Forgiveness or Serial Vengeance

Reprinted from The Common Good, No 51, Advent 2009

Jim Consedine

I was struck recently by a case of road rage where a young man stopped his vehicle after a minor collision and assaulted the offending driver, pushing him backwards. The man fell and hit his head on the kerbing of the roadside, fracturing his skull. The injured man died in hospital the next day. The young driver pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to three years imprisonment.

It is a terrible story of a waste of two lives – one dead and the other blighted forever by the knowledge that he has killed someone through a fit of rage.

In sentencing the young man to imprisonment in the High Court in Auckland, Justice Judith Potter said that the starting point of the length of his term was four and a half years in prison. However, because of his guilty plea and obvious remorse, he was entitled to a discount of one third, or eighteen months.

This sentence seemed eminently reasonable, given the circumstances. It reflected some of the better dimensions of the virtue of justice. The judge accepted that the man was being held accountable, had taken responsibility for his actions, had expressed remorse, had expressed a desire for a restorative justice conference to say personally how sorry he was and also explore ways that some amends could be made to the family of the deceased. Yet she felt he needed also to go to prison for his offence to drive home how seriously the community takes such matters.

Media Response

The response to the sentencing elicited by the corporate media reflects the unforgiving and somewhat bitter climate we now live in. Garth McVicar of the Sensible Sentencing Trust was sadly predictable. He called the sentence ‘a licence to kill’ and claimed that if judges were as lenient as this, ‘then this country has been condemned to an escalation in violence.’ The deceased man’s son was more muted and respectful. He simply said ‘that any sentence is not sufficient for us.’ And when asked whether he would ever forgive the young driver, he replied with a firm, ‘No – never’.

What the family spokesperson foreshadowed in his response was that in not moving towards forgiveness, he took a position whereby he would carry the pain of his father’s death with him to the grave. This is a life sentence of anger and possibly bitterness he is choosing to carry. That adds a further tragic dimension to an already tragic story. While one empathises for him in his loss, he has other options.

It is of interest that the media did not ask the Howard League for a comment, nor the any of the community-based restorative justice groups, nor the Law Society or Caritas, who recently ran a national education programme on these issues. They simply went to the most predictable right-wing voice and got the predictable response.

‘Forgiveness is the capacity to make a fresh start. That is the power, the rational of confession and forgiveness. And forgiveness is the grace by which you enable the other person to get up, to get up with dignity and begin anew. Not to forgive leads to bitterness and hatred.’

A Dangerous Trend

New Zealand appears to be getting into a deepening moral crisis as yet another law and order group springs to life to demand harsher penalties. In a country with already the second highest imprisonment rate in the western world, one would have thought that insightful people with energy would want to find ways to replace the failed policies of high imprisonment and harsh penalties with something more constructive. It seems not.

Hearing reports of the Sensible Sentencing Trust’s gathering in Taupo recently reminded me of old movies, with justice being meted out in the Wild West. There, emotion and prejudice ran amok and the views of established homesteaders, gun-toting sheriffs and the powerful held sway. In Taupo, it appeared those roles were filled by two groupings. Some, including the leadership, appear to be driven by a hard-line punishment-focused ideology, black and white in its fundamentalism, rigid in its application. Others genuinely experience deep pain from crime and its terrible effects but appear unable to find alternative ways forward except to retaliate. Regrettably, they have chosen to channel their grief and anger in a vengeful rather than constructive direction. Serial vengeance is alive and well in New Zealand.

To hear the Trust call for an abolition of the defendant’s ‘right to silence’ in criminal trials and have juries ‘draw a sensible inference’ from that silence, is really worrying. It is to tilt the already considerable power of the state even more in its direction. It is a foundation stone of our justice system that an accused has a presumption of innocence until proven otherwise. In a world where each side sought a genuinely just outcome, it might not be an issue. But in a criminal justice system, which relies on a contest of evidence, real or implied (or sometimes imagined), that is really scary.

Jesus taught Forgiveness

Such thinking is decidedly at odds with the Gospel and the teachings of Jesus. Forgiveness and healing, as Jesus taught, are what make Christian faith and practice so radical and so counter-cultural in today’s world. Christians are taught from an early age that Jesus died for our faults and failings (sins). He challenges us to forgive one another as often as is necessary to restore harmony to relationships. That is traditional Christian teaching. But it has become very radical in today’s ratings driven culture where truth, justice and forgiveness have become marginal virtues. They are spoken of in hushed tones away from the public view. Only the brave and those with strong support networks venture such opinion.

Yet such virtue sits at the heart of true justice and forms the foundation stone of a mature and caring society. It is also what most people really want to have in their lives but don’t seem to have the tools to achieve. In 1999, Desmond Tutu wrote a book called No Future Without Forgiveness (Rider Books, London). In it he writes, ‘Forgiveness is the capacity to make a fresh start. That is the power, the rational of confession and forgiveness. And forgiveness is the grace by which you enable the other person to get up, to get up with dignity and begin anew. Not to forgive leads to bitterness and hatred.’

What many don’t understand is that forgiveness is not a simple one-off action but an attitude of mind and heart to firstly, come to terms with what has hurt us, and secondly, let go of its hold over our lives. It is a choice that Jesus made for each of us on the Cross – and He challenges us to do the same with one another. It is not easy.

The book’s title contains a virtual synopsis of the most central action of the life of Jesus. Christians teach that he died in order to allow forgiveness to flourish. He promised it would have many positive fruits. Peace, justice and the common good and wellbeing of society cannot exist without forgiveness. Neither can marriage, long term relationships, or sustainable friendships. Forgiveness sits at the heart of social relations. It is the pathway to wholeness and the rebuilding of our lives after injustice has cut us down.

Forgiveness takes Courage

What many don’t understand is that forgiveness is not a simple one-off action but an attitude of mind and heart to firstly, come to terms with what has hurt us, and secondly, let go of its hold over our lives. It is a choice that Jesus made for each of us on the Cross – and He challenges us to do the same with one another. It is not easy. Indeed, it can be the most difficult of all virtues to practice. It is a grace. Many chose not to seek it. Others know the beauty it brings. The choice to forgive sometimes has to be enacted every day for months or even years. But it is still the only pathway to the transformed life that Christ brought us. Its practice is essential to becoming fully human again. The alternative is to choose to be stunted or withered up through bitterness or regret.

And that is the paradox. We do have a choice to forgive or not. It is a way forward after becoming victims of crime and injustice. Why is it then that the word forgiveness is never mentioned in the daily reports of crime, courts, sentencing and prisons which so dominate our media? It seems our materialist culture has no real place for forgiveness. It is seen falsely as a soft touch. In reality, it is a tougher choice to take. Sadly, too few seem to know how to set about achieving it.

Christians should be leading the charge to clarify its beauty and its importance.

Comments are closed.