This week’s writer is Randy Klassen, national Restorative Justice Coordinator for MCC Canada, based in Saskatoon, SK. Restorative Justice Week will be held in Canada, and throughout the world, from November 20-27.
Tricky thing, forgiveness. As I walk the park trail near my home, in the pre-dawn quiet along the wide South Saskatchewan River, I ponder the words about forgiveness in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Across the river, a line of lights twinkles, marking the Regional Psychiatric Centre (a hospital within the Canadian correctional system) with its high fences and razor wire.
Forgiveness, it seems to me, is as foreign a concept to the criminal justice system as it is the focal point of the Christian message—and practice—of reconciliation. Is there a place for the concept of forgiveness, as we explore what it means to pray near our prisons? Or is the gap too wide, the worlds of faith and justice too distant, divided by a cold river that can’t be crossed?
There are many reasons why forgiveness is a foreigner to our justice system. At its core, the criminal justice system is built on a foundation of the impersonal and abstract. A crime against a neighbour become an offense against the state, symbolized as “the Crown.” The Crown, not the victim, is the principal actor. This was adjusted slightly in 1988, when victims were given a (proxy) voice in the court process, through victim impact statements—although it took another eleven years before victims were actually allowed to read their statements to the court. But in general, the system is designed to keep victim and offender separate; the focus is on the offender alone, on guilt and punishment, and not on the dynamics of the relationship that bind together victim and offender. Forgiveness is fundamentally about what happens between persons on either side of an offense, and criminal justice builds a high wall exactly where forgiveness wants to take up residence.
There are other reasons why forgiveness is a foreigner: it might be the wide variety of ways people think of forgiveness. Some consider that offering forgiveness to a wrongdoer excuses the offense, undermining its severity or ignoring it altogether. Others are offended by the proverb “forgive and forget”—and I agree with them, for that’s another way we might minimize the very real harm done in an offense. And if we underestimate the harm done to victims, aren’t we actually abetting the offender? We end up re-victimizing the victim, and adding to the original offense. Forgiveness goes sour; rather than a healing balm, it becomes poison.
For those schooled in the ways of Jesus, it seems to me there’s another way in which forgiveness turns toxic. The words of Jesus, right here in the Lord’s Prayer and many other places, urge and even command his followers to forgive. There is no getting around this—Christians are called to forgive. And this can induce huge guilt in a victim. “Am I not a good enough person to forgive?” Or the community can place its expectations on the victim to take the moral high road. “Just get on with your life. You ought to forgive” (and we can almost hear the unspoken conclusion, “…and forget.”) And so forgiveness becomes an unbearable weight, or a volatile fuse.
And yet… and yet, there are people who have suffered unspeakable things, and who forgive their wrongdoers. Such forgiveness is real, and such stories show up everywhere. If we can say anything about authentic forgiveness, it is that it is a mystery, and a gift. We can never demand it of the victim. Like true love, it is intensely personal: each person’s path towards forgiveness is unique. Like true love, we don’t create it (although we can create conditions for it to take root and flourish)—we find it, or even, it finds us. In fact, forgiveness isn’t like true love, it is a form of that divine love.
So, are there ways to bring back the relational element, the dimension of community—preconditions of forgiveness—into the justice system? Many communities (and even some courts) have restorative justice processes that lead in that direction. They add an element of humanity to the journey, giving voice to the victims, and increasing the possibility of offenders taking responsibility for the harm they caused.
And for those in prison? Does this line of the Lord’s Prayer mean anything for them? Two thoughts cross my mind. The first is this: how long do we continue to label someone based on their offense? They have done a bad (even horrendous) deed; must they forever be labelled a horrible person? Do we as society do right to continue to label them? Or do past (and duly recognized) misdeeds have an expiry date? Is there a place and time where we can agree to release people from stigma, from blaming and shaming? That release is part of what Jesus means by forgiveness.
A second and final thought—relating to something I observed at the Willow Cree Healing Lodge, near Duck Lake, Saskatchewan, a federal correctional institution based on Indigenous cultural practices. The men there are not called “inmates,” nor “patients” (as they are at Saskatoon’s RPC). They are nīcisān (NEE-tsan), Cree for “brother.” They are treated with humanity and dignity: guard and nīcisān walk side by side (and I was told more than once how very difficult that is for any guard trained in a regular prison). They celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts together, again side by side. A humane relationship like this creates the space for a new start, for a healthier re-entry into the community.
And it makes me think of another word of Jesus: If someone offends against you, go to him alone. …If he listens to you, you have gained a brother. Even in our prisons, is this not a taste of forgiveness?