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Prophetic politics: Forgiveness and restorative justice

collin-mcbride-by-ryan-pfluger-nyt
collin-mcbride-by-ryan-pfluger-nyt

Colin McBride
(Photo by Ryan Pfluger/NYT)

A recent article by Paul Tullis in the New York Times provides a fascinating account of the profound impact that Christian forgiveness played in a Florida murder case. It’s worth reading in its entirety - Can Forgiveness Play a Role in Criminal Justice? - but here’s a sketch…

In 2010, a 19 year-old boy, Colin McBride, fatally shot his girlfriend of three years, Ann Grosmaire, in a fit of rage amidst a day-spanning dispute. With no prior record, McBride turned himself into the police immediately after the crime. As Ann lay dying in an ICU, her father sensed Ann and Jesus imploring him to forgive Colin. After some reluctance, both parents, practicing Catholics, moved swiftly to forgive Colin and show grace to Colin’s parents. This set in motion an amazing chain of events that culminated in Colin receiving a greatly reduced sentence of 20 years in prison, despite the mandatory sentence for murder in Florida being life in prison, with the possibility of the death penalty.

How did this happen? The answer lies both in the Grosmaire family’s practice of forgiveness, and also the practice of restorative justice that was employed during the sentencing process.

Restorative justice is an approach that seeks to address at least three questions in cases of wrongdoing or crime: 1) Who was harmed?;  2) What are their needs?; and 3) Whose obligations are these? This community- and needs-based approach to doing justice stands as an implicit critique to individualistic and procedural Western criminal justice systems, which tend to ask questions like: 1) What law was broken?; 2) Who did it?; and 3) What do they deserve?

In this post I would like to briefly examine the practices of forgiveness and restorative justice in this case, and how both show a prophetic politics that respectively critique 1) shallow notions of Christian forgiveness that are all to common in the church, and 2) notions of state sovereignty in the process of doing justice.

Forgiveness that has shape

As a particularist, I always feel like somewhat of a nag when pointing out that weighty words like “forgiveness” are not self-evident. They are words awaiting content, and different traditions will inform the content for such words differently. The storied traditions into which we live bring us to the point where we can understand, much less practice, things like forgiveness. True, there is often overlap in understanding and practice from tradition to tradition, as no tradition is hermetically sealed off from another. (See Sujatha’s experience with the Dalai Lama in the article.) But the Grosmaire family whose daughter was murdered understood forgiveness in a particularly Christian way. They are, as the article points out…

parents (who) strive to model their lives on those of Jesus and St. Augustine, and forgiveness is deep in their (Roman Catholic) creed. “I realized it was not just Ann asking me to forgive Conor, it was Jesus Christ,” Andy recalls. “And I hadn’t said no to him before, and I wasn’t going to start then. It was just a wave of joy, and I told Ann: ‘I will. I will.’ ” Jesus or no Jesus, he says, “what father can say no to his daughter?”

There are two things going on in that quote. First, there is an imitative quality to the Grosmaire’s Christian discipleship, modeling their lives on the lives of Jesus and Augustine. Second, encountering Jesus Christ in their dying daughter is what compelled the Grosmaire’s toward forgiving their daughter’s murderer, “refusing to become (his) enemy.” The two are not unrelated or incidental, but crucially inseparable. Their training into the Christian life through the Roman Catholic tradition conditioned their life together to be ready to respond as they did in that horrible moment of tragedy.

Their stance of forgiveness extended to the murderer’s family as well, and their forgiveness had concrete legal implications, as they were able to influence the sentencing process early on. All of this isn’t the trite “forgive and forget” that we often see attributed to forgiveness. This is heavy stuff; no forgetting – “Forgiving Conor doesn’t change the fact that Ann is not with us. My daughter was shot, and she died. I walk by her empty bedroom at least twice a day.”  As my friend, Robb Davis, pointed out to me, Mrs. Grosmaire’s frequent self-examination – “Is that forgiveness still there? Have I released that debt?” – necessarily employs memory to re-member her shattered life. Forgiveness here has an ongoing healing quality to their grieving process, allowing them to not be “stuck” in anger and enemy-making.

Within/against the system

As I’ve written elsewhere, the modern restorative justice movement in North America has been from the start an embodied critique of criminal justice systems in Western societies. My argument has also been that the involvement of Mennonites in the early movement gave it a certain quality that is connected with the Anabaptist tradition, including its understanding and practice of forgiveness. While RJ has spread beyond its roots within the criminal justice system and found resonance with many non-Christian traditions, there are still cases such as this one that display its continuing power to model another way of doing justice within the established system that challenge that very system.

This particular case has some interesting qualities in that regard as well. Both families discovered and sought out restorative justice as an option in the case, bringing in RJ practitioner and advocate, Sujatha Baliga. They had to work hard to get this to happen, though. RJ as a standard option within criminal justice processes around the country is very rare.

As such, it took some creative analysis on the part of multiple parties to find a place in the process in which to insert the restorative justice circle, which influenced the prosecutor to seek a reduced prison sentence. The restorative justice circle is what allowed the McBride and the Grosmaire families to come together to hear each other’s stories of the horrible act and its aftermath. Both sets of parents got to embrace the young man who inexplicably murdered his girlfriend in a fit of blind rage. This kind of thing does not happen in a court room. As Baliga states:

We got to look more deeply at the root of where this behavior came from than we would have had it gone a trial route — the anger issues in the family, exploring the drama in their relationship, the whole conglomeration of factors that led to that moment. There’s no explaining what happened, but there was just a much more nuanced conversation about it, which can give everyone more confidence that Conor will never do this again. And the Grosmaires got answers to questions that would have been difficult to impossible to get in a trial.

Next, notice it is the state prosecutor who wielded the power to deviate from mandatory sentences. Lesser prosecuting attorneys do not necessarily have such gravitas. If left to the system’s own devices, Conor McBride would have served life in prison or been executed, regardless of the Grosmaire family’s wishes. Such an arrangement was great in this case, but what of lesser crimes that would also benefit from creative sentencing arrangements that give victims and/or their families greater say in the process?

Conclusion

As our criminal justice system continues to show signs of crumbling under the unintended consequences of drug laws, mandatory minimum sentences, and exploding prison populations, it’s promising to see stories such as this one emerge from the restorative justice movement and into mainstream media. It’s my hope that initiatives such as sentencing reform can take cues from restorative justice to help craft a more humane and community-oriented system in the crumbling shell of the old transactional, process-oriented system.

As for Christians, I hope stories such as this can help capture their imagination to challenge weak understandings and practices of Christian forgiveness that are all too common in the church, and help “reform” forgiveness to be more faithful and therefore more transformative. As Greg Jones reminds us in his masterful book, Forgiveness: A Theological Account, “(t)he Body of Christ is forged through the dynamic interrelations of repentance and forgiveness.” Failure to account for those dynamic interrelations leads to weak practices which lead to a weak body. May there be health in the Christian body through the transforming of our minds (and the rest of our bodies!) in Christ.

Brian Gumm bio picBrian R. Gumm is a licensed minister in the Church of the Brethren, serving the rural community of Toledo, Iowa. After volunteering with the Iowa Department of Correctional Services in restorative justice programs, Brian went on to study theology, peacebuilding, and restorative justice at Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding (MA ’11) and Seminary (Mdiv ’12). Brian regularly blogs at Restorative Theology, where this post first appeared, and can be found on Twitter: @bgumm.

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Brian is a licensed minister in the Church of the Brethren and recent graduate of Eastern Mennonite University's Seminary (MDiv) and Center for Justice and Peacebuilding (MA). He is currently working as the Distance Learning Technology Analyst at EMU, and blogs regularly at Restorative Theology and tweets at: @bgumm.
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