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The restorative power of forgiveness

A powerful story in this morning's New York Times Magazine illustrates the value of restorative justice, where the focus of the criminal justice system is put on the victims of crime and the community harmed by it. A young man killed his girlfriend of several years after an extensive dispute, and her parents chose to forgive him:

Andy Grosmaire, Anns father, stood beside his daughters bed in the intensive-care unit of Tallahassee Memorial Hospital. The room was silent except for the rhythmic whoosh of the ventilator keeping her alive. Ann had some brainstem function, the doctors said, and although her parents, who are practicing Catholics, held out hope, it was clear to Andy that unless God did wondrous things, Ann would not survive her injuries. Anns mother, Kate, had gone home to try to get some sleep, so Andy was alone in the room, praying fervently over his daughter, just listening, he says, for that first word that may come out.Anns face was covered in bandages, and she was intubated and unconscious, but Andy felt her say, Forgive him. His response was immediate. No, he said out loud. No way. Its impossible. But Andy kept hearing his daughters voice: Forgive him. Forgive him....Four days later, Anns condition had not improved, and her parents decided to remove her from life support. Andy says he was in the hospital room praying when he felt a connection between his daughter and Christ; like Jesus on the cross, she had wounds on her head and hand. (Ann had instinctually reached to block the gunshot, and lost fingers.) Anns parents strive to model their lives on those of Jesus and St. Augustine, and forgiveness is deep in their creed. I realized it was not just Ann asking me to forgive Conor, it was Jesus Christ, Andy recalls. And I hadnt said no to him before, and I wasnt going to start then. It was just a wave of joy, and I told Ann: I will. I will. Jesus or no Jesus, he says, what father can say no to his daughter?When Conor was booked, he was told to give the names of five people who would be permitted to visit him in jail, and he put Anns mother Kate on the list. Conor says he doesnt know why he did so I was in a state of shock but knowing she could visit put a burden on Kate. At first she didnt want to see him at all, but that feeling turned to willingness and then to a need. Before this happened, I loved Conor, she says. I knew that if I defined Conor by that one moment as a murderer I was defining my daughter as a murder victim. And I could not allow that to happen.She asked her husband if he had a message for Conor. Tell him I love him, and I forgive him, he answered. Kate told me: I wanted to be able to give him the same message. Conor owed us a debt he could never repay. And releasing him from that debt would release us from expecting that anything in this world could satisfy us.

As part of this release, the Grosmaires met with Conor and his parents and negotiated a reduced prison sentence of 20 years, plus ten years of probation -- no small feat in the "tough on crime" Florida panhandle. Here is what the USCCB says in recommending restorative justice in a document published in 2000:

Restorative justice focuses first on the victim and the community harmed by the crime, rather than on the dominant state-against-the-perpetrator model. This shift in focus affirms the hurt and loss of the victim, as well as the harm and fear of the community, and insists that offenders come to grips with the consequences of their actions. These approaches are not "soft on crime" because they specifically call the offender to face victims and the communities. This experience offers victims a much greater sense of peace and accountability. Offenders who are willing to face the human consequences of their actions are more ready to accept responsibility, make reparations, and rebuild their lives.

In this case, that is exactly what happened:

... their forgiveness affected Conor, too, and not only in the obvious way of reducing his sentence. With the Grosmaires forgiveness, he told me, I could accept the responsibility and not be condemned. Forgiveness doesnt make him any less guilty, and it doesnt absolve him of what he did, but in refusing to become Conors enemy, the Grosmaires deprived him of a certain kind of refuge of feeling abandoned and hated and placed the reckoning for the crime squarely in his hands. I spoke to Conor for six hours over three days, in a prison administrators office at the Liberty Correctional Institution near Tallahassee. At one point he sat with his hands and fingers open in front of him, as if he were holding something. Eyes cast downward, he said, There are moments when you realize: I am in prison. I am in prison because I killed someone. I am in prison because I killed the girl I loved.

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P.S. I did not put this in my post because it is secondary to the point about restorative justice, but the incident itself is a perfect example of how arguments can turn bloody simply because firearms are too easily available:

Ann and Conor fought on Friday night. Conor was tired and had homework and things to do the next day, so he wanted to drive home and turn in early. This was a frequent point of contention: Ann being more of a night person, he told me later, was sort of an ongoing issue. He promised to return to Anns house to make breakfast, but when he overslept the next day, the fight continued. They fought by phone and text and tried to make up with a picnic that evening. Ann was excited about a good grade she got in a class and brought Champagne glasses and San Pellegrino Limonata to celebrate. But Conor forgot about the grade, and he recalled at the conference how disappointed Ann was. It just all fell apart from there, he told me.After sunset, they went back to his parents house, but Conor fell asleep in the middle of a conversation. Sunday morning rolls around, and I wake up, and shes already awake and just pissed at me, he recalled. The fight picked up from where it left off. At some point this must have been hours later it escalated to the point to where she got all of her stuff, walked out the door, and she was just like: Look, Im done. Im leaving. ... When Ann got up to leave that Sunday morning, Conor says it wasnt clear to him if she was leaving him or just leaving, but in any case he noticed Ann had left her water bottle, and he followed her to the driveway to give it to her. He found Ann in her car, crying. As Conor related it to me, and to Anns parents that day, Ann said to him: You dont love me. You dont care.Conor leaned his head through the car window, exasperated. What do you want from all of this? he asked. What do you want to happen?I just want you to die, she said.Conor went back in the house, locked the door, went to his fathers closet, pulled his shotgun down from a shelf, unlocked it, went to another room where the ammunition was kept and loaded the gun. He sat down in the living room, put the gun under his chin and his finger on the trigger.I just felt so frustrated, helpless and angry, Conor says. I was just so sick and tired of fighting. I wanted us to work out just because, I mean, I loved the girl. I still do. I was so torn this was the girl that just said she wants me to die. Im sick of the fighting. I just want to die, and yet I love her, and if I kill myself she might do something to herself.All these thoughts were running through his head when Ann started banging on the door. Conor stood up, placed the weapon on a table and let her in. They went into his bedroom, and a few minutes later Conor went to get her something to drink. When he returned, he found her lying on the couch, breathing in a way that seemed to indicate distress. Her mysterious behavior made him so angry that he started screaming: Let me help you! Tell me whats wrong! Conor says that he would frequently fall into this wrathful anger, and on this day there was so much anger, and I kept snapping. Ann started sobbing, saying that Conor didnt care and that she wanted to die. At this point, I just lost it, Conor says. He left the room and got the gun. Ann started to follow him, but she may have stumbled or tripped, because when Conor returned with the gun, she was on her knees halfway between the couch and the door. Conor was frustrated, exhausted and angry and not thinking straight at all.He pointed the gun at her, thinking, he says, that he could scare her so that maybe she would snap out of it.Is this what you want? he yelled. Do you want to die?No, dont! Ann held out her hand. Conor fired.

Sounds good- though too much emnphasis on the fear and hurt of the community- actually that word "community" -makes me uncomfortable .It may lend credence to the view that a person is only as valuable as a community perceives him/her to be.That view is itself a radical shift away from the inherent worth of every invidividual regardless of their standing in a community.The worth of the individual independent of the community is something that humanity took a long time in recocnizing and I wonder if there is not a regressive tilt now? Forgiveness, restorative justice is all very humane and an enlightened way to deal with crime and punishment but still if justice becomes a matter of how others perceive a particular individual-independent of laws deliniating objective punishment-a mob mentality can prevail .What it means to be human becomes more and more a matter of how connected one is to community. That is a tilt to radical collectivism which may tend towards a materialistic view of humanity. I'm glad forgivesnes took place in this tragedy-I am wary of the use of the term and concept "community" which keeps creeping up in all aspects of ethical dilemnas and social policies.

This is a powerful story. Thanks to John Schwwenkler for posting it. Regrettably, not enough attention has been paid to importance of forgiveness in political life. Hannah Arendt called attention to the liberating effects of forgiveness for victims crimes. She thought that there were some crimes that were unforgivable, but many were forgivable. Ricoeur extended her line of thought and called for all the victims who could do so to forgive unconditionally. His reason: Every person, whatever he or she does, is always worth more that whatever he or she does. The background for Arendt's and Ricoeur's reflections on forgiveness is the Holocaust.Their cases in support of forgiveness are based on their philosophical conceptions of what it is to be human. The religious reasons for forgiveness referred to in this article are no less compelling.

What if the perpetrator had not been repentant? Would forgiveness be in order then?

Ann, you ask if forgiveness would still be in order if the perpetrator hadn't been repentant. I don't think it would even be possible. Forgiveness is not simply a disposition or an attitude; it is an event that necessarily involves two parties, the forgiver and the forgiven. Both must want it to happen, and one cannot want to be forgiven if one doesn't believe one has anything to be forgiven for. I think we often speak as if forgiveness and the offer of forgivenessor the desire to forgivewere exactly the same thing. They're not. We can pray for those who have wronged us; we can wish them well, or at least refuse to waste our time (and maim ourselves) wishing them ill. But we cannot forgive them if they refuse to be forgiven. Better to give than to receive, but impossible to give unless someone receives.

What Matt says is right. Without repentance there can be no forgiveness; at most an offense can be forgotten.

Maybe I am misunderstanding something here. But I am somewhat familiar with the concept of restorative justice. My understanding of restorative justice, based on models that exist here, is that the Crown (DA) opts for a different kind of sentencing based on a different criminal justice process than the usual judge, Crown and defence. For example, some crimes that are not so serious may go through a sentencing circle process. In our community, if the offender is First Nation, they may have the option to go through a sentencing circle in which elders, community members and others gather in a circle to discuss the best recourse for this situation.The aim of restorative justice is to repair the damage done by the person and the person to hear the impact that their action had on the community.Such models are useful for such things as say shoplifting or simple assaults or mischief.But for serious crimes such as this, I am not so sure that restorative justice is useful. I am not saying that from a spiritual point of view such initiatives are not helpful to the victim and the perpetrator but I don't think, in crimes such as this, these kinds of things should figure in the sentencing process. For one, it makes the sentencing more arbitrary. What if the victim cannot forgive? Or if it is in the context of a family will they feel coerced to "forgive".We see this a lot in domestic abuse cases. The perpetrator is charged and the woman, for all kinds of complicated reasons, requests that the charge be rescinded. The current laws are that the police and not the woman lays the charge. This is precisely to protect the woman. But many woman fight this in court and say that they do not want their partner's charged.There is something to be said for an objective third party, representing the society (i.e. the Crown or D.A.), to say that irrespective of personal feelings there is a clear boundary, that we as a society are drawing. That boundary is that you may not use physical violence to resolve differences. Period. And we need to make a clear statement about that. I am not saying that the perpetrator need to be shackled but a criminal record, some mandatory counselling (and maybe here a sentencing circle or some form of restorative justice would fit) is just and fair.But, as I understand it, restorative justice, is an alternative to the criminal justice system. I support that alternative in that not all offenses need to be criminalized and we should have alternative forms of delivering justice. But generally these alternatives are not for serious crimes like the one discussed above.

Without repentance there can be no forgiveness; at most an offense can be forgotten.

I don't think that this is quite correct. Forgiveness is an a release of any kind of feeling of recompense that the other person has towards you. My forgiving someone is not dependent on their acknowledgement of wrongdoing. Jesus forgave those who put them to death. "Father forgive them for they know not what they do". He released them from any guilt in his death. If, for example, a spouse forgives their partner for adultery, it means that they are able to fully release any bondage that the adultery has had on the relationship for their part. They fully release the person from having to "repent" in any fashion. Yes? No?. Certainly, there is a new reality in the relationship that exists and, I suppose choices need to be made. But forgiving them does not mean that the relationship continues as it has.

PIronically, forgiveness actually free a person so that they can act out of more empowering space. That has been my experience anyway. Free of anger, bitterness or rancour. It brings clarity, calmness of mind and an ability to make better choices.

Matthew --Somehow I think the Lord wants us to forgive even before repentance, even without it, though I can't think of a Scriptural reference that says so exactly. Mr. Grosmaines forgave Conor before he knew whether Conor had repented or not. Just what is forgiveness? An act of the will? Certainly, but what sort. A rejection of justified ill will? And/or a canceling out of something due in reparation? I think there is more. Maybe it even differs somewhat from injury to injury.

I know forgiveness is important as Christians - Jesus mentions it - but I don't think I could forgive someone killing someone I love. It seems like it is the victim who has the right to give or not give forgiveness, though of course the family would be hurt too. I've seen a lot of stories in the news over the years of people forgiving the murderers of their children and to be honest it makes me feel kind of queasy. Perhaps forgiveness makes people feel better but maybe it's also a kind of survival mechanism, a way of putting the bad thing behind you and moving on. Maybe I just don't understand it.

If forgiveness is impossible without repentance, is it possible when the transgressor's moral agency is diminished?

This is a poignant story. And this content must be remembered as well: i.e. forgiveness is NOT a must for restorative justice:Article from Howard Zehr in which he answers my question about forgiveness and the good vs. the bad victim concept that restorative justice often affords:http://emu.edu/now/restorative-justice/2011/11/29/good-and-bad-victims/R... Television Piece of Meeting the Man Who Murdered My Dad:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b65xefiHB1MMy Recent Master's Thesis on both the opportunities and concerns of restorative justice:Master's Thesis: "Sawbonna: Justice as Lived Experience"http://dtpr.lib.athabascau.ca/action/viewdtrdesc.php?cpk=308&id=48984Saw... Van Sluytman

George D: Respectfully, your first comment suggests that you haven't read the article, at least not carefully. In this case at least, the restorative justice procedure did NOT involve circumventing the usual criminal justice system entirely, and there WAS an "objective third party" who ultimately decided what sentencing options would be available. And there is no evidence at all that the victim's family (or the victim, while she was alive) felt "coerced" into forgiveness. Perhaps this is not the usual way that RJ works (though I am not sure of that): but as you say, it is not the usual sort of case where it is applied.Grant: I would say that forgiveness is only appropriate to the extent that the offender is a genuine moral agent, capable of repentance. This is because forgiveness is the counterpart to resentment, which also is appropriate only in response to voluntary actions.

A response to Matthew:I see no reason to deny that we can cultivate a disposition or attitude of forgiveness in anticipation of having occasions to exercise it. Religious communities do encourage forgiveness. Ought they to do so is another question. I think that they should.I grant that I can attach strings to any offer of forgiveness that I might make to someone who has culpably harmed me. If I do so, then the offer takes effect only when either the conditions (e.g. apology, restitution, etc.) are satisfied or when I withdraw the conditions.But I can forgive without strings, in which case, I see no reason to say that I have only offered forgiveness and thus that the forgiveness is dependent upon its acceptance by the perpetrator.I readily grant that we often find it very hard to forgive and sometimes are too scarred by what has been done to forgive. I take it that these are situations that we would hope would change over time and that the victim could find liberation from his or her pain.For my part, there have been several situations in which I was pretty badly harmed. In each of these cases, I found it very hard to forgive. Regrettably, it took me years to reach the point of forgiving the perpetrators. In hindsight, I can see shat damage I suffered from this incapacity to forgive. In all these cases, the perpetrator has not ever acknowledged having done harm to me. But happily reaching the point of being able to forgive them has in each case been liberating for me. I still have moments when I have feelings of resentment, but I regard these moments as temptations. I also have to admit that I am far from sure that I could unconditionally forgive any and everything that might happen to me. But that is a goal worth striving for.

If the transgressor's moral agency is diminshed -it is easier to forgive as then it is easy to say as Jesus said-they know not what they do.It is when we perceive that the transgressor DOES know what he/she has done that it becomes difficult to forgive.There are differences in degrees when people kill because of the differences in moral resonsibility[ premeditated as oppossed to impulsive behaviour].From the perspective of jesus-we are all diminished in our capacity and hence he forgives us all[and died for our sins].We're called to follow him.Yet we also believe in expiation for sins which is an opportunity to repent[if one has not already done so].What is forgiveness is a tricky thing as in one case it can simply mean a dismissal of an injury.Of course if one can dismiss an injury done to one then perhaps that simply means the injury was not severe[did not hurt too much].So is forgiveness even the right term if you're forgiving something that really didn't harm you to begin with?Is forgiveness the ability to walk a mile in the transgressors shoes-and know where he comes from and in spite of his severe transgression-one can still find common ground[empathy ]?The empathy does not include the crime committed but up to the crime and past the crime committed.Though repentance is to be desired it is a grace when one's trangressor repents and the victim should not count on that for healing.Forgivenes is not a give and take any more then victimization is. Though it is nice when truth and reconciliation happens like in the above situation.Perhaps from a faith perspective forgiveness is faith that the perpetrator will recognize the wrong done and repent in God's time -not in human time -and with that confidence offering one's suffering up to God.As opossed to seeking comfort in revenge. And perhaps in many instances what seemed a serious transgression[what once hurt us alot] over time we can forgive easily because it ceases to hurt-we can dismiss it and we call that forgiveness.

"This is because forgiveness is the counterpart to resentment, which also is appropriate only in response to voluntary actions." - and then the appropriate target of resentment is God himself. "I still have moments when I have feelings of resentment, but I regard these moments as temptations." That is an interesting thought. It's like a past bad habit, a familiar rut, a way so well trodden that the marks are built-in and that once we start down that path, it is natural to continue, unless we shake off the inertia. Perhaps there is an actual path of synaptic connections from neuron to neuron in our brains." I also have to admit that I am far from sure that I could unconditionally forgive any and everything that might happen to me. " I used to think that I would not forgive God if one my my children died before me (God forbid!), but now I view death more like a transition to join those who have lived before us, so the separation between the living and the dead is only temporary. It would be perhaps a long separation, but would end one day when my turn comes - and the ones who live beyond me will also join me later. In that perspective unconditional forgiveness is at least a possibility.

"and then" -> "and otherwise"

Forgiveness is not simply a disposition or an attitude; it is an event that necessarily involves two parties, the forgiver and the forgiven. Then the victim would be in a position of being further victimized, when they wish to forgive but are held bound by the other person's lack of repentance. Not good. In my mind it is certainly possible to forgive, yet still desire for some consequences to happen for the perpetrator, not out of resentment but out of a sense of justice. It is interesting that all who comment here put themselves in the position of the victim. No one here can imagine being the offender, it seems.

Bernard, I agree with you. (And thank you for your illustration from your life - it is powerful witness).When Jesus instructs us to love our enemies, I don't believe there is a precondition that our enemies must first beg our forgiveness.I believe the example of Maria Goretti also is pertinent: didn't she offer forgiveness to her killer before he sought it?At the same time, for forgiveness to bear its full fruit, the offender needs to be able to accept the forgiveness.Perhaps the scriptural story par excellence is the Prodigal Son. The son returns to the father, resolved to beg his forgiveness - and finds that the father has already rushed out to meet him, already prepared to forgive him. Here is the Christian economy of forgiveness.

One more thought on forgiveness: the petition from the Lord's Prayer, "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us" also speaks to the importance of the offended one - the creditor, so to speak - being ready to forgive; indeed our own forgiveness by God depends on our willingness to forgive others in their turn.

Jim,I have actually thought quite often about that phrase in the 'Our Father' and always concluded that I trust and hope God's forgiveness is better than mine.

HI John:I understand what you are saying and was not suggesting that the victim in this case felt coerced. I was just imagining a scenario where the victim might feel coerced.There are multiple levels to RJ. The one is the perpetrator and victim as in this case. It did not have an impact on the actual sentencing as far as I could see. He still received 20 years even though the victims felt that less would be just. Maybe this is due to mandatory sentences or other factors at any rate the issue is the extent to which these should or should not be considered in sentencing. Maybe they should be?Another is the criminal justice system itself. Jails are overcrowded and I don't see more jails or longer sentences as the best solution. RJ, perhaps, has a better track record as far as rehabilitation of the offender which is, at least, in part what the goal of incarceration is.

Bernard writes: "I see no reason to deny that we can cultivate a disposition or attitude of forgiveness in anticipation of having occasions to exercise it."I see no reason either. We must always pray to be ready to forgive, and that readiness is important to our spiritual and psychological health. Still, the readiness to forgive is not the same as forgiveness itself.Bernard continues: "I grant that I can attach strings to any offer of forgiveness that I might make to someone who has culpably harmed me. If I do so, then the offer takes effect only when either the conditions (e.g. apology, restitution, etc.) are satisfied or when I withdraw the conditions.But I can forgive without strings, in which case, I see no reason to say that I have only offered forgiveness and thus that the forgiveness is dependent upon its acceptance by the perpetrator."There is at least and at most one condition for forgiveness: that the person one wishes to forgive wishes to be forgiven. Every other condition is beside the point. To say that there are no conditions is to say that we can do what not even God does. Like the father of the Prodigal Son, He waits for us with open arms, but He waits. He will not force His mercy on us. And what He will not do, we cannot do. Those who wrong us remain free to accept or refuse whatever forgiveness we offer. (I had almost written "those who hurt us," but very often the hurt is far in excess of any wrong, or guilt. "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do" must mean something like "Father, excuse them," for when a person has no way of knowing what he is doing, he isn't morally culpable.)In response to this line of argument, Claire writes: "Then the victim would be in a position of being further victimized, when they wish to forgive but are held bound by the other persons lack of repentance. Not good."No, not good at all. Very painful in fact. But there you are. Once God has answered our prayer that we be ready to forgive, we must also pray for patience, in case the chance to forgive does not immediately follow. Or never follows. We may also pray, la St. Augustine, that God not send us the occasion for forgiveness before we are ready to forgive. As Bernard testifies, resentment is sticky: we try to let go of it but it won't drop. Lord, make me forgiving, but not yet.Claire also writes: "It is interesting that all who comment here put themselves in the position of the victim. No one here can imagine being the offender, it seems."Interesting, certainly, but not surprising. We cannot forget being wounded but have trouble rememberingor even noticingwhen we have wounded others. Most people feel that they have been betrayed by someone, at least once; few would acknowledge they've ever betrayed anyone. It doesn't add up. One fruitful use of resentment is to turn it back on ourselvesto ask, Am I sure I haven't made someone else suffer this way, or suffer as much in a different way? If I suddenly remember that I have, the question becomes, Why do I not think of this as often? Why is my conscience so much more buoyant than my heart?

Matthew says: "There is at least and at most one condition for forgiveness: that the person one wishes to forgive wishes to be forgiven.... Those who wrong us remain free to accept or refuse whatever forgiveness we offer."A few points:1. Only the victim can offer forgiveness. To offer it is to offer a gift which the culprit has not earned.2. If the victim offers unconditional forgiveness, then there is nothing more for him or her to do to offer this gift. His or her action is complete. 3. The culprit may accept or refuse this gift. Or he or she may not even advert to the gift. If he or she does advert to it, he or she has to choose how to respond. This response is in no way part of the victim's action of offering forgiveness. This response is a distinct action that does not alter the victim's action but does affect the outcome of that action.From another perspective: If Matthew, or anyone, wants to define forgiveness as an event that takes two to tango, then so be it. Forgiveness would then be analogous to marriage. I can offer to marry Jane, but have not done so unless she likewise marries me. Marriage, by its essence, occurs only when the couple act in concert.By contrast, a gift offered without strings is a complete gift, even if it is spurned.From my own experience; Two of the people who significantly harmed me and whom I have finally come to forgive, are still alive, though we are not in contact. I have not explicitly informed them of my forgiveness and don't expect to have an occasion to do so. I have no reason to think that they will ever come to think that they need forgiveness from me. To say, as Matthew would, that, though I have offered forgiveness to them, I have not forgiven them and probably will never do so strikes me extraordinarily odd.

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