On Justice and Forgiveness

I had the privilege of hearing Rachel Den Hollander speak yesterday as part of Calvin College’s January Series. Her talk, “A Time to Speak: Addressing Justice and Forgiveness,” reminded us that Justice and Forgiveness are aspects of God’s character, so misrepresenting them or misapplying them misrepresents God.

Den Hollander is uniquely qualified to address this topic, as the first person to file charges against now-convicted sports doctor Larry Nassar. Not only was she molested by Nassar in her teens, she was molested by a church leader when she was just seven, so she has experienced two institutions – MSU and her church — that failed to pursue justice.

She noted the paradox within the biblical commands that we pursue justice (Micah 6:8, Isaiah 1:17) and extend forgiveness (the Lord’s prayer, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” Matthew 6:12): justice demands that an evildoer is punished, yet forgiveness means relinquishing the claim for retaliatory punishment. How can we do both? Because, she explained, forgiveness is personal, while justice is objective. When I forgive, I give up what’s personal to me. In contrast, justice is outside of me, conforming to an outside standard. That objective standard doesn’t disappear just because I forgive.

Thus, she has been able to forgive Larry Nassar while agreeing that he should remain in prison for the rest of his life. She said she hopes Nassar gets to a point of “brokenness,” so he can experience God’s mercy; but for the safety of society, given the nature of pedophilia, he needs to be in prison. She lamented again that the media focuses only on her expression of forgiveness towards Nassar, and omits her call to pursue justice.

Quoting from two Christian luminaries, Martin Luther King, Jr., and C.S. Lewis, she observed that justice pursues what is right—not what’s popular, or expedient. God sets the standard for what is right; if we lose that, we lose justice: “It’s wrong to me because it’s wrong to God.” One way of mischaracterizing justice is to preach forgiveness without justice, as if forgiveness is a substitute for justice. She suggested that only in Christianity can there be forgiveness without minimizing evil.

In response to an audience question, she also offered advice to leaders on how to deal with allegations of abuse within their institutions, such as churches. She said victims need to feel safe; as victims of abuse, they have lost both their “voice and their choice,” so they will not come forward unless they feel assured that they will regain both. So victims are watching leaders’ response to allegations of abuse; if leaders minimize or ignore allegations—or disparage the accuser—other victims will not speak up. It was just a year ago this week that Den Hollander and scores of other survivors spoke at the sentencing hearing for Dr. Larry Nassar, a situation that exemplifies the failure of leaders to respond appropriately to abuse allegations.

Rachel den Hollander is a woman on a mission. She never sought this spotlight – contrary to John Engler’s comment, I’ll bet she’d rather stay home with her four young children than travel the country speaking out against sex abuse –, but she is uniquely gifted to do this, especially to call the church to be the church. We need to listen to her. I’m glad I got the chance to do that.

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