Narrator: AJ Bohannon had every right to call the police after $2,000 worth of stuff was stolen from his car in Wichita, Kansas. The dash camera on his car showed a 12-year-old boy and his friend breaking into the car and running away with arms full of items. Instead of pressing charges, Bohannon tracked down the boy and forgave him. He begged him to turn his life around. Bohannon said “Every day I possess those items, the value diminishes. But every day he’s on this earth, his value increases, so that’s what I’m more worried about.”
But the relationship between the law, forgiveness, and justice is a complicated one. If police officers had caught the kids breaking into the car, this story might have ended very differently. And this is because — surprisingly — forgiveness doesn’t always have a place in the legal system.
We have a natural desire for justice, especially when we see evil acts committed without any retribution or when an offender is unapologetic.
So — what is the purpose of the legal system? Is it just to enforce punishments, or to encourage virtue, or to right the scales when an offense occurs?
David: Hi, my name is David Upham. I am an associate professor of politics at the University of Dallas.
When we talk about the criminal justice system, really one of the first things that’s owed to individuals is that the government or the community through its government owes the individual the protection of the law — and effective protection.
Narrator: There is a movement, called restorative justice, that aims to incorporate forgiveness and reconciliation in the legal system between offenders and victims. “Restorative justice” practices incorporate meetings between victims and offenders, acts of retribution, and often apologies.
Criminologist Howard Zehr, the “grandfather of restorative justice,” began his work in the 1970s for two main reasons. First, he believed the criminal justice system often responds to offenders in counterproductive ways. And secondly, he believed there was a growing anger that victims felt when they’re shut out of the criminal justice process.
The Bible calls for periodic forgiveness of debts and freeing prisoners, and that practice continues today. During the 2000 Jubilee, Pope John Paul II called for a cancellation of the debt of developing countries. Over 60 nations joined in the effort and successfully canceled the debt of developing countries. This amounted to over 100 billion dollars of debt being canceled, resulting in a measurable reduction in poverty.
Pope Francis also announced a Year of Mercy from December 2015 to November 2016, which was observed by the Church as a period for remission of sins and universal pardon, which focused particularly on God’s forgiveness and mercy.
David: Forgiveness in its perfect sense is the complete remission of any guilt or punishment that is justly due to someone. Justice has a negative component and that is that wrongdoers are owed certain punishment or retribution. And forgiveness is the release of someone of that obligation, that burden.
Narrator: So, do we as a society believe enough in forgiveness that it should have more of a role in law and the courts? If so, who has the right to forgive in these situations? What if the victim refuses forgiveness, or if the offender never apologizes? Do we believe forgiveness has a valid place in a society that encourages virtue without encouraging offenses? At the heart of these questions we’re faced with our own decisions in our everyday lives.
Do we believe in forgiveness? When Jesus asks us to forgive, do we really believe we can forgive and be forgiven?