The Political Role of Forgiveness: Amnesty, Mulligans, and Enabling

Eleven million is a significant number. In a week when we remember six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust, let us not forget there were eleven million victims altogether because five million non-Jewish victims were also exterminated by the Nazis. This should also be a week for remembering another eleven million terrorized people – the undocumented immigrants living under an American-style terror. (1)

George W. Bush failed to win over his party as he tried to combine opposition to international terrorism with humane treatment of illegal immigrants. The current administration ramps up fears of international terrorism, even in the absence of attacks on our soil, at the cost of demonizing legal immigrants and their children born in the United States. Both legal and undocumented immigrants are targets for “alt-right” media outlets whose views are important to the Trump administration.

Although international terrorism is a threat to our country, we have not lived in daily fear of Muslim-inspired atrocities. But that is not true for parents who are increasingly fearful as mass shootings at schools recur with no action by congress to curb access to military-style weapons used to murder children and teachers. Meanwhile ICE agents, working for Homeland Security, make the news through Gestapo-like tactics used against undocumented immigrants that are clearly intended to increase terror. (2) There is indeed terror in America today, but it is not related to ISIS.

When immigration policy is debated in congress, politicians aligned with Evangelical Christianity denounce anything other than deportation as amnesty – as unacceptable forgiveness. At the same time, these politicians support a president who abuses opponents, lies to the public, and launches verbal assaults on anyone who proves that he lied. Evangelical Christian leaders have found it convenient to forgive a misbehaving president, giving him a Mulligan as one leader said.

Forgiveness has become an important social and political issue for our country – and a spiritual crisis that Christians can’t ignore. To what extent should Americans forgive an obviously immoral president or undocumented immigrants whose residence here violates the law? Should we forgive Trump and illegal immigrants “seventy times seven,” as Jesus told Peter in Matthew 18: 21-22?

Let’s consider whether forgiveness can be too liberal, which is to say given too easily. Republican congressmen denounce accommodation for undocumented immigrants as “amnesty,” an approach which they say encourages ongoing illegal immigration in expectation of recurring amnesty. They say they have “been there, done that” when it comes to allowing undocumented immigrants a path to legalization and they are determined not to do it again.

Yet the same congressmen, along with Evangelical ministers, defend outrageous behavior, slanderous attacks, and unapologetic lying by President Trump. After his shamefully racist remarks about Haiti and African countries and discovery of paying hush money to keep adultery out of the news, one Evangelical leader after another gave the president “a Mulligan.” In golf, that means ignoring a bad shot and taking another. In political life, it means looking the other way – forgiving by overlooking the problem or pretending it doesn’t exist.

When someone refuses to acknowledge or repent of wrongdoing, is it acceptable to forgive by overlooking and thereby tolerating continued bad behavior?

When Peter asked Jesus about forgiveness, he said nothing about whether the other person repented or asked for forgiveness. Part of the message is that we should be willing to forgive, no matter what the motivation of the other person. But should forgiveness be given when someone refuses to change course and does the same things over and over, or even insists he doesn’t need forgiveness because he is never wrong? If we overlook ongoing bad behavior, then what we call forgiveness turns into “enabling” or passively encouraging wrongdoing.

Forgiveness is too easy when it “gives a pass” to unacceptable behavior by President Trump or other leaders that is persistent, injurious, and unrepentant. German church leaders kept overlooking Hitler’s uncivil behavior and Evangelical leaders in America are following their pattern.

On the other hand, proposed resolutions for illegal immigrants have not mentioned immediate pardon. Every “amnesty” program has involved a process taking years and owning responsibility for being a violator of our border security. The DACA program for people who came illegally as children, and thus were not conscious of violating the law, requires steps through which individuals take responsibility for what their parents did. To call such forms of political forgiveness easy or too liberal is a sharp contrast with ongoing eagerness to overlook serial violations by President Trump.

Finally, there is a spiritual as well as political and social cost when forgiveness is not granted or when it happens too easily.

Jesus’ advice to Peter is good for individuals and society. When we bear grudges against others, we hurt ourselves through internal bitterness that damages us spiritually. Even worse, it violates the principle supported by Jesus that we must love our neighbors as a way of showing our devotion to loving God.  Jesus also makes that clear in the Lord’s Prayer where receiving forgiveness is connected to granting it.

Political leaders who identify themselves as Christians yet insist on deporting eleven million persons rather than consider any solution they condemn as amnesty betray values at the heart of Christianity. Anger and hostility dominate political processes when forgiveness and humane consideration are rejected.

There is also spiritual damage when Christians cheapen forgiveness as they avoid taking costly stands against a president who thinks he can do no wrong and inflicts damage on any who resist his demands for support. A president who benefits from ongoing amnesty even though he never repents or apologizes should not benefit from Christian cowardice dressed up as forgiveness.

Does Jesus’ “seventy times seven” extend to eleven million illegal immigrants? Should Christians overlook serial presidential lying and abuse? The spiritual well-being of our nation, churches, and souls depends on how we answer those questions.


<1>Jens Manual Krogstadt, et. al., “5 Facts About Illegal Immigration in the U.S.,” Pew Research Center.

<2>The Washington Post Editorial Board, “Unshackled by the Trump Administration, Deportation Agents Discount Basic Decency,” The Washington Post, January 28, 2018; Derek Hawkins, “Federal Judge Blasts ICE for ‘Cruel’ Tactics,” The Washington Post, January 30, 2018.

About the Author

Dr. Edward G. Simmons was born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1943. A graduate of Mercer University, he earned both an M.A. and Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University. Dr. Simmons taught history at Appalachian State University until he was drafted to serve during the Vietnam era. Stationed in California, South Dakota, and then Georgia, he served in the Air Force. Following his military tenure, Dr. Simmons became an expert in the field of organizational management as a result of thirty-four years of service for the Georgia Department of Human Resources, during which he continued to teach history part-time at local colleges in addition to consulting for top-level managers in various state organizations. In retirement, he teaches history part-time at Georgia Gwinnett College and Brenau University. He is the author of Talking Back to the Bible: A Historian’s Approach to Bible Study


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