Sunday, November 26, 2006

How do we define forgiveness?

I've been feeling sick, so I spent the evening lying in bed watching TV and saw a really interesting Law & Order episode. (Spoilers for the episode below, including how it ends.)

In L&O's usual twisted style, the crime the officers start out investigating (a fireman's death in an arson fire) is not the one that ends up in court. Through the course of the investigation, the detectives find a gun hidden in the burned building that was traced to a nine-year-old unsolved murder. Just as they're on the right track for nailing the suspect, he confesses and "throws himself on the mercy of the court."

Turns out, the guy killed his sister's black boyfriend because he didn't was his sister marrying a black man, but immediately after the murder is so wracked with guilt he almost kills himself. Instead, he finds Christ. He turns his entire life around, quits his high-paying job to work for a charity, renounces a lot of his worldly possessions. There is no doubt his repentance is genuine.

What was so interesting is that his lawyer wanted to use this to argue that his entire case should be thrown out because of it.

This really got me thinking: what does forgiveness look like? If we believe in forgiveness, if we believe God can forgive every sin, even murder, and that we are called to forgive as well, does that mean a murderer should go free if he's truly repented? Are forgiveness and punishment mutually exclusive? It makes me think of a line from the Relient K song "Be My Escape": "The beauty of grace is that it makes life unfair." God's grace is inherently unfair. We're being forgiven for everything. Wow. It boggles the mind if we truly think about it.

But should this translate into a pass on the legal system? I'm gonna go with a resounding "NO!" here. Even in a case like this where the defendant’s remorse was demonstrably genuine (it predated his getting caught by nine years), I don't think forgiveness and consequences (earthly ones, anyway) are mutually exclusive. If my daughter hits her sister, I forgive her for it, but it doesn't mean she won't be grounded.

There was another piece of this that really bothered me, and that was that his repentance was tied directly to the fact that he was a Christian. Assistant DAs Jack McCoy and Alex Borgia had the following exchange:

Alex Borgia: Forgiveness is a Christian ideal.

Jack McCoy: And if you don't believe in Christ, well, then you'll just have to serve your time?

I'm with McCoy on this one. A Jew can't be as honestly repentant and wouldn't deserve civil forgiveness for his crime? A Muslim? A Pagan? An atheist? Repentance defined on a civil level comes hand-in-hand with dedicating your life to Christ? I am so not comfortable with that.

The whole defense made me queasy. The defendant’s behavior since committing the crime should be a factor in sentencing, but in determining guilt or innocence? No. Christ didn't ask for a pass from his death sentence, and he wasn't even guilty!

While I didn't doubt the man's sincere repentance as presented in the episode, the one thing that made me really believe it was that in the end when the judge refused to throw out the case, the defendant immediately pleaded guilty. That to me said more than any of his post-conversion good deeds that he truly accepted responsibility for what he'd done. I'm curious what other Christians think, though. Should God's "unfair" grace extend to our court system?


At 9:19 PM, Blogger the-unintentional-blogger said...

I'm with you 100%. God's grace is a redemption of the heart. Because God casts the sin away doesn't mean that the legal system should. It'd be interesting to see how they even argued grounds for dismissing the case. It seems ludicrous that he would escape punishment for taking another's life simply because he felt bad about it and now is doing good. And I do like that they ended it with the guy pleading guilty immediately, showing his repentance was honest.

At 9:10 AM, Blogger Dr. Don said...

Let me toss my opinion in with both of yours (I'm going to blog on it myself as well). I think this is part of what it means for us to have a secular government. Our legal system must deal only with justice, we do not have the wisdom to administer corporate forgiveness.

I think the idea here is that we can only practice morality in our personal lives. In the larger picture of society, we must act on principles. The principle here is that the guilty must be punished. The validity of this principle is demonstrated consistently throughout history in society after society.


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