In time you will be asked, “Have you forgiven the murderer of your loved one?” Many of us ponder this before answering. I was caught completely off guard the day the newspaper reporter asked me, tape recorder in hand.
The questioner is rarely from someone who has been on the other side of homicide grief. They usually have an answer in mind before they ask.
This question may seem simple, but, as with many things in life, it’s more complex when examined closely. So, some context.
Is it up to “outsiders” to tell us what we should or should not do? For our decision to be genuine, it must emanate from within and only after careful consideration.
Second, is there a one-size-fits-all answer? Consider this:
Was the homicide caused by the accidental discharge of a weapon (perhaps by a 10-year-old)?
Would it be important to know that the homicide was a “thrill kill” as a “practice” for future victims?
What if the killer had an organic brain disease that triggered their aggression and impulsivity (such as CTE, a condition seen in many pro football players)?
Would it factor into your decision if the murderer stalked, threatened then assaulted their intended victim prior to the deadly event?
Perhaps the death was deliberately timed to occur in full view of the victim’s six-year-old son.
What if the killer kidnapped their victim, a toddler, and tortured them prior to slowly taking their life then vicariously tortured their parents with a video of their child’s last moments? Would forgiveness be in the works?
Then there are red flags to listen for. Caution is warranted when someone says “you must”, “you cannot”, “you should”, “you will never”, “always” and the like. Absolutes should make you pause. Life is seldom that clear-cut.
On this, we will probably agree. It’s not healthy to stagnate in victimization. It is not healthy to become hobbled with rage, depression, or revenge. It’s not possible to rush the process of grief in all its complexities. It takes as long as it takes.
The Case For Forgiveness
Religious leaders, scholars, some victim advocates, and about half of all mental health clinicians encourage (and in some cases expect) the one who was wronged to forgive. It is easy to find essays advocating this position. It has a long history.
They offer many reasons to extend forgiveness of the murderer.
Only through forgiveness can someone end their suffering.
Withholding forgiveness with the expectation for the murderer to do something may be in vain.
Extending forgiveness will release the survivor from anger and bitterness. As such, it will elevate mood, help the survivor disengage from the perpetrator, and guard against stress and depression.
Forgiveness is a demonstration of compassion, reduces resentment, and helps the co-victim grow spiritually and emotionally. It is, in the end, an act that benefits the victim more than the wrong-doer.
Proponents of forgiveness assert the benefits of extending forgiveness will help trigger greater happiness, hopefulness, and optimism.
Physical benefits have been documented, such as lowered blood pressure and insomnia. Forgiveness reduces stress hormones like cortisol.
Forgiveness benefits society at large.
The Case Against Forgiveness
Others take a different stance, one that is not as vocalized but is gaining traction. They would assert the following.
Given the pressure to forgive, the survivor’s primary motive may be to please others and conform to social expectations. In other words, forgiveness may be insincere and forced. This is especially alluring due to the social stigma and isolation that inevitably follow homicide. Extending the default position of forgiveness allows the griever more social support at a time when it is lacking. But it may be at the price of authenticity.
A culture of coerced forgiveness adds to a growing load for the victim. Co-victims are already dealing with grief, fear, insomnia, confusion, and social stigma. The to-do list is long and heavy.
Third, most people urging forgiveness from the co-victim have never personally been impacted by homicide. They’re taking their cues from an abstract moral code. We can’t know what is right for us until facing the dilemma.
Forgiveness often precedes the perpetrator earning forgiveness or even asking for it. It’s a free pass. In other words, when the perpetrator has not asked for forgiveness, nor demonstrated insight, empathy, or genuine change, it merely wipes their slate clean prematurely and fraudulently. This teaches them that they needn’t do anything to be forgiven. It will just come in time even without seeking it. This reduces the value of forgiveness in much the same way that handing over a new laptop to an eleven-year-old will reduce the value when it’s not earned the hard way.
Extending forgiveness puts the victim-survivor in the role of a divine being. Some may press “pause” when they read Romans 12:19. Avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay… Forgiveness is seen as between the murderer and their maker.
Forgiveness may be premature. If additional facts come out later, after the proclamation of forgiveness, the co-victim of murder may feel stuck with (and regret) their choice to forgive.
Are These Our Only Options?
I see a third choice.
The Option of Indifference
A third option is indifference; emotional neutrality. In a sense, it is borrowed from the tradition of indigenous societies that evoked exile, banishment, ostracization, loss of membership, or expatriation for grave offenses. (They are not alone in this form of dispute resolution.)
For example, The Iroquois Great Law of Peace, Section 20, the oldest living constitution we know of, stated that if a chief of one of the Five Nations committed murder, the other chiefs would come together where the killing occurred to remove the offending chief. This was a crime against the Creator and was not tolerated. The perpetrator was dismissed as Chief and reminded that this brought stigma to his entire clan. His title of Chieftainship was then extended to a sister family. They formally declared: “I now depose and expel you and you shall depart at once from the territory of the League of Five Nations and nevermore return.”
The consequences were immediate and long-lasting. The exiled murderer was stripped of tribal rights, privileges, and resources. This led to generational banishment. They faced isolation and loneliness as well as loss of identity. Without the protection of the community that they wronged, they were vulnerable to wildlife, harsh environmental conditions, and warring groups. Over time they were forgotten and risked losing their traditions and cultural practices and grew out of step with extended family. And last, and more pertinent to this discussion, the wrongdoer faced spiritual consequences. It was believed that the banished person was refused protection from the guiding spirits of their tribe. Their fate was squarely in the hands of the creator for violating the rules of the creator, not those who had been wronged.
What does this look like today? Following a prolonged period when facts and emotions following the death are processed and understood we begin to feel more centered. We address the question of forgiveness. In time it’s possible to say “I no longer want or expect anything from you. I have detached myself. You are in my rearview. You did what you did and now I am handing you off to your maker. You must live with your choices. You are not entitled to my time or energy. I have created a rigid boundary between us and moved on. I will not look back. You are not a part of my present or my future. Goodbye.” Some individuals follow this up with a ritual – like burning photos, and news articles, asking others to never speak of the perpetrator’s name again, or releasing a dove.
The challenges following homicide are many. The decision to forgive or not often comes down the road from the time of the homicide but always seems to blindside us. It’s highly personal. There is no one-size-fits-all answer.
We are entitled to choose whatever path holds true for us. We’re even entitled to change our minds later.
Forgiveness is frequently sanitized and simplified when, in reality, it’s draining, confusing, and risky – but important.
True belonging doesn’t require
us to change who we are.
It requires us to be who we are.