Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. — Matthew 6:12
There are moments in history when the goodness of humanity brilliantly illuminates the darkness. June 1, 2010, was just such a moment. The place, appropriately, was one of the darkest cities in America — Detroit, ravaged by the collapse of the automobile industry.
At Comerica Park, the Detroit Tigers’ Armando Galarraga was pitching. The crowd fell silent as Galarraga — a young man who had been slated to be sent to the minor leagues — retired the first 26 batters. He was on the verge of making baseball history. Only 20 perfect games have ever been pitched.
Galarraga was one out away from throwing the 21st. With two outs in the ninth, the Cleveland Indians batter hit an easy grounder to the Tiger first baseman. Galarraga, the pitcher, raced to cover first. It’s a routine play; Galarraga and the ball reached first base at least a step ahead of the runner. Galarraga was about to become a baseball immortal.
Except he didn’t. “Safe!” shouted umpire Jim Joyce. Galarraga’s response was a simple smile — a smile that, as Joe Posnanski of Sports Illustrated said, seemed to ask, “Are you sure? I really hope you are sure.”
The blown call outraged fans across the country. For Joyce’s part, as soon as he saw the replay, he knew that he had gotten it wrong. He told reporters, “I just cost that kid a perfect game.”
By baseball standards, such an admission was extraordinary: Umpires are paid to make judgment calls and stand by them. Players and managers can argue with them, but only within limits, and with no expectation of having the call reversed.
So when Joyce apologized to Galarraga, we were already in unfamiliar territory. When Galarraga, in turn, forgave Joyce, adding that the umpire probably felt worse than he did and that “nobody’s perfect,” we were witnessing something extraordinary.
The victim of what Posnanski calls one of the “most absurd injustices in the history of baseball” went out of his way to comfort the umpire who made the mistake. And the umpire was humble enough to ask for forgiveness. It was a spontaneous, unforgettable moment.
The ability to forgive is one of the most powerful forces for good in any society. It can reconcile the most grievous altercations, which are an ever-present reality in a fallen world. Forgiveness brings about shalom — the biblical term for concord and harmony — between people who have the greatest differences imaginable and can transform institutions and even warring nations.
America is rightly known for its forgiving nature. The land of second chances, we like to say. What other nation in history has simultaneously fought major world wars against two mighty military powers — Japan and Germany — eventually conquered its attackers, and then turned right around to rebuild the very countries it fought?
And yet in recent years, Americans have become a deeply cynical and unforgiving people. A 1988 Gallup poll revealed that 50 percent of Americans do not believe that they could forgive others; another revealed that “forgiveness is something virtually all Americans aspire to” (94 percent) but “is not something we frequently offer.” Only 48 percent acknowledged attempting to forgive others. And yet, as Melissa Healy, in the Los Angeles Times article “The Science of Forgiveness” noted a few years ago, a refusal to forgive those who have harmed us can increase the risk of heart attacks and depression.
How and why did we reach this tragic place?
Some saw this sad state of affairs coming. In 1973, psychiatrist Karl Menninger wrote a popular book titled Whatever Happened to Sin? Good question. What happened is that sin has become the most politically incorrect subject we can possibly raise in polite company, because it involves being judgmental.