Murder, Justice . . . and Forgiveness

The Christian Calling Card

The New York Times Magazine ran a stunning, moving piece about murder, justice . . . and forgiveness. I’ll tell you about it, next on BreakPoint.

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Eric Metaxas

Three years ago, Kate and Andy Grosmaire received the kind of news that is every parent’s worst nightmare: Their daughter, Ann, had been shot in the head by her fiancée, Conor McBride.

When Andy Grosmaire arrived at the hospital, he realized that unless God did something “wondrous,” Ann would not survive.

Sadly, Ann ultimately died. But, nevertheless, before she did, something wondrous did happen. While he stood praying at his unconscious daughter’s bedside, Grosmaire felt he heard Ann say “Forgive him.” His initial response was to say “No way. That’s impossible.” But he continued to hear Ann say “Forgive him.”

When McBride’s father arrived at the hospital, Andy Grosmaire hugged him and thanked him for coming, adding “but I might hate you by the end of the week.”

For reasons Andy still doesn’t understand, Conor McBride listed Andy’s wife Kate as one of the people allowed to visit him in jail. As she left to visit him, she asked her husband if he had a message for the man who had shot their daughter. Andy replied “tell him I love him, and I forgive him.”

As extraordinary as that was, what Kate and Andy Grosmaire understood by forgiveness was not limited to words. After meeting the prosecutor prosecuting McBride, they realized that they had it in their power to affect the outcome of the trial. After meeting with Conor McBride, they asked that he receive a 10-to-15 year sentence.

The prosecutor, sympathetic to the family’s wishes but still representing the state’s and community’s interest, insisted that McBride serve twenty years--under Florida law he could have served a life sentence and may have been sentenced to death.

The Grosmaire’s pursuit of what Christians call “restorative justice” was not limited to reaching out to Conor McBride. Andy Grosmaire didn’t wind up hating Conor’s father. On the contrary, the experience brought the two families closer.

The kind of forgiveness on display in this story is the antithesis of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” The Grosmaires are all too aware of the damage McBride caused, and they still feel the pain that that damage inflicted. As Kate Grosmaire told the New York Times, “forgiving Conor doesn’t change the fact that Ann is not with us . . . I walk by her empty bedroom at least twice a day.”

Andy Grosmaire is equally clear-eyed about what happened: he rejects talk about “God’s plan” and sentimental drivel about God “wanting another angel.”

So, why did they forgive their daughter’s murderer? Because Andy Grosmaire realized that “it was not just Ann asking [him] to forgive Conor, it was Jesus Christ.” As Andy put it, “I hadn’t said no to him before, and I wasn’t going to start then.”

Saying “yes” to forgiveness was the only way forward from this unimaginable loss. As Kate Grosmaire put it, “Conor owed us a debt he could never repay. And releasing him from that debt would release us from expecting that anything in this world could satisfy us.”

This kind of forgiveness is Christianity’s greatest calling card. To be able to love those who have done you unimaginable harm and seek their good is truly wondrous.

Other faiths speak about mercy and compassion. Some even urge you to “let go” of old wounds for your own sake. But Christians worship a savior who, even as he was unjustly executed, prayed for those who placed him on the cross and insists that those who profess his name love their enemies, not just their friends.

It’s what makes this kind of “yes” possible.

For more information on the Christian concept of restorative justice, please visit JusticeFellowship.org.

Further Reading and Information

Can Forgiveness Play a Role in Criminal Justice?
Paul Tullis | New York Times | January 4, 2013


Thank you, Richard, for pointing out the impropriety of my words. You are absolutely right that I do nothing but draw lines with such a statement. But here is what I WILL stand by...

As an Offender, I cherish the mercy shown to me when I have been unrepentant. My Lord forgave me WHILE I nailed Him to the cross. My loved ones, as they strove to follow Christ, forgave me. I will not say it was easier or harder for them, not being God, to forgive me. They did not forgive perfectly, but they also did not have the nails pounded into their flesh. My repentence did not make their forgiveness any more or less valid (though I will agree that it would validate their decision).

As one Offended, I have no case to bring before God where I can demand punishment. I am told to forgive others as the Lord forgave me (Col 3:13). Others have said, and I agree, that this does not preclude my pressing charges. The burden is on me to separate legal matters from my need for retribution. I have brought matters before the Church in accordance with Matthew 18 (a directive that makes no sense if we are not allowed to do so as a mark of forgiveness). And if my daughter were to be abused in the same way as in the referenced article, I would be hard-pressed to follow the father's example. Nevertheless, my relationship with God is dependent on my ability to forgive (Matt 6:12). I risk my spiritual well-being with an unforgiving heart. It cannot rely on the Offender's actions.

I would like to cite RT Kendall's book, "Total Forgiveness" as a fantastic resource for putting the issues of forgiveness in balance.

Joel, please forgive my rash words. My response was unwarranted.
@ Scott Martin (and possibly Bob C.)
I'm thinking of forgiveness in the forensic sense (as when God forgives sin in saving us). The article seems to endorse leniency on part of the court based on the urging of parents who had "forgiven" the murderer. (If memory serves; I confess I did not reread the article just now.) Since the parents have no legitimate authority to (forensically) forgive sin against their daughter, I do not believe their "forgiveness" here should have influenced the court. The case of God nicely illustrates the different sorts of things being labeled "forgiveness" in this discussion. Since God takes no pleasure in the death of wicked, we know that he has "let go of bitterness" toward the wicked for their crimes against him; yet, he only forgives them (in the forensic sense) if they repent and believe the gospel, in which case the perfect justice his holy nature mandates may be satisfied by Christ's work; otherwise, it must me satisfied by the wicked's own endurance of eternal punishment.
There is some truth, no doubt, in each of the comments posted so far. The disagreements among them show that understanding scripture is not easy (2 Timothy 2:15, 1 Corinthians 2:14). They also are declared to be necessary by scripture to arrive at the truth (1 Corinthians 11:19). So when someone is so sure that he knows the absolute truth about what a difficult doctrine really means that he, in effect, speaks ex cathedra and labels the opposing view a "lie from the pit of hell", Kevin, he may someday discover that the view he so labeled may be God's view after all, and he has thus not only called God a liar but is in danger of calling Him accursed, and that is the unpardonable sin (Matthew 12:32). But while there is yet life, there is hope.

BTW I am reminded of a discussion I had many years ago with the then pastor of my church (who is no longer with us). He had preached a sermon about forgiveness and how we must forgive and forget. Now of course he knew that only God is capable of literally forgetting (although that is not what He does either, as that would negate His omniscience), but he meant that when we forgive, we are to act as though we had literally forgotten the sin. I asked him what if someone repeatedly punches us out? Jesus said to forgive 70 times 7 (490) times. Are we to forgive and forget being beaten up every time? He said yes, but he would avoid that person, showing that he had missed the point: How could I know to avoid him if I had literally forgotten what he had done? And the same thing applies to forgiving non-repentant criminals, if forgiving means we don't press charges, doesn't it? Maybe the loving thing to do, sometimes, is to turn them over to the correctional system for the sake of their salvation (1 Corinthians 5:5). And in any case, by pressing charges, we are giving not only the jury but God the opportunity to decide whether to intervene on behalf of their conviction or acquittal, and should pray accordingly.
What Forgiveness Means
At David Hodges. I think you are misinterpreting the story. How the daughter or anyone was speaking to her father is a mystery to me. The father believes his daughter was asking him to forgive the killer because of the father’s loss. You are forgetting the extreme pain and suffering the Father is going through because his daughter is now gone from his presence. I believe the daughter is now in Heaven experiencing an existence of joy and blessing that is beyond our imagination. She is in full communion with Jesus Christ. Her understanding of forgiveness is way beyond ours.

At Joel Fieri. If forgiveness was not difficult, then it is not worth very much. When we are so injured that we cannot forgive then we are forced to go to God for his help. The ability to forgive the unforgivable is due to the power of God and His grace which most of the time is beyond our human ability to understand. The act of forgiveness is something you do regardless of how it is received. It is not up to you, and it is not your responsibility concerning the offender’s reaction to the forgiveness you offer. The consequences for our sins exist regardless of whether we are forgiven or not. The Bible is very clear that it is not ours to extract revenge but up to God to deal out justice.
Joel, Jesus said this in Mark 11:25a: “And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone.” Jesus says to do this when we are praying, so we are to forgive any offenders whether or not they have repented and asked for forgiveness. This involves, I think, the commitment not to exact vengeance on our own, though as I said in an earlier post, this does not rule out enforcing consequences, holding others accountable, or even pressing charges in cases of crime. I think it also includes the decision to release bitterness and resentment (not the same as righteous anger—cultivated in us by God to transform our human anger into something more like His own--though sometimes it may be hard to tell the difference). I said “the decision” because the ability to release bitterness and resentment may need to come over time, with the aid of healing for inner pain. We need to do this for our own sakes, no matter what the offender does or does not do.

I would say there are relational aspects to forgiveness, but that’s a topic for another time.

By the way, Joel, you still have not said just what you mean by forgiveness.
Sorry Kevin, can't agree. There's really not a Biblical example of forgiveness, or parable, that doesn't involve a request. The thief on the cross ASKED Jesus to remember him. Jesus said forgive "when ASKED" seventy times seven. The wicked servant was forgiven his debt after he ASKED, and was punished because he didn't forgive his fellow servant when ASKED. This is a weak point in Christian teaching today. Forgiveness is offered by God through Jesus' death, but if we don't acknowledge our need for it, we don't receive it. How much more forgiving would we be if we truly asked one another for forgiveness? But we don't. We unforgiving church because we're an unrepenting church.
Forgiveness in action
I have some more thoughts to add.

Joel and Kevin, you disagree about whether to forgive an unrepentant offender, but neither of you says what you mean by forgiveness. I think it likely that you are using the word in two different ways. Such miscommunications are one reason I think it is so important to define forgiveness.

Mark, to support your statement that God forgives sinners before they repent you quoted Romans 5:8 ("but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us"). But Romans 5:8 says only that Christ died for the unrepentant, not that He forgives them before they come to faith in Him. The cross is the basis for God forgiving us, but this verse does not say who He forgives and when.

You said that “forgiveness is choosing not to take vengeance, but instead to accept the one who has done you wrong.” What do you mean by “accept”? If a guest in my home tries (unsuccessfully) to murder me or a member of my family and does not repent, how am I to accept him or her? I will not expose my family to unnecessary danger. I have a Biblical responsibility to protect them within what the Bible allows. I see no obligation to the offender to allow him to come back into my home or to be alone with me or any member of my family. Rather, I see an obligation to keep myself and my family away from him. What forgiveness looks like may vary from one situation to another, especially when other commands of Scripture also apply to the people involved. (We must not look at a command in the Bible in isolation from the others.)

This raises a question that I asked in my original post: Can one forgive and still press charges? That depends on what constitutes taking vengeance. Romans 12:19-20 affirm that vengeance is God’s to take, not ours, and that we should show love to our enemies (like Kate did when she visited Conor in jail). Romans 13:4 (ESV) says this about those in governing authority: ” 4 for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer” (my emphasis). In sum, God may take vengeance through the government. To press charges is to turn a person over to God’s vengeance instead of taking our own, although our motives and attitudes in doing so must be examined, since they may be far from Christlike. Pressing charges may well not be unloving toward the offender, and doing so may be necessary in order to show love to those who need to be protected from the offender. I’ll take the idea a little farther and say that forgiving does not conflict with enforcing consequences or holding others accountable.

David, you said only the offended person has the authority to forgive. First, I note that you did not define forgiveness. What aspects of forgiveness require authority to give it? I do not need authority, for example, in order to release my bitterness toward someone.. As a father, I may or may not have the authority to forgive someone on my daughter’s behalf, but I assure you that if a man I know murders my daughter, he has sinned against me as well as her, for he knows he has deeply wounded my heart.

Let us all keep searching the Scriptures and encouraging each other in the faith.
This IS biblical forgiveness
God forgives sinners BEFORE they repent: "but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us." Romans 5:8

I do believe the greatest picture of forgiveness is the cross itself. In essence, Christ absorbed all the wrong ever done and treated it as his own. Forgiveness isn't acting as if the offense never happened. As far as I know, Jesus still bears the marks of the cross in his body. Forgiveness is choosing not to take vengeance, but instead to accept the one who has done you wrong. It is showing grace instead of vengeance. Thus forgiveness of any kind is a death of sorts and it is hard for us to do.

This means that it is possible to forgive even an unrepentant person in the hope that they will one day repent. Jesus said, "Father, forgive them, they know not what they do," to those who were crucifying him. We don't know if any of them repented. I certainly hope they did, and I know that was Jesus' hope too. I don't know if forgiveness is "easy" for God. He died doing it. but he also rose.

The burden of forgiveness is on the offended. This is exactly the burden that Christ bore. The burden of accepting that forgiveness is on the forgiven. We don't have to accept it, but if we don't, the relationship isn't mended.

I also don't think it means that we have to expect that the pain of what was done to us will go away once we exercise that costly act of forgiveness. But it should make us reflect on the absolute goodness of God that HE forgave US through sending his Son to pay for our mess with his life. That makes it all the more amazing that, though we struggle to forgive wrongs against us both great and small, he forgive us for ALL wrongs done against him.
Who May Forgive This Sin?
If I did not misread the story, the person sinned against never actually instructed her father to forgive the murderer; the father only imagined that he heard his unconscious daughter say that. This leaves me with the following difficulty: aside from God, the only person who can offer another person forgiveness is the person who has been sinned against. However well-meaning parents may often be when they "forgive" those who kill their offspring, it does not seem to me that they have any real authority to offer such forgiveness.
"Define forgiveness" is a noble, appropriate request. Literally in Scripture it means "to let go," not easy. Forgiveness also involves grieving, a willingness, maybe an act, toward reparation, but ultimately even with the words, we all see it takes TIME. God seems to do instantly what we do slowly. Keep this discussion going!
What an inspiring and deeply moving piece. (And from the NYT of all places.)

Your commentaries are really a blessing, Eric. Thanks.

(I'd love to see your response to Scot's insightful questions.)
I'm Glad God is not Defined Here
My God pursues me. He hunts me down with His fierce Love. He doesn't wait until I'm ready. He acts with His purpose. And that's not "cheap grace."

Yes, Jesus tells us how to forgive: "Forgive us as we forgive others." Yes, he defines repentance as turning from our sin. But NO, He does not ask us to withhold our forgiveness until we see repentance! Sorry, Joel, but that's a lie from the pit of hell. We forgive BECAUSE He first forgave us, not that those who need forgiving ask for it.
Forgiveness: what does it mean?
Powerful story, Eric, but I would really have liked you to define forgiveness. What does it mean? What does it not mean? I think many people aren't quite sure whatit means, and I have seldom heard anyone who is speaking about forgiveness define it. Some people may think it means acting as if the offense never happened--no consequences, no mistrust, no distancing oneself from the offender, no further confrontations about the offense, and so on. Or does it simply mean the release of bitterness and resentment (in which case we can and need to forgive even those who never ask for it or want it)? Is it enough to refrain from trying to get the offender to take consequeces? Can one forgive and still press charges? Concerning forgiveness, the sheep need more guidance; the teachers need more clarity.
I greatly respect and appreciate your commentaries.
I think one reason this might be seen as "cheap grace" is that there is no mention of repentance. The fiance' may very well have asked the girl's father to forgive him, but you didn't mention it. Jesus offers forgiveness only to those who repent and ask. He tells us to forgive as He forgives, therefore forgiving someone who is not repentant, while noble, isn't Biblical. It puts all the burden on the offended and makes forgiveness more difficult.