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.

Public Apologies Made Easy: the Notes App

The New York Times published a fun article this weekend on the latest format used by celebrities for their apologies: the Notes app in the iPhone. Apparently part of their appeal is that they look spontaneous and personal, as opposed to the clumsy “formal apology” that was obviously written by a handler. They are also easy to post and publish. Since there seems to be no end of things for which celebrities (feel they) need to apologize, I guess it’s a good thing to find more expeditious formats to use.

My favorite part of the article is its summary of what needs to be in a good apology:

“The best Notes app statements follow the same guiding principles of any good apology: get in and get out; be direct; don’t try too hard to defend yourself; and (this is a bonus!) maybe say what you’re doing moving forward.”

So, skip the Word.doc. Start dictating in Notes. But don’t forget to proofread.

Forgiving a Murderer

Almost 19 years ago, four white teenagers assaulted an older black man in Grand Rapids, torturing him until he died. Willie Jones was a GM retiree who had just finished bowling when the teens beat him up, stuffed him in the trunk of his own car, and drove the car around until the next morning, when they killed him and dumped his body near Morley. The trials were notable in that the victim’s brother, the Rev. Charlie Jones, expressed forgiveness to the families of the murderers.

Two of the murderers were under 18 at the time of the crime, and were sentenced to mandatory life in prison after being convicted of first-degree murder. They both became eligible for re-sentencing after the U.S. Supreme Court determined that mandatory life sentences were cruel and unusual when imposed on minors.

The re-sentencing hearing for one of them, Joshua Rogers, was held in Kent County Circuit Court last week. In a brief statement, Rogers  apologized to the relatives of Willie Jones. The Rev. Charlie Jones was not there to hear it, having passed on to glory in 2015.

But Pastor Charlie’s son, James Jones, was there, and he ended up telling Rogers he forgave him. According to the Grand Rapids Press, Jones said to his uncle’s murderer, “This is something I’ve been wrestling with. Before, I was going to come in here and just tear you down. But I’ve been praying about it.” He talked about “what my father taught me about forgiveness and not to react out of anger. Forgiveness. You asked for it. I’m going to give that back to you.”

I am awed and humbled by such forgiveness. If there was ever an unforgiveable act, this was it; the murder was so brutal, and so senseless. Rogers used scissors to inflict the fatal stab wounds. It would be completely understandable for James Jones not to forgive Rogers. And indeed, at the re-sentencing hearing last month for the other teen-murderer, Chad Maleski, James Jones objected to a sentence reduction, telling the judge that Maleski “could’ve stepped away at any point.” But Mr. Jones, influenced by his father, who was impelled by his love of Christ, has now been able to do what seems humanly impossible: forgive his uncle’s murderer.



Christian Mediation in Clergy Abuse Cases?

Could Christian mediation help with the Catholic Church’s clergy abuse cases?

Christian mediation differs from standard mediation in that it consciously incorporates Christian principles into the mediation process, promoting not only resolution of the dispute but also reconciliation of the relationship, to whatever degree is appropriate. Far from settling with a compromise, Christian mediation has the potential to be transformative for one or both parties. The process brings the gospel of Jesus Christ to bear on the parties’ conflict, inviting them to draw on the power of the Holy Spirit as they seek to honor God by reflecting on how they may have contributed to the conflict, and forgiving wrongs done against them. Like all mediation, the process is voluntary; people go as far as they are comfortable going. The results can be astounding, achieving reconciliation where none was thought possible. (For more information on Christian mediation as conducted by the Institute for Christian Conciliation, visit the web-site for ICC Peace.)

Many survivors of sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic priests in the U.S. have filed civil lawsuits against their dioceses. As noted in the Pennsylvania attorney general’s report released last August, these are typically settled at the direction of the bishop in negotiations with the survivors’ attorneys. The issues are financial payment in return for a non-disclosure agreement; the plaintiffs do not interact with the bishop, and there is no discussion of non-litigation issues. While many civil lawsuits these days are referred to mediation,  I know of only one instance where “mediation” was used for clergy abuse cases, in Guam last fall. The process used there sounded from news reports like the standard form of mediation used in civil litigation, where the lawyers negotiate a dollar figure and clients are secondary participants. The mediator used in the Guam cases does not indicate on his web-site any skills or interest in spiritual matters or reconciliation. It may be that the plaintiffs were never in the same room with the bishop or his representatives. That means an opportunity was missed to bring some healing.

Could a Christian mediation process be used instead of the standard mediation model? Christian mediation depends on the willingness of both parties to explore the spiritual/relational aspect of their conflict, after preparation of each party separately. It has been used successfully in very serious cases, and has the potential to bring healing in clergy abuse cases. As in all post-criminal mediations, and all cases involving a child or otherwise powerless victim, the party in power is encouraged to focus on confession, while victims are encouraged to work on forgiveness. This concept has been used with success in victim-offender mediations. Imagine if, under the cloak of confidentiality, a bishop acknowledges his poor decisions to a now-adult survivor; then imagine that the survivor is able, through the grace of God, to express forgiveness to a humbled bishop. It could be a powerful step in bringing the Kingdom of Jesus Christ one step closer to reality.

Kiss Goodbye to “I Kissed Dating Goodbye”

Peacemaking includes being able to admit being wrong. So stories of people who publicly acknowledge being wrong are encouraging and instructive.

Recently, author Joshua Harris has acknowledged that the popular book he wrote some twenty years ago, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, was not only naïve but in some cases caused harm, and asked his publisher to cease publishing it. Harris realizes that he was “young, certain, zealous and restlessly ambitious,” when he discouraged Christians from dating, a view he now recognizes as not based on Scripture.

“Admitting that I was wrong hasn’t been easy for me. I’ve angered people who still like my book, and my efforts are understandably viewed as inadequate by the people who were hurt. But I’m glad I set out on this journey because it’s been a pathway of transformation for me, and I’ve heard from others who have found healing in knowing they’re not alone in reconsidering old ways of thinking…

“Admitting I was wrong about the biggest accomplishment of my life has given me a greater willingness to admit that I don’t have all the answers…”

Mr. Harris notes that critics are referring to his current round of talks as an “apology tour.” Should one apologize for promoting a particular viewpoint that one later regrets? Apology is appropriate when there has been an offense. But writing a book promoting a particular lifestyle is not in itself offensive. Readers are free to accept or reject the ideas in Mr. Harris’s book, so if readers were harmed, perhaps it’s because they put too much stock in Mr. Harris’s ideas without evaluating those ideas for themselves. Perhaps it’s a matter of influence: Mr. Harris used his influence to promote a particular viewpoint that he now realizes was incorrect. Whether or not others were harmed, it’s a matter of integrity now for him to correct that viewpoint.

Mr. Harris is to be admired for admitting publicly that he was “wrong.” That takes humility.


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