What can we learn from people who have forgiven others for violent crimes? Questions about forgiveness have come up many times in my fieldwork among different kinds of people who faced grave evil: former combatants of civil wars in Central America, political dissidents and church leaders in communist Cuba, Haitian migrants who lived through many political upheavals, and, more recently, young adults in the US who have experienced trauma, including sexual abuse.
Although forgiveness is undoubtedly an aspect of many religious and philosophical systems, it is far from obvious that it is a moral obligation to forgive grave evils. Some might aver that there are crimes that just can’t be forgiven; others might claim that forgiveness is conditional upon an apology being rendered or justice being done. Thinking carefully about why people forgive others for violent crimes challenges the simplistic assumptions that we should forgive others because it will reduce our own anxiety, or because it is necessary for social harmony. I had seen countless examples of people who chose not to forgive in the pursuit of what they would call their personal well-being or social justice.
In a Veritas Forum event at Columbia University in April 2019, I shared two of the many poignant stories about forgiveness I have heard from people I have met through my research, some of which I wrote about in my book Faith Makes Us Live. What most struck me about these powerful experiences of forgiveness was that they were described not so much as a rationally calculated choice, but as a response to the experience of God’s unconditional, merciful love.
For example, a woman named Stephanie had been gang-raped as an act of political intimidation in Haiti. But when she was telling me this, she also wanted to be sure I understood that she forgave her rapists and prayed for their conversion. In their hearts, she told me, they knew what they had done was evil. Her desire was for them to be reconciled to God: “I pray to God to change the heart of the people who hurt me; . . . if someone hurts you, you have to pray for them. If someone hates you, you have to love them.”
Another woman named Renee told me that she was sexually abused by her stepfather starting at age 8. The truth came to light when Renee was 13; her abuser confessed and went to jail. Renee had no idea how to cope with her trauma, and she hated herself, her abuser, her mother, and God. For the subsequent decade, she cut herself with razor blades, abused drugs and alcohol, and slept around. She even slept with boys who beat her.
When she was on the brink of suicide in her early 20s, a friend called and invited her to church. She experienced a strong sense of God’s love in her life and joined a Pentecostal church. She now serves young women who have been abused and works with people in prison. Her physical, psychological, and spiritual healing has come slowly, but the most astounding part of her testimony was that she felt God calling her in a dream to forgive her abuser. Although her mind can’t comprehend it, she told me, “I can honestly say I love him.”
Both of these women radiated a joy and love that seemed incongruent with their horrible stories. This ability to share love and joy with others, despite being victims of horrible crimes, moved my heart.
Although I initially tried to explain forgiveness in terms of the psychological benefits to oneself, or even in terms of social harmony, the narratives that I’ve heard, of forgiveness as an outpouring of love, correspond more to how theologian Robert Schreiter explains forgiveness: the desires of a heart that wants to expand.
In his book chapter “A Practical Theology of Healing, Reconciliation and Forgiveness,” Schreiter argues that there are a few principles that stand out from the Christian tradition that help facilitate forgiveness and reconciliation. First of all, God is the author of reconciliation; we participate in reconciliation, but we don’t initiate it. But human freedom still matters. Stephanie’s and Renee’s decisions to forgive came not from compliance with a burdensome obligation, but as freely chosen responses to receiving God’s gifts of love and mercy.
Second, justice for evil takes a long time and may never happen in this life. For Christians, however, reconciliation, restoration, and healing begin with God’s acting in the victim’s life. God can heal people’s hearts even when justice doesn’t happen, as with Stephanie. For Renee, even though her abuser was brought to justice, she did not experience healing until more than a decade later when she felt God’s love.
Third, reconciliation means that God can save the wrongdoer and the victim, making new creations of both of them. This is what Stephanie and Renee wanted—to have the hearts of their abusers reshaped by love, a love that leads to contrition.
Fourth, Christians lodge their own sufferings in the story of the suffering and death of Christ—especially in the weekly Eucharist, but also during the liturgical season of Lent, and on Easter. For both Stephanie and Renee, their religious communities were central to the healing process. As I have argued elsewhere, religious rituals provide a social context in which people enact virtues and develop a vision of a good life. As healing is not always a linear process, the repetitive nature of religious rituals provides a space where the movements of the heart can slowly deepen. Similarly, contemplative prayer also opens hearts to let in God’s love where evil has caused damage. Silent prayer and religious rituals both put our bodies and hearts in a receptive state needed for healing.
The fifth point Schreiter makes is that reconciliation will not be complete until God is all in all. For a Christian, hope is eschatological and reconciliation is cosmic. Hope is not bound by the limits of time and is not ultimately destroyed by the dysfunction of human institutions.
The first thing that might come to mind when one thinks of Christianity and forgiveness is the part of the Lord’s Prayer that says: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” (Matthew 6:12). Or perhaps one of the Beatitudes comes to mind: “Blessed are the merciful for they shall see mercy” (Matthew 5:7). These may sound similar to accounts of morality as an obligation, born out of reciprocity or of a recognition of our mutual fallenness. But Christian morality goes beyond duty, obligation, or reciprocity.
We can see this from considering two further beatitudes: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:8); and “Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God” (Matthew 5:9). For Stephanie and Renee, it was their relationship with God the Father, and their firm belief that they are children of God, that prompted them to respond to God and, in turn, to be led to their heroic acts of forgiveness. Their experiences demonstrate that Christian morality does not stop with reciprocal exchanges of fairness, but stems from an understanding of our lives as moving toward the blessed life, the life of abundance (John 10:10). Forgiveness as Stephanie and Renee described it is the expression of a heart longing for overflowing love, a heart that doesn’t want to be trapped in evil.
Pointing out that the Christian tradition has a unique contribution to make to forgiveness and reconciliation does not mean that other perspectives contain no goodness or truth. People from different ethical and religious traditions can and do forgive, and should work together for reconciliation. But Stephanie and Renee forgive people who did them grave evil because of their very deep Christian experiences.
Renee and Stephanie remind us of the power of God’s love to heal human hearts, and that the desires we have as humans are not limited to desires for power, success, money, or health. Rather, the human heart longs to love, grow, and expand. This is not a sentimental love; it is a love that seeks charity in truth, in justice, and in regarding our neighbor who has harmed us as a person deserving of the same merciful love that we ourselves have already been shown.
Stephanie’s and Renee’s lives are a witness to the power of love to transform hearts. They remind us that behind each of our lives, behind all creation, behind all material things, is a transcendent reality that can burst through darkness, pain, and evil. In the Christian faith, that transcendent reality has a name, a face, and a human history.
The joy of people like Renee and Stephanie and so many others who have forgiven people for evil leads us to ask what it means to live a blessed life. Their words are not only a powerful witness of forgiving evil but a lesson that a blessed life does not consist of an instrumentally calculated strategy to always maximize my temporal utility. Their ability to forgive stemmed from learning to see a deeper layer of reality, an ultimate reality that is truth, beauty, and goodness. Breaking out of our limited vision of what it means to be human provides a different perspective on all of life, and opens our hearts to receive the joy and love that people like Stephanie and Renee radiate.
How realistic is it to expect such courageous acts of forgiveness? Persuading someone to forgive another who has harmed her is no easy task. The pain caused by violent crime and intentional evil leaves deep wounds. As Christian faith and practice recede in the West, we might lament the loss of power of the Christian message to transform society. But the lives of women like Stephanie and Renee, who lack eloquent philosophical language but nonetheless speak eloquently the language of the heart, instruct us all about how people of sincere faith contribute to a life of blessedness even in the midst of evil.