Forgiveness does not change the past, but it can alter the future. The past and future live in a constant tension within the world of The Walking Dead. How you live today can impact who you become tomorrow, and who you were yesterday can be overlooked depending on how you live today. All of the characters in this show have done horrible things. Their pasts often haunt their present. To keep the past from destroying their futures each character must find, receive, and give forgiveness.

The weight of past sins can be suffocating sometimes. Tara feels that weight in Episode two of season five. She feels it so much that she can’t help but confess the truth of who she is to Maggie. Father Gabriel too feels an impenetrable guilt for something he has done, something he is unwilling to confess. “I confess my sins to God, not to strangers,” he says. For all his confession to God, however, Father Gabriel doesn’t appear to feel any less guilt and shame. Tara on the other hand confesses to another person and receives freedom and acceptance. As a counselor I am often struck by the relationship between confessing sins to others and finding freedom. It’s not that God does not really offer freedom from guilt and shame. Rather I find that those unwilling to confess to their fellow-men are often not really willing to acknowledge the depth of their failure. Their confession to God is often more a pseudo-confession. Tara finds forgiveness when she confesses to Maggie. “I was at the prison,” she says, “with the Governor. I didn’t know who he was or what he could do. I didn’t know you all. I just didn’t want it to be hidden that I was there.” Maggie responds with open arms, “You’re here with us now.” Tara is part of the group; whatever she did before is overlooked. There is freedom and acceptance for her in confession. The forgiveness she receives changes her path.

And forgiveness abounds in episode two of season five. Rick forgives Tara. “I know you didn’t want to be there,” he says to her. Tyrese too has forgiven Carol and is going to try to convince the group to forgive her. “They need to accept it.” And not only does Rick forgive Carol, but Carol too forgives Rick. “I sent you away to this and now we’re joining you,” he says. “Will you have us?” Carol nods. Old divisions, old wounds are beginning to heal. Forgiveness is leading them into a new future together. They sit and sip communion wine, an ancient symbol of unity and community.

There are still some characters, however, whose future remains uncertain. Who they will become, what community they will be part of remains unstable. Their future remains uncertain because they can’t accept or cannot offer forgiveness. That’s obvious with Father Gabriel who won’t even divulge his sins after his emotional meltdown in the food bank. It’s also true of Carol, who has been welcomed back into the group with many thanks and heartfelt hugs. Still, she sits on the periphery of the group, uncertain of where she belongs. She even attempts to slip away in the night. She has been forgiven many things, but she struggles to accept this forgiveness. The weight of her choices is heavy. Rick knows how serious her past actions were. He says to her, “I still don’t know about what you did.” Forgiveness doesn’t change the past. Carol knows that too, perhaps that’s why she is so sure she can’t stay in the group.

It’s hard for Rick too to believe in forgiveness. This world has been vicious and he has risked much and lost much. As a result his heart is becoming hardened towards others. He is reluctant to help strangers, reluctant to trust anyone. It’s Carl who urges his dad not to hate everyone:

We’re strong enough that we can still help people. And we can handle ourselves if things go wrong. And we’re strong enough that we don’t have to be afraid and we don’t have to hide.

Bob too warns Rick of how his hardening heart is going to lead him down an unhealthy path. “We push ourselves and let things go, and then we let some more go, and some more, and pretty soon there’s things we can’t get back, things we couldn’t hold onto even if we tried.” Bob warns Rick that he’s losing touch with his humanity. He warns him that if he loses his humanity then the future will be bleak for him. “You’re gonna find yourself in a place where it’s like how it used to be. And if you let too much go along the way then it’s not gonna work. Cause you gonna be back in the real world.” If he can’t forgive it will impact his future.

Rick knows that forgiveness can’t change the past. What Shane did, what the Governor did, what the Termites have done, it all has consequences. It is all a kind of evil that must be resisted, checked, and hated. Forgiving them won’t change the past. Not forgiving them will impact the future. “Washington’s gonna happen, Rick,” Bob says. Eugene is going to save the world and set things right. Rick has to live in the present, but he has to live in the present in a way that prepares him for the future. For Rick, accepting the reality of forgiveness is the way to save his own humanity.

Forgiveness is never easy. Finding it, accepting it, and giving it, however, change the path we walk. Not finding forgiveness keeps us trapped in guilt and shame. Not receiving forgiveness traps us in isolation. Not giving forgiveness buries us in bitterness. Forgiveness, on the other hand, opens a new future to us; it opens up a new community to us. The more these characters embrace it the more of their own humanity they will retain. The more humanity they retain, the better their futures will be.

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