I am not, as you may know, a fan of any religion, and the faith in which I was immersed in my youth, Christianity, is far from being my favourite. Frankly, I dislike Christianity and would as a rule prefer a world free from its intrusion.
But finding the whole Christian malarkey rather on the nose doesn't mean I think there's nothing of value being preached in the churches. Of course, much of what IS good about Christianity is just universal morality, or borrowed from some older religion. But there is one core element of the faith that, though not necessarily unique to Christianity, always does seem to me to be a very distinctively Christian value, and that rare distinctively Christian value that all of us, whatever our spiritual disposition, would do well to practise more often.
That is forgiveness.
If Jesus was a real dude, he was onto something with the forgiveness spiel. And if he wasn't a real dude, kudos to whoever put it into his mouth.
Forgiveness, I think, is a pretty wonderful thing, and a thing that makes a better human being of the person who manages to inject a bit of it into their life.
Talk of "Christian values" is rife in the world of today. Pious fundamentalists will tell us that the phrase means sexual propriety, exchanging bodily fluids with people of a pre-approved genital configuration and so forth. And if you take their scriptures at their word, they do have at least a skerrick of support for that - thank whatever deity you like that not many people do take their scriptures at their word.
More secular types will speak of "Christian values" too - normally in the context of compassion and tolerance. In fact the term will be used as a stick to beat those who proclaim their own Christian belief but act without compassion and tolerance. And certainly there's more than a skerrick of scriptural support for those values, and anyone behaving without compassion towards their fellow man is probably not being very Christian in the strictest sense of the word. Although in other, more empirical senses of the word, they may be being very very Christian indeed.
But even compassion and tolerance, as laudable as they are, are the "easy" part of "Christian values". Being nice to people? Treating others kindly? We all should do these things, but that's not news, is it?
What's harder, and what is less likely to be promoted, either by the fundamentalists, or the Christian politicians, or the secularists berating the others for betraying their own values, is forgiveness.
"Love thy neighbour" is an easy matter. What's hard is "love thine enemy".
When we talk of compassion, it's usually in the context of those we deem "Deserving". The people we see as having done no wrong, who have been mistreated or fallen on hard times through no fault of their own. We are eager to extend the hand of friendship to anyone we think has earned it. And so we should.
But so rarely are we called to extend that hand to those who don't deserve it. So rarely do we emphasise the importance of granting compassion to those who have done wrong, who have mistreated others, who have caused misery to others, who have hurt us.
For the most part, we prefer to condemn than to forgive, and we have convinced ourselves that this is not only easier and more satisfying, but that it is right. Those who do wrong deserve condemnation, and we will pour what they deserve upon their heads as much as we can. After all, how can we correct bad behaviour, we confidently ask ourselves, if we do not turn our backs on those who behave badly and make it clear: you are not welcome here.
And I am no different to anyone else: this is my instinct too. This is what I do more often than not.
But I don't want to. I want to try harder, and be better. I want to make the effort to forgive. I don't want to seethe with hate and anger, even when it's entirely justified. I want forgiveness to become a part of my doomed atheist soul.
Forgiveness is a thing of inestimable value, precisely because it is not restricted to those who deserve it. It is a thing of sublime beauty, not because it is just, but because it is generous.
Forgiveness, real forgiveness, means looking at someone who has done you wrong, and saying I will not hate you.
It means seeing a human being hurt another human being, and saying we need not hold onto that hurt forever.
It means seeing atrocity, and saying even the worst in humanity does not have to poison the best.
It means recognising that for even the most corrupt and depraved among us, the sins we commit are not the totality of ourselves, and that every person ever born was more than just their worst deeds.
It means saying redemption is real, and possible, and important, and nobody is beyond it.
It means knowing that the human animal is complex and messy, and nothing it thinks or says or does is so simple we can place each other in neat categories of good and evil: the reasons that we do right or wrong are not so amenable to easy identification that we should find our judgments infallible.
It means, more than anything, declaring that you will never deny the humanity of a fellow traveller in this life, even at those times when they may try to deny yours.
I want to embrace forgiveness. I don't want to deny room in my heart for sympathy or pity, even when I'm looking at someone who my gut says deserves none of either. I don't want to hate people even when they hate me, and I don't want to bay for vengeance against anyone, no matter how much they deserve retribution, or how little they deserve compassion.
I want to forgive people. Not to excuse actions or abandon values, but to grant the recognition of our shared humanity to everyone, even those - especially those - who have done everything to merit the revocation of that recognition.
And I want you to as well. But if you don't, I'll forgive you.