Guest Columnists

Link Between Justice And Forgiveness

by Father William Byron

Recently, a lawyer friend asked me whether forgiveness can, in any way, be a form of justice. I think it can, but I’m not sure how to explain it.

The healing power of forgiveness cannot be overemphasized. Whether given or received, and regardless of whether it comes from God or another human being, forgiveness heals.

Jim Wallis, pastor of Sojourners Community in Washington and longtime editor of Sojourners magazine, says that “the idea of forgiveness often seems abstract and ‘religious’ in an otherworldly kind of way. But in fact forgiveness is very practical and necessary for human life on the planet to survive.

“When we refuse to forgive, the cycle of vengeance, retaliation and violence just escalates… It is only genuine forgiveness that breaks the cycle of destruction and opens up new possibilities.”

The Sermon on the Mount, which contains some firm instruction against retaliation, addressed the issue of forgiveness in the context of worship. Your refusal to forgive would make you unworthy to stand before the altar.

“If you bring your gift to the altar and there recall that your brother or sister has anything against you, leave your gift at the altar, go first to be reconciled with your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift” (Mt 5:23-24).

We Christians should measure our performance in this regard against the standard embodied in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Realize that, in making this prayer, we are asking to be forgiven on a contingent basis.

We are declaring ourselves willing to be forgiven only if we forgive others. This is a remarkable standard. No one is perfect, of course, but no one can dodge that standard; it will be there to challenge us every day of our lives.

It takes a large-hearted person to decide to forgive; by the act of forgiving the heart of the forgiver becomes even larger.

Forgiveness fastens friendships. Anyone interested in contributing to the return of loyalty to everyday life might simply look for opportunities to forgive.

And anyone who can count should calculate the value of the lesson that is available to all in these words of writer Merle Shain: “There is no way to hate another that does not cost the hater, no way to remain unforgiving without maiming yourself.”

Most of us are familiar with Alexander Pope’s dictum: “To err is human, to forgive, divine.”

None of us will ever be divine, but we can imitate divinity in forgiving. We may never be able to forget, but we can act as if we have forgotten whenever we forgive from the heart.

In either case, true forgiveness is the restorative measure, the transforming decision that puts you on a brand new page. And that, it seems to me, has to have some relationship to justice.

However you understand justice, it has to do with the promotion and protection of right relationships. Biblical justice refers to right relationships with God. Economic justice refers to right relationships with others in the marketplace. Legal justice looks to right relationships under the law.

Forgiveness, it seems to me, is an instrument capable of forging all right relationships.


Jesuit Father Byron is university professor of business and society at St. Joseph’s University, Philadelphia. 

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