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Christian Love In Action: Whitey Bulger Trial Edition

Yesterday, a parade of survivors made their way to the witness stand at the Moakley Federal Courthouse to deliver "victim impact statements" before convicted gangster and long-time fugitive Whitey Bulger is sentenced for crimes committed during his decades-long reign of terror in South Boston.

Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen has a terrific column today reporting some of the highlights of an emotionally powerful day.  Among his many crimes, Bulger killed Theresa Bond's father 30 years ago.  Two of her brothers later committed suicide. 

But even as Whitey Bulger ignored her and all the pain inside Judge Denise Casper’s courtroom, Theresa Bond found a weapon to use against him.

“I just want you to know that I don’t hate you,” she told him. “I don’t have that authority. That would be judging you. I do hate the choices that you’ve made, along with your associates, but more so, I hate the choices our government has made to allow you to rule the streets and perform such horrific acts of evil.”

When she was finished with him, Bond left Whitey Bulger with this: “Mr. Bulger, do you have remorse for taking my father’s life? I think you do. I forgive you.”


About the Author

Luke Hill is a writer and community organizer in Boston. He blogs at dotCommonweal and MassCommons. 



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Can someone recommend a book about forgiveness from both a psychological and theological perspective? It strikes me as one of the most complicated acts and one that is fraught with so many nuances.

When the little Amish girls were killed in Pennsylvania, among a community where Raber had relatives, some went to the killer's funeral and reported a sense of relief in hearing the minister say words to the effect that our judgment lies with God alone. A father of one of the dead girls said he could then forgive because he did not have to carry around the responsibility for judging the killer.

I know that some recovering alcoholics find the asking for forgiveness part of the "cure" one of the hardest steps. Some alcoholics feel they're victims and asking for forgiveness of a disease bothers them. Sometimes forgiveness is given fairly grudgingly by family of alcoholics--they know forgiveness is necessary for recovery, but they still carry resentments.

And haven't we all known someone who tells us that they or God forgives us when we wonder what we really need to be forgiven FOR?


I'm confident the Amish at Nickel Mines, PA were able to publicly forgive their daughers' killer because they lived in a community that practiced forgiveness over many generations. Forgiveness, like peace, isn't natural to me, or perhaps most of us this side of the fall. It takes practice, patience, and a community to keep slow learners, like me, accountable.  I love the Beatles' music, but peace and forgiveness need far, far more than "a chance."

Here are just a few quick book suggestions. Perhaps there's something here you might find of value: 

Nonfiction on Forgiveness: 

L. Gregory Jones: Embodying Forgiveness: A Theological Analysis

Stanely Hauerwas:  "Why Truthfulness Requires Forgiveness," "Peacemaking: The Virtue of the Church," and "Remembering as a Moral Task: A The Challenge of the Holocaust," in The Hauerwas Reader

Simon Weisenthal, et al. : The Sunflower: On the Possilibilities and Limits of Forvgiveness

Regarding my (and possibly your) own need to be forgiven, you may also find helpful:

James Alison: The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin Through Easter Eyes

Sebastian Moore: The Crucified Jesus is No Stranger 

Nonfiction on Reconciliation:

Emmanuel Katongole and Chris Rice:  Reconciling All AThings: A Christian Vision for Justice, Peace, and Healing 

Miroslav Volf: Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation

Fiction on the Challenges of Forgiveness:

Oscar Hijuelos: Mr. Ives' Christmas

Alan Paton: Cry, The Beloved Country

Anne Tyler: Saint Maybe

And for a dark tale of forgiveness failed, there's Joan Brady: A Theory of War


Brian, thanks!

You're welcome. Not to plug up the combox, but if you learn from movies, try:

Le Fils (The Son)

To End All Wars

and The Mission, especially the character of Mendoza


and one last short book:

L Gregory Jones and Celestin Musekura: Forgiving as We've Been Forgiven: Community Practices for Making Peace

I'll stop now....

Luke, thank you.  Such forgiveness is difficult for our minds to grasp, but somehow it speaks to the heart.  And Brian  - what a trove of resources you've given us here.

Has one forgiven if one has not forgotten?

I think that we have to be very careful around this whole notion of forgiveness. There is an element of justice that is very important in terms of redressing issues. Anger over an injustice done (such as the murder of a loved one for no reason) is a psychologically healthy and righteous thing. It does not make somebody less Christian if they cannot bring themselves to forgive the assailant. The person who does not forgive is not necessarily less evolved or holy than the person who does.

Afterall, forgiveness could be a psychological balm that prevents people from working through health emotions such as anger over injustice. I don't think that forgiveness in the way it is being described here should be advanced as the culmination and pinnacle of Christian life. Besides, I do not have it within my power to forgive transgressions done to others on their behalf. I can forgive a transgression against me and my person but not others. Christ is the only one who can absolve people of their sins. If I choose to forgive, I am choosing not to allow that event have power over me. As the Arabic phrase going around the internet says, "forgive others not because they deserve forgiveness, but because you deserve peace".

I agree with what George says. I confess that I am uncomfortable to an extent with the valorization that forgiveness receives. I am actually reminded of something my wife, who has lost many relatives to cancer, often complains about, which is the pressure placed on the sick to "be strong." A really huge complex of feelings is reduced an extremely banal moral imperative.

There was a documentary that came out recently about school bullies that got a lot of notice. There is a really disgusting scene in the movie where a teacher or principal is conducting a sort of ad hoc ceremony where a bully is going to apologize to his long time victim. The bully makes his (clearly phony) apology, and his victim doesn't want to shake his hand after. The teacher then berates the victim, telling him that he is as bad as the bully if he doesn't go through the motions of reconciliation. That, of course, is bullshit.

I surely recognize that holding on to anger can be damaging, but I hate that we morally pressure people into forgiving those who hurt them, or represent their maintaining anger as a failure in virtue.

George and Abe, I think you're getting to what I see as the impurities in human forgiveness. I'm interested in what we are really doing when we say we forgive someone. I think some forgiveness is tantamount to saying, "I just don't care anymore," which could stem from greater understanding and compassion. Or it could stem from indifference or the desire to stop letting someone who has wronged you take up so much space in your life.  

I also hear a lot of people who have been wronged by a former spouse or family member say, "I've forgiven them and moved on with my life," when, in fact, the perpetrator of the wrong has never asked for forgiveness or really been bothered by the wrong.


Forgiveness is a difficult concept. Bishops told victims who had been sexually abused by priests that they had to forgive the abusers and not be angry at them.

God is wrathful toward injustice - and He is forgiving and merciful. How to understand this? How to live it in our own lives? Should we forgive the impenitent? Can we? Can forgiveness exist only if the offender is penitent? What should be out attutude to the impenitent? What is God's?

"Forgiveness is a difficult concept. Bishops told victims who had been sexually abused by priests that they had to forgive the abusers and not be angry at them."

I think much might depend on whether such forgiveness implies that victims should also wish that the abusing priests (and people of that sort) not be pursued by the law, and punished by fines, imprisonment, and other such penalties.

Touching specifically on forgiveness, a book deeply important to related questions (some raised above) is Avishai Margalit's The Ethics of Memory.  Also Marilynne Robinson, powerfully, in both Gilead and Home

…There is a saying that to understand is to forgive, but that is an error, so Papa used to say.  You must forgive in order to understand.  Until you forgive, you defend yourself against the possibility of understanding. …If you forgive, he would say, you may indeed still not understand, but you will be ready to understand, and that is the posture of grace.  (Home, p. 45)

Mark L.

I would have told Papa to stuff it.

I think much might depend on whether such forgiveness implies that victims should also wish that the abusing priests (and people of that sort) not be pursued by the law, and punished by fines, imprisonment, and other such penalties.

Yes. Pope John Paul II forgave his would-be assassin ... who was in prison. Is it easier to forgive Bulger when you know he's going to die in prison? Easier to forgive the man who killed those little Amish girls after he himself was dead? Is it harder to forgive someone who abused you as a child when he goes scot free? 



Wow!  Well said!  I definitely agree that there exists a kind of perverse valorization of forgiveness, and this valorization tends to spill over to the perpetrator so that, as you point out, a victim who doesn't go along with it himself becomes a perpetrator by proxy.  Never thought I'd agree with you Abe, but hey, there it is.

I think there is a legitimate valor to forgiveness. It's heroic because people have a perfect right NOT to forgive when they are seriously wronged. Forgiveness dosesn't mean forgetting and it doesn't mean not protecting yourself from future wrong. 

I once heard a woman named Immaculee Ilibagiza speak; she survived the Rwanda genocide by hiding in a local pastor's half bath for several months with half a dozen other women.  Her former friends and neighbors murdered most of her family. 

She writes the following:

"Forgiving the Unforgivable
I was told that one of our former Hutu neighbors was the leader of a gang that had killed my mother and my brother. When I heard that he was being held in a local prison, I decided to go see him. I didn't know what I would do when I saw him face-to-face.

When a guard brought the man from his cell, I hardly recognized this former neighbor, the father of children I had known as I was growing up. His hair was disheveled, and bits of food clung to his unshaven face. He stared at me defiantly. Then when I quietly but sincerely said three short words: “I forgive you,” peace swept over my soul. I wanted to be free of hatred because I had seen what the hatred of this man and other Hutus had done. His defiant look melted away, and he bowed his head. I'm sure it was in shame for what he had done.

As I walked out of the prison, the Tutsi man who ran the prison turned to me in anger. “How could you forgive him?” he said. The man had lost his children during the genocide. A year later, I met him again, and he told me that I had changed his life. He had been so full of hate and anger that he was miserable. When he saw that I could forgive and move on with my life after all I had been through and lost, he knew this was also what he wanted to do."


Several here have posted remarks suggestive (IMHO) of the notion forgiveness is an event/process most usefully and truthfully understood as an either/or creature.  Nonsense.  The complexity of the events and personal faults that lead a person to commit truly heinous crimes are not understood (if they are infact understandable at all) usefully or truthfully as either/or realities.  Ambiguity is real.  It is us. 

That the women being quoted in this post has and will suffer needlessly is unquestionable.  And tragic.  The part of her remarks quoted above I find telling is "I hate the choices our government has made...".  Who is this "government" to which she is referring?  You?  Me? No.  It surely must be them.

@MightBe (11/15, 9:03 am)  Thanks for your comment.  I don't know exactly to whom Theresa Bond was referring when she said "I hate the choices our government has made...", but I have a pretty good guess.

Whitey Bulger's reign of terror and destruction was aided and abetted by Boston FBI agents like John Connolly (a childhood friend of Bulger's and his FBI "handler", now imprisoned for murder) and John Morris (Connolly's supervisor) who protected him as a "source" in their efforts to break up the Boston branch of the Mafia (known to Bulger as "the competition").  It is a common belief---with some substantial evidence to support it---among local law enforcement officials and the families of Bulger's victims that the DOJ has covered up how far the FBI went to protect Bulger.

It's those choices (I'm fairly sure) that Bond was talking about.

I higly recommend Iris Murdock's novel The Good Apprentice, in which she eloquently addresses the theme of forgiveness, that, she says, always begins with forgiveness of ourselves.  Her message coincices with Christ's dictum, "Love your neighbor as you love yourself."  In other words, to love others you must love youself.  Therefore, to be able to forgive, one must be able to forgive oneself.  I think both are sometimes are difficult for everyone at certain stages of life.  No, it's never easy.... 

This subject is hard, and it's difficult to write about it without writing something that can easily be misunderstood. But I am sure the standard, or the starting point, is "as we forgive those who trespass against us." At the basic, one-on-one level, the duty is clear. I have to forgive them if they ask for forgiveness -- 77 times a day if that's how often it's necessary. But if it is necessary, somebody had better get counseling.

Problems start to arise when the other person does not ask for forgiveness. In that case, my forgiveness comes back to me -- as the peace when the disciples offered it to a house and were rejected. That's nice, and it gets the load of grudge off my back. I'm not marinating in it, so I feel better. Sometimes that is going to be a process, as the hurt comes back to my mind and, hopefully, my forgiveness comes back to the offender. Forgiving doesn't mean forgetting, especially if forgetting leaves you open to being bitten again.

But then how do I feel if the s.o.b. not only doesn't ask for forgiveness but stands there with a big smirk on his face and says, "And I'll kill more of you if I get loose"? Now getting rid of my own grudge calls for saintliness. I can try. I can't be expected to succeed perfectly. It would become easier if I had the chance to hit him across his smirking mouth with a two-by-four first, even though that goes against every pacific trait I have tried to develop in myself.

Forgiving while the offender is still at large is still harder. Hypothetically, I suppose I should be able to forgive while cheering on the posse to catch him. Practically, I think the catching has to come before the forgiving.

Can we forgive sins against someone else? No, forgiving is like loving. I can't love for someone else.  I think everyone is offered the opportunity to forgive. It's up to them to take it or pass it up.

Adding to the pile of book recommendations: Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy, by Donald Kraybill, Steven Nolt and David Weaver-Zercher (John Wiley & Sons, 2007).  One take-away for me: forgiveness is not the same as pardon, which is not the same as reconciliation.  Forgiveness is something I do for myself--and in the Amish culture is a requirement to be forgiven.  They take seriously Jesus' injunction in Matthew 6:14-15--as should we all.  The acceptance--or non-acceptance--of our forgiveness is not the point: we forgive to take the burden of a desire for revenge off of our shoulders. Pardon, on the other hand, requires that the offender admit his or her culpability and ask for it.  That may not happen.  Reconciliation is yet a third step in a return to wholeness.  In that sense, I may forgive you and you may acknowledge your need for forgiveness and plead for it.  But that doesn't mean I will want to have dinner with you.  But with pardon at least we have re-established a foundation on which we can live in peace, albeit at some remove from one another.  

I remember a homily preached by Fr. Barry Brunsman, OFM, at St. Clare Parish in Portland, Oregon, many years ago. He said the worst advice on forgiveness was "Forgive and forget."  Rather, he said, one should forgive but remember, in order that, by remembering how one felt, one would never want to visit the same pain on another.  

Larry Hansen, tangential plug here: Donald Kraybill has written a number of books and articles about Amish beliefs and culture, and he "gets" them.

Growing Up Amish, by Ira Wagler, was pretty good, imho.  A quick and easy read for anyone curious about the Amish.   

(I don't "get" them at all.  Punishing girls by pulling all their teeth is torture, for startters.  Hard to overlook that.)

As to forgiveness?  I always liked the Act of Love that we said at the end of the day in grade school:  "I forgive all who have injured me and ask pardon of all whom I have injured."


Heavens, Gerelyn! What have you been reading!? I can't say I "get" my Amish in-laws, and I think some of their child-rearing techniques are psychologically coercive (shunning, refusing to let kids go to school past 8th grade, etc.). But corporal punishment like spanking and physical abuse is extremely rare among Raber's family. I can't think of anyone in that community who would allow a child's teeth to be pulled without calling the law.

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