I was flipping through channels last night before going to bed, and I came across some hearings that were being conducted by the state Board of Pardons and Clemency. This channel is sort of like a local C-Span—-it probably is not affiliated with C-Span, but it is similar to C-Span, only it’s for state and local events. It televised a Lincoln Dinner for my county’s Republican Party. It shows city council meetings. And, last night, it was showing some hearings conducted by the state’s Board of Pardons and Clemency.
I only watched one of the cases, for it was getting late, and I had to go to bed. The case concerned a man who, over a decade ago, killed someone while being high on drugs. A variety of people testified on this man’s behalf, asking for clemency. One was a former state legislator and state Supreme Court justice, who represented the man pro-bono. The man’s teacher from prison testified on the man’s behalf. A prison supervisor testified on his behalf. A pastor testified on his behalf. Of course, the man’s mom testified and asked for clemency, while stressing that she and the others are asking for the man to be part of a conditional program as part of his release. And the man by telephone testified and answered questions from the board. These people who were testifying in favor of the man said that this man had changed, and some said that he had received Christ. This man had become a mentor to people inside the prison and was eager to reach out to young people in his rough neighborhood so that they would not make the same mistakes that he did.
Then, the family of the victim testified. One was the victim’s sister, and the other was his brother. They were both emotionally distressed, yet coherent in their points. The sister said that she was glad that the man who killed her brother had an opportunity to grow in prison, but that she hopes that he stays in prison. She said that she could not sleep the night before, and that she did not care for how people were referring to the man’s crime as “the incident.” She then shared what that incident was: the man shot her brother, then killed him while her brother was in pain. The victim’s brother then shared how his brother was a good person—-one who helped people find a place to live when they were down on their luck, one who was well-liked by his fellow employees. The brother shared how he and his family have continually blamed themselves, in some sense, for the victim’s death: if only he had had dinner with his brother on the night of the murder, as they planned, the brother would still be alive.
The board decided against recommending clemency, and each member had his or her own reason. One man did not care for how the criminal, years before, had plea-bargained for a lesser sentence and the dismissal of some charges, only soon thereafter to challenge his attorney’s competence in order to be released from prison. A lady on the board, a public defender, focused on the question of when exactly the criminal began to take responsibility for his actions, and she noted that he had asked for clemency before; she also noted that he had grown up in a loving home (yet the man’s defenders were telling her that he still lived in a rough neighborhood). The next board member was noting all of the minor infractions (i.e, loitering, not showing up for a medical exam, horseplay) that the man committed in prison, as late as 2012. This board member was wondering: If this man cannot keep rules in a highly-regulated environment, will be keep them once he is released? And the last board member said that he did not doubt the sincerity of the man’s conversion and attempts to change, but that he feared that clemency would send the wrong message to the very young people the man wanted to help: that one could kill a person, and be released from prison.
What especially intrigued me in watching all this were the ideas about repentance and forgiveness that were expressed. The man said that he does not hope to be forgiven, but that he can still do good in the world. He also said that he does not believe that any good that he might do would atone for his taking of somebody else’s life: he said that he was trying to be good because that was how he should have been all along.
Questions were in my mind about forgiveness. A lot of times, evangelicals assume that a person has to be forgiven by God in order to have a relationship with God, as if God wants to see a clean record before God can give a person the time of day. They can back up their case with Scripture, but I wonder if that is necessarily true. Can a person be unforgiven and yet loved by God? Even if a person is unforgiven, can he still try to do good and please God in the process, even if that good will never atone for the wrong that he did? Should he ever assume that the wrong that he did is forgiven and forgotten, especially when it leaves a palpable effect? And is God or Jesus wrong to command the family of the man’s victim to forgive the man? The hurt is there.
I realize that I am looking at this as a detached observer. The man, his family and friends, and the family and friends of his victims understandably have strong feelings about this case, and I hope that, were they to stumble upon my blog, they would not take offense at me reflecting on larger questions on the basis of their case.
On a related note, I would like to link on this post about forgiveness. I do not want to get into a debate about forgiveness, but I did appreciate the post because it wrestled with what forgiveness is, and when it should be extended.