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Does Restorative Justice Mean Forgiveness?

This is a pretty controversial topic: forgiveness and restorative justice. Do all crime victims who support restorative justice therefore forgive? Does one come then the other? I don’t think so. I know many victims of violent crime who have forgiven. Many of their stories are here at RJI (see victims stories) and many stories I have told through Restorative Justice Online (  see the blog and look for my blog posts under Lisa Rea). What is problematic to me is when advocates, experts, volunteers in the restorative justice field (or prison reform field) “expect” victims to forgive or worse they “urge” victims to forgive.  To me, it is a journey that only the victim can make.  Forgiveness can flow out of participating in a victim offender dialogue (i.e. a restorative justice meeting) but we cannot assume it will.  It is rather presumptious for anyone to expect a victim of violent crime to forgive the offender. It’s wonderful when it happens but it is not a necessary outcome of restorative justice.
It is very important that all crime victims feel they can explore restorative justice and find the value it provides them if they choose to participate.  Experiencing restorative justice can mean participating in a victim offender dialogue but it can mean other things as well. Restitution is certainly an important part of restorative justice. RJI  believes restitution is a key ingredient in paying back the victim or restoring the victim, as much as possible. The offender should pay that restitution directly if at all possible, even if the process takes a long period of time.  However, no victim of crime should turn away from what restorative justice could offer them because he/she has not forgiven the offender. There should be no blaming of the victim here.  But at the same time, it is important to tell the stories of victims. Many of those stories include stories of grace—stories of forgiveness. I also think crime victims can benefit from hearing these stories.  All crime victims want to know they are not alone. When they hear the stories of other victims of violent crime who benefitted from restorative justice then they are more likely to explore it as well. Healing can come through restorative justice processes. That healing, on whatever level, and empowerment is available for all victims who choose restorative justice for themselves.

  • therese bartholomew
    May 22, 2012

    You are right here in stating that forgiveness is a personal journey. In meeting with my brother’s killer, I was fortuanate to have “claimed” forgiveness prior to the meeting. Forgiving him was always about me – about who I was before the murder and about who I would be after it. Not everyone in my family forgives; not everyone in my family defines forgiveness in the same way. That’s okay. We all have different paths to find our peace in what happened. That’s okay. Restorative Justice does NOT mean forgiveness. That’s okay too.

    • Margot Van Sluytman
      May 22, 2012

      Hello Therese,
      I am deeply moved and inspired by what you have shared here. With tenderness and simplicity you have captured a deep poignancy.
      Margot Van Sluytman.

  • Forgiveness and Restorative Justice are two very different processes and while they can be complementary, they are not mutually required. Indeed, if anyone working in Restorative Justice begins to talk prescriptively about forgiveness as part of the process, they will lose the ability to create the open process required. Been there, seen the results.

  • Barry Nilson
    May 22, 2012

    Forgiveness – Al Quie, Former Governor of Minnesota once wrote, is an art. (See PFM Jubilee Article, 1988)
    Forgiveness is an act of individual will that each and every person has control over. Every person knows about forgiveness – what it feels like to be forgiven and to forgive. It seems that freedom, confidence, peace and “restoration” occur more easily with acts of forgiveness. Nixon’s Quaker teaching was correct,”those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them…then you destroy yourself.” There are countless examples of victims of all kind finding and showing forgiveness…some famous but most not known. I highly recommend we all consider testimonies of people such as Corrie Ten Boom WWII Nazi Concentration Camp survivor. And there’s Yehiel Dinur another great example of a man who’s hate for Adolf Eichmann (Nazi Killer) was justified…In this day of Google…check their stories out. I know many great and small examples of the benefits of forgiveness that all have integrity and credibility that indicate how good forgiveness is whenever possible which again is up to each and every one of us…not only those examples we see from crime. I most highly recommend reading Loving God by the late Charles W. Colson -that is his best book and lays out a case for always seeking forgiveness in all our lives. The historical evidence for the death and resurrection of Christ is compelling as with the example of the prisoner on the cross hung next to Christ and the words of Christ in is all a matter of individual will…those who find forgiveness and show it are liberated and have peace not only inward as they are entitled to define but outwardly as we might observe.
    My comment relates to our being created by God in His image…whether one is a Christian or not, free will permits all people to consider God’s and His word as truth. God’s truth may exist whether it is recognized or not. The essence of Christian faith is about restoration whether Restorative Justice or not. Taking responsibility for one’s self is the essence of the Christian faith. Each of us has the free will to believe and have conviction that God’s imprint of truth is on our hearts or not. Convictions cause us to do good or recognize when we have not done good. I am of the conviction that all people have an innate capacity to want forgiveness in all relationships. It is obvious there are all kinds of offenses people may commit whether criminal or lesser offenses such as harmful words spoken between family and friends that are misplaced or intentionally harmful. Of course there are differing consequences for offenses of any kind. With the truth of God comes the work of Christ. Whether one believes in God or Christ, it generally appears that morality, law, justice and appreciation for the value of common good and reciprocity between neighbors is a common value. The common values and good will shared between neighbors is what matters and healthy relationships likely depend upon and benefit from acts of forgiveness.

  • Margot Van Sluytman
    May 22, 2012

    Well said, Lisa., particularly this, “no victim of crime should turn away from what restorative justice could offer them because he/she has not forgiven the offender.” I would add, that no victim should be turned away or excluded by restorative justice because he/she has not forgiven the offender, and might be offended by this notion of what can be termed compulsory compassion.
    I will share the link by Howard Zehr, PhD’s Blog, in response to my questions about forgiveness, what Howard called, “Good and Bad Victims?”
    As you know, I did not set out to forgive the man, Glen Flett, who murdered my Dad, Theodore Van Sluytman. Sawbonna happened, and from that, over thirty years later, so did forgiveness. Nothing proscribed. Nothing formal. All genuine. All healing. The healing happened even before I know that forgiveness happened. I did not do it. It was Grace. It is Grace.
    Margot Van Sluytman

  • Russell Turner
    May 23, 2012

    Forgiveness and Restorative Justice
    My thoughts will be comfort to some and uncomfortable to others.
    This always seems to be the two responses that I encounter is my journey of loss and forgiveness. Whether big or small the concept of forgiveness both in a humanistic way and by way of faith seems to be motivated from a persons world view of faith.
    If some how we feel that we have the right to judge and pronounce punishment on the actions of another based on some level of goodness we feel we have attained, we become God and sit on the mercy and judgment seat.
    If we feel that God is sovereign and is capable of seeing the whole picture, and judging fairly in the end, we have to give up the right to exact a level of restitution, to be part of determining punishment, to sit as judge of the fitness of an offender to ever be restored to society.
    I sat with the young man that killed my first son and talked on two occasions. I forgave him when I shut the door on the coroner telling us of his death. I forgave him face to face three years later in a level 4 prison. I am thankful that my journey as a surviving victim of crime, forgiveness was the starting of the journey. It was not the same for all of my family.
    Three years into the journey we received a letter the offender. It opened the door for my wife to acknowledge her forgiveness of his actions and become free of the bourdon of holding on to the illusion of power over the offenders future.
    Restoration is at the core of faith. It is the hardest journey one will take both for the victim and the offender.
    We don’t all get what we deserve and we often experience things we don’t deserve. The offender in my case received the harshest sentence because the DA said that someone had to be an example. 17 years to life. The sentence was totally within the definition of 2nd Degree Murder. It was not something we as a family asked for, it was the system making the decision as to the level of punishment necessary to stem a tide of pain and suffering. To send a strong message.
    Nine years later I was able to sit and talk with our offender a second time. Forgiveness
    in the past had opened the door to a second conversation face to face. At the end of the conversation I asked Steven (the offender) if he could imagine my son, Jeremy receiving him without hate. In a broken voice, with a painful twisted face he told me the following:
    “While I was in jail awaiting trial, I had a dream. He (Jeremy) came to my cell door, he was all burned and you could not recognize him. In a calm voice he said “it will be ok.” It shook me up. I called my mom in the middle of the night, I was in a one man cell and it was real.” He said in a serene voice “it is going to be alright”.
    I sat stunned and the only thing that came into my mind was Christ saying while dying on the cross ” Father forgive them they know not what they do”.
    I asked Steven, “if you got to see my son, what would you say? He said ” I would just like to give him a hug.” I got up an hugged the man who killed my son, with out a feeling of hate, or need to punish him.
    Forgiveness is the gift given to allow us to make it thru this life, with grace, peace, and joy. Hate will keep us a captive to a lie that we have a right to hold forgiveness from those that offend us until we feel they deserve it.
    While this is very human it is at odds with the Divine.
    While I respect the journey for all victims, and the sovereign hand of God to help them thru the process, I think it is a mistake to shy away from including the testimony of those that have chosen to forgive, while it may be uncommon, it might be the very thing that will set them free to be restored.

    • Margot Van Sluytman
      May 24, 2012

      Dear Russ,
      What a rich sharing you have offered. I agree that it is important to as you say, “include the testimony of those that have chosen to forgive.”
      As an individual who has shared powerfully meaningful healing with the man who murdered my Father, I did not choose forgiveness. Rather, because of authentic healing not framed in any expectations from justice or faith communities, even I am a member of both communities, forgiveness happened and I recognized it.
      Support of all manner is key for victims. The tenets of respect, responsibility, and relationship, are key for everyone involved in the challenging and chaotic process of living with life after crime: having it committed against you, or having committed it.
      Margot Van Sluytman.

  • Virginia Domingo
    May 24, 2012

    For me Restorative Justice is a dialogue about crime, about how crime impacted on victims and their families. Forgiveness is something very personal and depends on each person, it is a personal journey in which RJ can helps but not all victims will be able to forgive and others will need more time, even others will think they have not forgiven and in fact they will realize they did it ( not similar crimes impact similar in victims, it depends on each one, because we are humans, with very different needs and circumstances). Some people here in my country speaks about RJ and forgiveness as similar concepts but it is of couse not the same, although after a restorative justice process usually forgiveness come, it is healing and beneficial for the recovery of victims.

  • Dr. Don John O. Omale
    May 30, 2012

    Sorry I am contributing to this discourse on ‘forgiveness’ a bit late. Granted that forgiveness should not be used as a yard stick for measuring ‘victims’ satisfaction’ with RJ.
    This is imperative because some victims believe their offenders do not deserve their forgiveness because they (victims) do not think offenders’ apology and accounts were not reliable. Victims are entitled to their rights to forgive or not to forgive. However, victims who are able to forgive before or after mediation are more likely to have intra and inter-personal restoration than those who do not.
    We should also remember as RJ advocates and practitioners that ‘forgiveness’ could be on personal, cultural, religious and social levels. Victims may not at a personal level inform the offender about forgiveness but may encourage forgiveness for offender at the religious, cultural or social levels.
    Finally, I want to hypothesised that RJ practitioners should harness the multi disciplinary context of RJ to design what I may call ‘Apology Reliability Scale’ so as to be able to validate offenders’ apology for the satisfaction of victims who may want to participate in RJ Processes.
    Thank you Lisa for mainstreaming PRACTICAL victims’ participation in RJ.

    • therese bartholomew
      May 31, 2012

      This topic is so interesting to me – the many perspectives – the spiritual, the social, the cultural, etc. All of these “things” do come in to play i.e. why do we forgive or why do we not forgive or why are we torn somewhere inbetween? A few thoughts: In my journey to meet my brother’s killer, I forgave long before I met him (about 6 years before to be exact). I “claimed” forgiveness for ME as I mentioned in an earlier post; it never had anything to do with him. Losing my brother, who was not only my closest relative but also my closest friend was the most devastating thing by far that has ever happened to me (this coming from someone who was pregnant at 16, in an abusive marriage, and victimized twice at gunpoint); my brother’s death was the most life shaking, life altering thing. The sense or realization that life was beyond my control, that anything could happen, the other “shoe could drop” at any minute quite literally glued me to the bed. A few weeks after my brother Steve was killed, I saw his killer Karl in a courtroom. My first “instinct” was, honestly, how many ways can I hurt this guy BACK for what he has done to me and to my family. I couldn’t see myself recovering. Yet, in walked this grace, this moment in looking at Karl, a moment of grace ultimately as much for me as for him; this moment that I forgave. I forgave for ME. I could not and would not allow this man (or his actions) to hold me hostage. I had to somehow “come back” from this. Forgiveness was never about him. It was never about what he “deserved” because hell, what do any of us really deserve? Forgiveness was a gift I gave myself, so although life is crazy (and we have 6 kids, a grandchild, and a film that will suck the life out of me on a good day) there is one piece I will always have peace about. Yet, I see in my own family this, I think social, pull; this pull to “be a man” or to be the role our society has portrayed and unfortunately continues to portray as “man.” So, I wonder about this concept: is it “easier”/more socially acceptable for a woman to forgive? Is it less conflicting for me than it is say for my 24 year-old son or my 22 year-old nephew?
      As for the possibility of somehow measuring (if I’m understanding this correctly) rather or not an offender is genuinely sorry, hmm… for my money (and my life!) I’m going with what I KNOW to be true – what is inside me, who I am. I’m not a pessimist, but I’m not putting my eggs in someone else’s basket of forgiveness. The truth is, would I ever be happy, truly content that what the offender expressed was “real?” Could it ever be “enough?” At the end of the day, any day really, I can know only my heart – what is true and what is real inside me.
      Thank you all for the conversation. t

  • Katy Hutchison
    May 31, 2012

    What a rich conversation; I am deeply moved.
    Forgiveness arrived in the aftermath of my husband’s murder fourteen years ago. It was for me before it was for the offender. It was what enabled me to put breakfast on the table for my children. It was what gave me hope and the ability to move forward.
    It was not easy. Not soft. Not about forgetting. Not about letting the offender off the hook. Nor was forgiveness a one-time expression. I revisit it often as it changes shape; some days growing, others withering. It is not the same for my children; they are on their own journeys.
    The opportunity to engage in a restorative process with the offender five years later was a totally separate experience; not related to or reliant upon forgiveness. It gave me back my voice. I felt a part of something rather than at the affect of it. Questions that I knew would never be answered in the court room were addressed. Anticipating the face to face meeting was frightening. The reality was much different; there was humanity. We connected around the brokenness.

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