A Christian answer to the New York Times’ forgiveness question

The somewhat provocative title of a recent New York Times Magazine feature asks, "Can forgiveness play a role in criminal justice?" What follows is the heart-rending story of how the parents of murder victim Ann Grosmaire came to forgive Conor McBride, her three-year relationship partner, fiance and the man who put an end to her life in cold blood. It recounts the unusual route the Grosmaires pursued - alongside McBride's own parents and with the grudging participation of the state's prosecuting attorney - to see justice done not only for their daughter but also for her murderer. As a result, McBride now faces a mere 20 years in prison rather than a life of exile.

Why the disparity? The Grosmaires decided to face McBride by way of restorative justice, an alternative to the adversarial proceedings of a typical trial by jury. Restorative justice generates a controlled forum for both victims and offenders (as well as representatives of the community at large) to collaboratively address the real consequences of crime, determine whether and how amends are to be made and decide on appropriate rehabilitative measures. Because such efforts typically result in far less severe punishments, they elicit severe controversy. Common sense frames justice in strictly retributive terms, after all, insisting that justice is served only when an offender's punishment is proportionate to the offense. Mercy and forgiveness, while admirable, simply cannot satisfy this demand.

Yet mercy and forgiveness are the very bedrock of restorative justice, which aims to restore community peace in the way that least multiplies the hurt already done. In order for restorative justice to work, the victim must be willing to set aside retributive claims, the offender must be genuinely remorseful and prepared to work for restitution and the community must agree to safeguard the peace without destroying the offender. Some would say that restorative justice is not really justice at all, but rather an expedient way to circumvent justice in certain extraordinary cases. They might applaud people like the Grosmaires for exhibiting courageous sympathy, but they would never go so far as to suggest that McBride has been “brought to justice.”

Fair enough. I agree that the restorative paradigm is foreign to the common-sense worldview. But I would also argue that, for those who filter their understanding of justice through the lens of Calvary, forgiveness more perfectly represents the divine mandate than retaliation. I suspect that our desire to retaliate against offenders is not merely the carnal stirrings of our sin-stained humanity, but rather the violated sanctity of the divine image within - the part of us that resonates with the Creator who says, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay.” But when we do the hard work of forgiveness - when we objectively face the wrong done against us and choose to divert the demands of retribution in order to make room for mercy - then we take up the cross of Christ and allow ourselves to be crucified alongside Him whom God “made to be sin” for our sake.

And then - miraculously, against all worldly wisdom - we discover that God's way in Christ is more perfect than we could have imagined. Because of their courage, the Grosmaires have tapped a profound well of healing in the aftermath of unspeakable loss, and a remorseful offender has experienced the transforming power of grace. Is restorative justice valid? Perhaps we should let those redeemed of the Lord make that call.

Ex-convict and freelance writer Johnathan Kana completed advanced degrees in biblical studies through Liberty Bible College & Seminary and holds a certificate in biblical counseling from Light University. He and his wife are expecting their first child this spring. / Photo courtesy of iStockphoto.

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I was elated to read the New York Times Magazine feature because it showed that restorative justice can be used even for some of the worst crimes – even for some murders. Everyone was a winner in the case described. The Grosmaires found the way to forgiveness and freedom. Conor had to go through the very painful process of taking responsibility for all the harm he caused and look for ways to repair the damage. (Many criminals would rather serve a life sentence than go through that pain.) This is the kind of justice that victims really want. The chance that Conor would commit a crime again when released was much less, which made the community much safer. In most restorative justice practices (for both minor and serious crimes), recidivism is less and victims are much more satisfied than if the case goes through the criminal justice system.

Issues of forgiveness and restorative justice are not just academic for me. In 1997, my brother, a Denver policeman, was shot to death by a skinhead who subsequently committed suicide with my brother's revolver. Later I met many murder victim family members who introduced me to restorative justice and their own struggles with forgiveness. My brother's killer was dead, but I had many struggles in trying to forgive the killer's woman accomplice, Lisl Auman, who showed no remorse during her felony murder trial and little sincere remorse eight years later when her conviction (and life sentence) were overturned. If I had decided that I would never forgive Lisl unless she was very remorseful and apologized to me, my life would have been held hostage to what Lisl would do. She had taken so much from me – did I really want to give her that power? So, like the Grosmaires, I forgave for me. That
gave me the freedom to stop obsessing about Lisl and to move on with my life. It also gave me a deeper knowledge of God's forgiveness and His desire that we forgive even our enemies.
Thanks for sharing your personal experience, Gail. You're right: forgiveness is more about setting ourselves free from enslavement to the injury done to us than about setting the offender free from guilt. In fact, I had wanted to explore some misconceptions of forgiveness in this piece, but there simply wasn't the space for more elaboration. One of the most common misconceptions I've encountered is the confusion of forgiveness with pardon, on the one hand, and reconciliation, on the other.

Pardon is when we assure an "offender" that their crime is of little consequence, or that they've really done no wrong at all. Obviously, forgiveness is not about sweeping the consequences of crime under the rug! That's not healthy, and it's not biblical.

But neither should we mistake forgiveness for the considerably more difficult work of reconciliation--that is, the process whereby estranged parties are able to come together once more in their previous social roles toward one another. Forgiveness is a PART of reconciliation, but it's ONLY a part...reconciliation takes a lot more, and that's what restorative justice is about. It STARTS with forgiveness...but it doesn't always end with the kind of fuzzy story we get in this case. Sometimes, as in Lisl's case, restorative justice simply cannot work because one or more parties involved simply can't (or won't) do their part in the hard work of seeking reconciliation.

But even where reconciliation isn't possible, as you've alluded, forgiveness is ultimately healing for the victim in a way that retribution never is. I'm positive God has and will continue to reward your courage in forgiving your brother's murderers.


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