Is forgiveness a viable option for the justice system?

connorConnor McBride shot his fiance in the face. He immediately confessed, and turned himself in. Through a process called “Restorative Justice”, discussed at length in this New York Times article, he received a much lighter sentence than usual as he, his family and the victim’s family all three came together to offer apologies, and forgiveness. Instead of the typical life sentence, McBride was sentenced to 20 years with 10 years of probation following his release. The story relates the following anecdote from the victim’s hospital room, as her father sat by her bedside and she, in a comatose state, was being kept alive by modern technology.

Ann’s 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. It’s impossible.” But Andy kept hearing his daughter’s voice: “Forgive him. Forgive him.”

Struggling to come to grips with what the father believes was his soon to be deceased daughter’s plea, he was moved to do something unusual, namely extend forgiveness and grace to the one who shot her. However, that was not enough for this victim’s family. They believed that the murderer, the one who killed their daughter, should have his sentence affected by their forgiveness, and his own contrition. While the bible clearly calls followers of Christ to forgive those who harm them, should this same offer of forgiveness play a part in the judicial system? Is it more effective than the typically applied penal code? I’m not sure I am smart enough to know the answer, but I will be honest that the family’s response of forgiveness and grace is astonishing, and Christ-like. What is more, their forgiveness has not only changed the life of the young man who took their daughter’s life, it has helped change a community. Consider this from the end of the article.

As much as the Grosmaires say that forgiveness helped them, so, too, has the story of their forgiveness. They’ve spoken about it to church groups and prayer breakfasts around Tallahassee and plan to do more talks. The story is a signpost in the wilderness, something solid and decent they can return to while wandering in this parallel universe without their youngest daughter.

Kate Grosmaire keeps asking herself if she has really forgiven Conor. “I think about it all the time,” she said. “Is that forgiveness still there? Have I released that debt?” Even as the answer comes back yes, she says, it can’t erase her awareness of what she no longer has. “Forgiving Conor doesn’t change the fact that Ann is not with us. My daughter was shot, and she died. I walk by her empty bedroom at least twice a day.”

I am curious to hear your thoughts. Is Restorative Justice a viable option in the American justice system? Should a Christian ethic of grace and forgiveness change the way in which we apply justice? What do you think?

Micah is a husband to Tracy & a daddy to Grace, Kessed & Haddon. He’s Senior Pastor at Brainerd Baptist Church in Chattanooga, TN. Most of all, he’s a debtor to grace.

7 thoughts on “Is forgiveness a viable option for the justice system?

  1. The only one who can forgive is the one who was wronged.

    We certainly ought pray for forgiveness and healing for offenders and victims.

    The consequences of the law must be carried out. God’s wrath is poured out against all manner of inequity in this world.

    The Law will not be mocked. But God’s grace always trumps the Law in the long run.


  2. I think we need to separate the forgiveness of a family from the judicial system. Before reading this article at least, I would see these as two separate things. Paul’s admonishment to live at peace with all men so far as we are able would indicate that we always should forgive regardless of what the judicial system says or does. That being said, it is admirable the lengths to which this family has gone and somewhat surprising that the judicial system honored their collective request. It is also true that God in his times of punishment for Israel always did so with a restorative purpose. (Jer. 29:11).

  3. Jeff, I think my point is, knowing that the justice system allows for something similar to this, is there room for the introduction of Christian grace/mercy/forgiveness into the equation? I agree that justice should be served, and in this case would argue that it has been served. The young man will lose most of his adult life in prison.

    However, I wonder if our justice should lead to restoration, if possible? I would think that would be a preference.

  4. I think the justice system should be informed by forgiveness, but the pragmatic issue we wrestle with is how do we determine true contrition? If we are able to see true contrition on behalf of the perpetrator and victims (and their families) express their desire for forgiveness then courts should honor this request in the penal aspect of sentencing. The other issue I am thinking of is the State’s duty to protect society. In the judicial system, leniency finds it’s boundaries when the perpetrator is considered a threat to himself/herself or society. With that said, I do agree our justice system could benefit from the influence of restorative justice.

  5. Derek, I think I agree with you, almost completely. I don’t think this can simply be made “the law of the land”, as some sort of normative practice. But when Christians are engaged, and they feel that genuine pentience is being offered, it seems to me that some sort of forgiveness can be offered and would stand as an example of Christ-like mercy on display.

  6. I had the privilege of learning from, and attending the same church as, Bill Stuntz, who was a criminal law scholar at Harvard and an evangelical. I don’t know of anyone who thought more deeply about Christ and the law.

    Bill passed away in 2010 from cancer, but had begun write explicitly about the removal of opportunities for mercy in the system. As we’ve removed discretion from judges, and given prosecutors more power, we’ve reduced the role of juries in the criminal justice system. However, juries had the power to exercise a community sense of justice – and decide when it was appropriate to exercise mercy. The law is the law, but punishment can reflect mercy; in some ways, America’s worse at this than it used to be.

  7. The act of forgiveness is in part a release on the part of the wronged party. Forgiving someone is a way to reach a point where I as the injured party am no longer consumed with finding a point of justice in the incident. I release my right to be satisfied. This allows me to continue my life. Whether I can reach a point of restoration with the other person is a separate matter (hopefully i can.) I cannot release the other person from their status of guilt. I can only say, “In our relationship, this will not stand between us any longer.”

    I cannot, however, release the right of other people to be satisfied and receive justice. They have to arrive at that point themselves. In the case of breaking a societal law, a person who had demonstrated the ability and willingness to murder another person, must not only be concerned with the victim, their family, and those involved directly, but face the broken trust of the public. In order to protect our group culture from danger, we have instituted laws to provide a standard response to those dangers. I do believe that juries and judges have been instituted to provide the “human” factor in sentencing, taking into account the people and circumstances of each case so that the laws do not run over the individual. Mercy can be shown at this point. We must be careful though that the forgiveness of this father does not speak for everyone in the society. We all should be forgiving, but allow the laws, judges, and juries to use discernment about the safety of the situation for the general public, displaying mercy as God gives discernment.

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