A Christian answer to the New York Times' forgiveness question

Johnathan Kana

January 18, 2013

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.

January 18, 2013

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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