Culture At Large

A Christian answer to the New York Times' forgiveness question

Johnathan Kana

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.

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.

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.

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, Theology, News & Politics, Justice