified in taking another life—in spite of the Old Testament’s insistence that “Thou shalt not kill.” It’s worth noting that, contrary to Lewis’s interpretation, there are many Christian sects that prohibit killing in any capacity (and indeed, the earliest Christians appear to have been radical pacifists).
It might be objected that, if killing is sometimes allowed in Christianity, then there’s no real difference between Christianity and the everyday view of killing. But Lewis claims that in fact, there is. Christianity teaches that we must not enjoy the act of killing even when we’re executing a horrible criminal. It’s hard to avoid the pleasure of punishing others, but we must try our hardest to do so.
As in the previous chapters, Lewis makes an important distinction between the literal act of killing and one’s state of mind while carrying out the act. It is difficult but possible, he insists, to kill reluctantly, hating the sin but loving the sinner.