WHAT? INTERNATIONAL JUSTICE OR INTERRELATED FORGIVENESS?
“The difference between justice and forgiveness: To be just is to condemn the fault and, because of the fault, to condemn the doer as well. To forgive is to condemn the fault but to spare the doer. That’s what the forgiving God does.”
The Oxford Dictionary defines forgiveness as the following:
1. Stop feeling angry or resentful toward (someone) for an offense, flaw, or mistake
1.1 No longer feel angry about or wish to punish (an offense, flaw, or mistake)
Under these definitions, forgiving someone has nothing to do with them: it’s about managing our emotional experiences. It’s not about consequences and punishment, but releasing emotions that hold us back.
Typically, someone is more likely to forgive when the offender makes constructive efforts to mend hurtful behaviour. Or when the victim re-frames their thoughts and feelings about the transgression and the offender (“she didn’t mean to do it”, for example, or “our relationship is more important”). Or, of course, when both happen.
But sometimes offenders are not aware of their hurtful behaviour so they don’t take responsibility, their reparative efforts are inadequate, or re-framing encourages forgiveness but still leaves residual resentment.
Now, at first glance, this claim may appear counter-intuitive. People tend to think that punishment and forgiveness are opposites. When you punish someone, you hurt them; when you forgive, you are benevolently disposed towards them.
But there is indeed consistent and strong evidence of a positive relation between punishment and forgiveness. Importantly, we also found that punishing provides victims with the sense that justice has been done.
Justice refers to fairness, which is fundamentally important to humans, particularly when we’ve been wronged. Research in the criminal justice system suggests people prefer to punish so that offenders get their just deserts.
But punishment must fit the crime; offenders should be seen to suffer to the same degree as the person they hurt. If this happens, the victim’s suffering is, theoretically at least, cancelled out.
People tend to feel better when they believe offenders have got their just deserts. And this has the effect of returning relations between victim and offender to an even keel because the former feel more empowered and in control.
The restoration of these valued psychological states is important for encouraging forgiveness. Punishment also sends a deterring message: “I value this relationship, so don’t do it again!”
We must remember that when a person has been hurt by another, they are vulnerable to the states that only justice can restore: feeling demeaned, lacking control and feeling disconnected from the person who hurt them.
Forgiving means being vulnerable again. But by punishing, victims may feel strengthened and sufficiently confident to risk being vulnerable one more time, so they can forgive.
It’s important here to distinguish between punishment and revenge. Revenge effectively means not only making another person suffer, but making them suffer more. Vengeful responses tend to be destructive; they usually lead to a downward spiral of revenge and counter-revenge.
When the point of punishment is to restore fairness, the punishing act should be perceived as roughly equivalent to the original hurt. What constitutes a “fair” punishment usually depends on the nature of the relationship between victim and offender.
According to the researches, the most effective punishment is achieved through dialogue. This usually means communicating to the offender what he or she has done, explaining why it is so upsetting, and often discussing how the offender will make up for it.
Although victims don’t necessarily set out to make an offender feel bad, guilt is often an outcome, making talking the punishment. When victims think they’ve been heard, that unfair behaviour will be addressed or that the offender is also hurting (or all of these), then they feel justice has been done. And forgiveness is more likely.
Naturally, we wouldn’t advocate pre-emptive punishment. But in situations where victims may need to re-assert themselves, punishment that’s fair seems to be a viable and effective way of enabling forgiveness.
Therefore justice and forgiveness — two responses generally thought to be contradictory — can co-exist, so that one may encourage the other.
(The author is a student and is also working for an Indian based mental health organization Paperplanes)