Restorative Justice:The Sacrament of Forgiveness

The BBC reports this morning that a select committee of the British Parliament is recommending a bill that would enshrine into law the right to restorative justice.   This would allow victims of crimes to contact the perpetrators after trial and sentencing, and either meet them face-to-face or send letters in an effort to get beyond the rage and guilt, the nightmares and fears that often result. Those who have committed crimes may also initiate the contact.

Two very articulate parents appeared on the Newshour to explain how it worked. Their two sons had been in a fight. One son was killed and the other sent to the hospital with serious injuries. The three teenagers who attacked them were convicted of murder and sent to prison.   After two years, one of the teens was still having nightmares in prison and asked to meet the parents of the victims.   The parents were so full of anger that at first they could hardly think about it, but after some training on how the meeting would work, they agreed to go through with it. They went to a room in the prison and waited. When the prisoner walked through the door the first thing he did was go to the father and hug him. He turned to the mother and said, “May I?” and hugged her too. They talked. They got it all off their chests. It wasn’t easy, it wasn’t pretty, but as the mother said, “it turned a monster into a human being.” In the end, instead of anger there was compassion. They eventually met all three of the prisoners. When they reported back to their surviving son and urged him to give it a try he said he didn’t think he could meet face-to-face, but he wrote a letter. In it, he talked about his brother, how he would never be the best man at his wedding, never have kids….and at the end he wrote: “But I forgive you.”   Sending the letter transformed him.   He felt like he had been liberated, that he had thrown off some terrible, crushing weight.

This is the Sacrament of Forgiveness. In my book I give other examples of restorative justice, notably Desmond Tutu’s work in South Africa.   It won’t work all the time, but it can work. Violent crimes rob us of our personhood, our free will.  We feel violated right down to the core of our being and the consequences can be terrible.   Restorative justice is actually the restoring of our souls. It makes us human again.