Forgiveness: A Collective Effort in Restorative Justice

Date: Aug 12th, 2018

Speaker: Eric Sin, Graduate of Divinity School of Chung Chi College at Chinese University of Hong Kong and staff at Midnight Blue, the only NGO in town that supports male and transgender sex workers.

Passage: Ephesus 4:25 – 5:2

To forgive is a good act. Hatred harboring in our hearts is a sure way to mental instability and harms not only ourselves but also those around us. The traditional moral framework of many mature religions, including Christianity, view forgiveness with the highest regards. But what happens when victimizers take forgiveness for granted? Where can justice be found if all we can talk about is inner peace?

Ephesus 4:25 – 5:2

25 Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body. 26 “In your anger do not sin”[a]: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, 27 and do not give the devil a foothold. 28 Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.

29 Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31 Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. 32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. 5 1 Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children 2 and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

We Christians talk about forgiveness a whole lot but lacking foresight we fail to see the depth of the social structure implicated by forgiveness.

I ask everyone to think for a moment. How many individuals are needed to forgive? One, two or more than three?

[During the sermon, most of us voted for one, almost without hesitation.]

Most people think one (i.e., the victim) is all that is required.

The person who forgives earns the most from the act. When we learn to let go of grudges, we set ourselves free from the memories of pain and sadness. But what about the victimizer?

Clare Short, a British politician, once argued it would be wrong to forgive an injustice for which there is no commitment to rectify the wrong. When the law punishes people, it doesn’t repair any damage physical or mental to the victim. Punishment is a deterrent for those who plan to commit a crime so they can think twice about it. It is not some panacea that applies to all crimes committed. If punishment as a remedy doesn’t lead to the transformation of the individual and the society, then it is a broken framework that harms everyone involved.

Punishment is a tragedy for the victimizer

Years ago, I participated in a prison visiting program during my divinity studies. At Shek Pik prison, a maximum security facility, I met a young inmate there in his twenties. He looked courteous and kind. It baffled me to learn why he ended up there. A sentence of 28 years effectively destroys his childhood and hopes for higher education not to mention the difficulty he must face reintegrating with society, looking for jobs while employers scoff at his marred past. I found that he murdered his classmate in school and the court judged him harshly. The harshness of the judgment didn’t bring back the life of the victim. Instead, it went forward to destroy another life. One tragedy is now two, and of course, no one bothered to ask why it became this way. The society as a whole is more interested in isolating the man and never let him back into the fray. Are we so blind as to assume all criminals and fringe members of the society are evil and therefore no good can ever come from them? Drug dealers, abusers, prostitutes, everyone has their reasons for living the way they do. We all hold a piece of the key to condemn and to lift them.

#Metoo #Churchtoo: How those in power become accomplices in evil

A churchgoer once privately told me her story. She was an employee at a church, and she was sexually harassed by her superior. She was uncomfortable, so she left and filed a complaint with the church. She demanded a public apology and systems in place to prevent further incidents from happening. She didn’t get a response for over half a year, she was furious and decided to blow the whistle with the media. Then someone contacted her and served her an even more ridiculous response.

She was told that the superior had left the church and for the sake of the harmony of the church she should “not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths.” Because the bible said so. This cheap forgiveness is what allows evil to continue lurking in the system. The clergy prefers to protect the institution and their jobs. Too cowardly to face its shadow, some churches continually avoid this topic. Is this really what Jesus wants? My teacher Kung Lap Yan (龔立人) used to say, ”Justice and forgiveness are not mutually exclusive. They can run side by side.” If we are serious about it, what does the future hold for us?

Justice and forgiveness are not mutually exclusive. They can run side by side.

Reintegration to society and the Rat Park experiment

The environment surrounding a person contributes to his social behavior. A famous experiment was conducted in the 70’s to try to show that when mice are living together in a community rather than in isolation, they prefer plain water over addictive morphine-laced water. Fighting substance abuse with punishment and controlling its supply are not the full answer. If it were, we’d see a lot more success with the “war on drugs” by world governments.

Instead, we do have evidence that people under the right care and support can traverse out of this downward spiral. The courage and power to pull them out of their environment manifest itself in many forms, and they come from more than the victim and the victimizer. More people are involved.

Babemba tribe from Africa

When a member of their tribe commits a crime, the person is placed at the center of the village, and each member comes by to say something good about him, to remind him of his worth in the community. The process may take days with hundreds of villagers in line for the conversation. In the tribe, every member is a precious life, and everyone is worth saving. Is it more than a myth? The modern city has millions of people, how can this model work in modern society?

Restorative Justice in action


Similar models are emerging in different scenarios.  The video shows what it looks like when victims are willing to engage in dialogue with the victimizer. Restorative justice is a brokered process between two parties by experienced professionals (1:19 in the video).

To naively forgive and sweep all the ugliness like dust under the rug is like carrying a ball and chain shackled to us for the rest of our lives. Exposing the truths in an incident can be painful and uneasy to face alone. This is why a community is involved and where true healing begins.