Forgiveness not about overlooking threats to society

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, October 25, 2006

The previous two columns have celebrated the amazing acts of forgiveness shown by an Amish community in Pennsylvania in response to the schoolhouse murder of five of their children. Not everyone is totally comfortable with my recommendation that world leaders might want to consider following the Amish example, however.

Coffee companion Angus McNee, formerly of Ghost Lake Village and now living in West Bank, B.C., wrote that he “always has a bit of a problem with this ‘forgiveness’ thing,” especially when applied to our response to global terrorism.

“We just cannot forgive all these horrendous acts of terrorism,” he said. “The terrorists don't want to be forgiven.... For the sake of each and every one of us, world leaders must take the strongest initiatives against those whose sole aim is to bring terror to our communities.”

Angus has brought us face-to-face with the tension that exists between forgiveness, on the one hand, and justice and the protection of society, on the other.

In responding, I’d like to draw on a tragic event in the life of another of our coffee companions, Martin Hattersley, an Edmonton lawyer and Anglican priest.

In 1988, Martin’s daughter, Cathy Greeve, a cheerful 29-year-old mother of two, was strangled to death in Edmonton’s Churchill LRT Station. Eighteen months later, Ronald Nienhuis was found guilty of manslaughter. The Sunday after the trial, Martin delivered a homily at St. Matthew’s Anglican Church, St. Albert.

“‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven,’” he began, quoting Jesus’ words.

“This passage brings us to a crucial question. Is our religion just a convenient way of making friends and passing a Sunday morning in a way that makes us feel good?” he asked the congregation. “Or is Christianity for us a challenging and a desperately serious way of life: a way in which, by our own sacrifice, suffering and loss, we bring reconciliation and healing to the world?”

Our inhumanity toward each other is not simply “a matter of ‘us’ and ‘them,’ of good guys outside prison and bad guys on the inside,” he said. It is “the collective responsibility of the whole human race – and we are part of that human race. And we are called on to be an instrument of healing to people that on one level we would rather have nothing to do with.”

Martin had, in fact, visited Nienhuis in prison and personally forgiven him. When I wrote about this back in the 1990s, a reader was concerned that the murderer might construe Martin’s forgiveness as absolution from any accountability for his actions, and that he was free to do as he pleased in the future, including committing more crimes.

Martin and I have discussed this very issue at some length: If we are to be a forgiving people, then why should we look to the justice system when a wrong has been committed? Why not just "forgive and forget?"

At no point has Martin ever suggested that, because he had forgiven Cathy’s killer, the Crown should have dropped its case against the accused.

The court is not in the position to forgive or not to forgive; it is not one of the victims, Martin argues. Only the parties that have been wronged have the authority to extend forgiveness.

To the court is given a different authority: to carry out justice with respect to a person found guilty of a crime. And what is the court's aim in carrying out such justice? According to Martin, the aim of justice is deterrence, rehabilitation and punishment, for the protection of society. "Protection" is the key word here.

Justice is objective and relates to the very structure of society itself. Forgiveness is subjective and relates to the relationship between the wronged and the one(s) who committed the wrong.

Without forgiveness, individuals succumb to bitterness, rage, revenge – and the circle of violence grows ever larger.

Without justice, a society succumbs to anarchy and decay, and signals its members that they can do whatever they like against another, and no one will intervene to protect the innocent. Indeed, without a framework of justice there is little chance that forgiveness can serve its healing role, Martin says.

With reference to Angus’s concern, I believe something similar can be said regarding terrorism and the collective response of nations committed to the rule of law: Protection is of the essence.

But unless we can learn to forgive – to let go of often generations-old bitterness and desire for revenge – then we are guaranteed to prove the truth of Mahatma Gandhi’s saying: “An eye for eye only ends up making the whole world blind.”

© 2006 Warren Harbeck

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