Transformational Forgiveness

In March 2010, 19 year old Conor shot and killed his 19 year old fiancée, Ann. Conor  had never been in serious trouble before that day. It was the final moment of an argument and fight that had stretched over the course of three days. It ended with Ann on her knees with a shotgun in her face. Conor then turned himself into the police.

That is not the story to be told today, only the beginning. It is a parent’s worst nightmare to deal with the tragic death of a child at an age still full of life, hopes and dreams.

Ann was still alive when emergency crews arrived that afternoon; she would remain on life support, unresponsive for several days until her parents had to make the decision to let her go. As Andy sat with his daughter in the hospital, he kept hearing her voice, “Forgive him, forgive him.”

Andy didn’t think that he could ever forgive anyone for this, even Conor, someone that had grown to be part of the family, someone he loved. It wasn’t possible, not realistic, too much to ask. Yet he kept hearing her voice, “Forgive him.”

It was his faith that finally allowed Andy to listen to her voice. It was Christ’s call for him to listen that allowed him to begin the process of healing and forgiveness. If only we could all hear that call, the world would be a different place.

While Ann was still in the hospital on life support, Kate visited her daughter’s murderer in jail with a message of forgiveness, and the two cried together. Her faith led her to a place Conor never deserved and could never earn.

True Christ-like forgiveness and compassion by Andy and Kate paved the way for a healing process unprecedented in our court system. A restorative justice process seeks to open the lines of communication between the offender, the victim(s), and their community. Justice then is restored through accepting responsibility, making amends and forgiveness rather than traditional punitive measures.

In the case of Conor’s actions, few would even attempt a path of restoration, and no amount of reparations can restore justice. Andy and Kate, however, were called to forgive, and with exceptional compassion they refused to define Conor by this one moment (or allow their daughter to be defined by that single moment). In a restorative justice community conference, Conor shared his entire story, each parent expressed their loss and hopes for moving forward.

Jesus stood next to a broken and guilty woman and asked for compassion and forgiveness from her community. As Jesus hung on the cross, he asked forgiveness for those responsible. I don’t pretend to understand the compassion necessary for those words, but Andy and Kate offer us an example of how it transforms lives and how forgiveness speaks louder than any words.

Christianity is defined by Christians and their actions. Our community is transformed when we strive for forgiveness and compassion that shocks the world around us. This is the example set for us in Christ. This is our call, “Forgive him.”

Read the full story of Ann Grosmaire and Conor McBride written by Paul Tullis in the New York Times Magazine, 6 January 2013.

A version of this article was published in the Maple Ridge News, 8 February 2013.

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That’s Not Restorative Justice

Last week the U.S. military court system made a step toward embracing restorative justice practices when they accepted a plea deal wherein a soldier’s testimony was exchanged for reduced charges. There were no victims present, there was no truth, and there was no justice. Sounds nice for him…but that’s not how restorative justice works, or any justice for that matter.

In 2005, a roadside bomb in Haditha, Iraq hit a Humvee, killing one Marine, a tragedy no doubt. In response, Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich ordered five Iraqi men out of their car, shot and killed them at close range. Then claiming to hear small gunfire from a nearby house, the squad, led by Wuterich, entered three houses, killing nineteen more innocent civilians…men, women and children as young as two years old. Investigations show that these murders were committed by close range, targeted fire in the chests and heads – as in an execution – not by shrapnel or miscellaneous fire.

Following the incident Eight Marines were charged by the U.S. military, ranging from dereliction of duty to obstruction of justice, and four of those eight were charged with unpremeditated murder. Six of these men had all charges dropped, either in exchange for testimony or another reason; one was acquitted of all charges, and Wuterich was brought to trial. The victims’ families, loved ones and the Iraqi people watched in horror as these men were released from responsibility one-by-one, and they all (we all) waited for justice in the wake of the Haditha massacre, now almost seven years past.

Instead the U.S. military court delivered one final blow to the value placed on an Iraqi life. In exchange for admission of “guilt” (dereliction of duty) and his testimony, Wuterich’s charges were reduced from “unpremeditated murder” to “dereliction of duty.” Read that again…from “murder” to “dereliction of duty.” The punishment also shifted from jail time to reduced rank and docked pay.  The lives of 24 Iraqi men, women and children has been valued at a reduced rank and docked pay by our justice system. And that admission of guilt was no more than a dismissal of guilt wrapped in sympathetic words as he passed the buck: “When my Marines and I cleared those houses that day, I responded to what I perceived as a threat. And my intention was to eliminate that threat in order to keep the rest of my Marines alive,” Wuterich said.  “So when I told my team to ‘shoot first and ask questions later,’ the intent wasn’t that they would shoot civilians, it was that they would not hesitate in the face of the enemy.”

Restorative justice has been around for thousands of years, but our modern civil justice systems consider crimes to be against the state rather than individuals and communities. Restorative justice seeks to heal the wounds and brokenness in humanity caused by the perpetrator by opening up lines of communication between victims and their offenders. Rather than the simplistic idea that we can pay our debts to society through individual and isolated punishment, restorative justice requires the difficult and honest road of accepting responsibility, restoring humanity to your victims and building new relationships instead of reinforcing old hatred and chasms.

In exchange for truth and testimony, the Truth and Reconciliation Committee offered amnesty to many guilty of crimes against human rights during the apartheid in South Africa. The TRC heard testimony from victims and perpetrators in an effort to allow victims to reclaim their dignity and to begin a process of reparation to the brokenness within the community and state. This process offered a new way of peace for everyone to address their emotional and spiritual wounds caused by more than 30 years of institutionalized racism and apartheid.

Still today, many crimes of lynching and race-related murders in the southern U.S. have gone unresolved and unaccounted for after some 50 years have passed. Entire communities withhold information of murders to protect individuals and groups that committed these heinous crimes. Victims’ families live without resolution, without closure and without justice. Organizations like Southern Truth and Reconciliation (STAR) have worked toward ways of restorative justice to offer amnesty to those who will come forward, take responsibility and share the truth, allowing everyone to finally begin a restorative healing process.

The world was watching on January 24, 2012. We had an opportunity to illustrate the value of life, a value we flaunt in our political campaigns and a value we parade when we push democracy on the world. We had an opportunity to demonstrate justice in spite of the implications and complications, a value we expect to be upheld in our justice system and a value we demand when we are the victims.

The world was watching on January 24, 2012, and we gave them exactly what they expected…a ruling that reinforced our elitist attitude lacking concern for genuine justice or genuine reparation. In some veiled attempt to discover truth (a selfish truth at best), the military court attempted something that looked like restorative justice…but there was nothing restorative about it…there was no truth…and there is no justice.

Protecting Faith in Egypt

Egyptian Coptic Christians and Muslims raise a cross and Koran

Egyptian Christians and Muslims Protesting Together (source: NYDailyNews - Abed/Getty)

One of the most uplifting stories I have ever read:
The NY Daily News reports that Egyptian Christian protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square joined hands to encircle and to protect praying Muslims on Friday, the holy day of Islam. When Sunday came, Muslim protesters returned the gesture to Coptic Christians so that they could observe Mass.

You may have to read that again to allow it to sink in. Muslims put their physical bodies between danger and Christians in an act to protect their commitment to faith. Christians stood between danger and Muslims to protect their fellow protesters’ time with God.

Given the less than cordial history between Islam and Christianity, the mutual respect shown this week is a testament to the promise and love that each of our religions calls us to. Always thinking in terms of ‘the other,’ Jesus called us to redefine our neighbor to include also the stranger, and we are to love, care for, protect and respect everyone…regardless.

Community plays a significant role in my theology. As I read and understand the Bible, God’s acts in creation and salvation and the relationship with humanity throughout the scriptures illustrate God’s passion and longing for community. As a relational God, and we being made in the likeness of God, I understand community to be the call of humanity, that is both a community with God and community with God’s creation. In fulfilling our call to community, we are to “love our neighbor as ourself.” When that plays out in the real world around us, our community (local and worldwide) is enhanced with every act of faith as we lift up, help out, encourage, liberate, offer mutual respect and discover ‘the other.’ Not to be lost in that process is our commitment and call to be in community with God. Without doubt when we offer our servitude and humility to all we come in contact with, we also serve and come closer to God.

The events this past weekend provide the epitome of illustrations in living out humanity’s call to community. As Christians on Friday protected the faith and prayer time of ‘the other,’ they extended an unprecedented bridge to community between Muslims and Christians. Furthermore, they were able to provide for that group time to deepen their community with God. Their actions worked in sort of a threefold manner by deepening their relationship with God’s creation, their own relationship with God and allowing others the opportunity to do the same. When Sunday came, the Muslims present were given the opportunity to reciprocate the act of community, and likewise their actions worked threefold in creating and extending unprecedented community. This all of course is without even mentioning their shining example to the world, as this is a story we need to tell again and again as examples of true faith in a world void of the radical respect for one another that we are called to.

It is easy for those of us in the U.S. and other Western countries to dehumanize all Muslims, to strip them of their faith and theology because of our experiences with fundamentalist terrorist groups. It is easy for us to abuse those experiences for political, social and religious gains. It is difficult and trying to “love our neighbor as ourself” and to see the faith and commitment of devoted Muslims. It is difficult to hear and answer God’s call to community through radical respect and love.

Few and far between are the stories of reconciliation between Christians and Muslims, but these faithful followers who understand the theology of community and neighbor give us hope for a more peaceful tomorrow. These Christians and Muslims remind us that we are capable of this respect and community, and our influence can be immediate and far-reaching. How can you display this faith in your community? What would our community or our church look like if we could muster the courage to have this faith daily?