Forgiveness and Justice

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Posted by Doug Showalter on December 30, 1997 at 22:57:26:

I believe that forgiveness and justice are both important. However, there is an important difference between them, which I believe needs to be kept in mind.

As an individual, I have considerable control over my forgiving; yet, I may have absolutely no control over whether justice takes place or not in any particular situation. The fact is: I can't force people to be sincerely repentant or to make restitution for their wrongs--as ideal as those things would be. I also can't force the courts to convict and adequately punish even those I know to be guilty. Forgiveness is in my hands; justice is usually in the hands of many, as we practice it in our civilized society.

I once heard the story of a neighborhood grocer who was held up and shot by a boy in his neighborhood. This grocer had known and respected this boy's family for years. This grocer was a Christian. What did he do? He found it within his heart to forgive this boy for shooting him. But, he also did another thing. He willingly testified against the boy in court--albeit, with a sense of sadness.

I, for one, have no problem with the grocer's stand in this situation; I don't consider it inconsistent. In my view, personal forgiveness does not automatically wipe away the evil of an injurious act. Neither does it automatically wipe away the responsibility of those who commit such acts.

Let's consider a situation: suppose a young person was criminally abused by an adult. In principle: I would be supportive of that young person bringing charges against that adult. Then, in the courts, justice would either be served or not--depending upon the court, and upon one's definition of what justice required in that particular case. At that point, it is mostly others--not the victim--who control whether justice is done.

Through the case, and afterwards, I would try to be supportive of that young person as he/she struggles with the effects of the harm done. I would try to meet the young person wherever they were in their feelings. Over time, and in a gentle way, I would also encourage the young person to think about the possibility of going on a journey of forgiveness, to forgive their injurer.

Now why would I do this? Primarily I would do this for the sake of the young person's own healing and well-being!!!

To continue to carry ill will against one's injurer is, in effect, chaining one's self to the pain of the past, so that the injury is re-lived over and over again. It's also chaining one's self to the nightmare of evil which really belongs to the injurer who created it. In my view, the young person needs time to work out his/her own feelings about the injury. But in time, the young person also needs to be freed from that injury, in order to move forward with his/her life in a positive, life-affirming way. Forgiveness has such a freeing effect.

The grocer in the above story forgave quickly. I don't believe most people are capable of forgiving a serious injury that quickly. As a kind of spiritual healing, forgiveness often takes time. In fact, I would not try to push anyone to forgive prematurely, for such forgiveness, if it is true, must come from the heart. It cannot be forced.

Here is my bottom-line concern: Justice, repentance, and restitution are all important. We wish they all would happen in every situation of victimization. But, the reality is this: we live in an imperfect world. These things do not always happen. And when they don't happen, we as individuals usually have little or no power to make them happen.

If we make our forgiveness dependent upon justice, repentance, or restitution happening first, then we are setting ourselves up--at least potentially--to be a victim twice, not just once!! On one level it sounds good to say that our forgiving should depend on these things. However, the actual reality of living a life of such intentionally withheld forgiveness, is not very pretty for the one who must live it. For the victim, such unforgiveness eventually becomes a self-made prison.

And what about the injurer? I would still care about that person too, as a human being created in God's image. Ideally, I would encourage that person to admit the wrong they had done, to accept responsibility and whatever legal consequences there were to their act, and to seek to make restitution to their victim. I would also encourage that person to reach out to God in sincere repentance, to receive God's love and forgiveness so their lives could be renewed. My personal belief is that we are all created in God's image, and that ultimately no one is beyond the love and forgiveness of our God.

A related issue: Suppose a Church Treasurer confesses and/or is convicted of embezzling church funds. The Treasurer's parish board votes to forgive him. Does their forgiveness also require that this individual be restored to his position as Treasurer? I think not. The church board can choose to do that. However, I do not believe that forgiveness requires it. To forgive someone is to no longer hold ill will against them. To forgive is not necessarily an affirmation that all trust in that person has been restored--especially in the matter of handling the church's money. In my view, it is not forgiveness, but prudence which should decide whether or not that individual is given the privilege of being trusted as Church Treasurer again.

These are my views. I hope they stimulate, and possibly clarify, your thinking on the relationship of Christian forgiving and justice.

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