Forgiveness and justice can coexist

Over the course of a 15-year journalism career, I’ve seen more than my fair share of tragedy, particularly during the 10 years that I covered criminal courts. And nothing adds to that tragedy when it seems the justice meted out by our legal system is woefully inappropriate, given the facts and circumstances of the case.

There have been very few times where I felt justice was truly served in any particular case, but as a journalist who covered those cases, it seemed inappropriate to speak out about them at the time. I don’t regret that silence, but I no longer feel the compulsion to remain silent – especially when I am not covering any particular cases.

One case that has been particularly troubling for me has been that of a woman here in my home state of Iowa who has been charged with the murder of a child she was babysitting. The woman is alleged to have “lost her cool” with the child, a little girl, when she refused to take off her coat after being outside, and then throwing the girl to the floor, resulting in a traumatic head injury that resulted in death.

This case caught my attention for two reasons: 1) I used to live in the corner of the state where this happened, so I know many of those involved; and 2) I have covered two similar cases in my past, both of which impacted me deeply. But what has troubled me most is the reaction to the case.

The incident occurred in a deeply Christian community, and the woman, who has been charged with first-degree murder and child endangerment resulting in death, comes from a family that is considered a pillar of said community. According to others in the community, the mother of the child and the woman charged with her death are also cousins.

The case took a new turn recently when it was announced that a plea agreement has been accepted by both sides. The plea agreement, more or less, resulted in a lengthy prison sentence. But, giving her credit for time already served, and the Iowa prison system’s good-behavior policy, she would likely be eligible for release after just six to eight years.

Is that justice? I don’t know. Usually when someone asks that question, I like to remind them that we have a legal system today, not a justice system. And, we all know there will be a price to be paid in the end, even if complete justice cannot be found here on earth.

Reaction has been very strong, and split fairly evenly into two different camps.

On one side, you have those who would like to see the woman hang from the closest tree. It’s not difficult to understand why. Any crime that violates the innocence of the youngest of our society usually evokes a lot of anger.

On the other side, you have those who believe the woman’s Christian upbringing somehow means she deserves special consideration for leniency. The family has been through a lot, and it hurts them even more to have this kind of cloud hanging over them.

And while neither position is biblically sound, that hasn’t prevented members of the two factions from having it out, both publicly and in social media. This isn’t good for a lot of reasons, but primarily because it only furthers the divisions tragedies like this create.

We have to remember forgiveness and justice can – and should – be compatible. One is for the betterment of our souls, while the other is for the betterment of our society.

We have eternal souls that thrive on forgiveness, both from asking and receiving as well as from giving. Our sins are forgiven, therefore we are expected to forgive. It is one of the most fundamental tenets of Christianity.

So, too, is the adherence to the rule of law. As Christians, in Romans 13, we are instructed to respect civil authorities and support the laws enacted through them. They hold the responsibility for maintaining civil order and for providing just laws, doing so at God’s pleasure, as noted in Proverbs 8.

Forgiveness – both asking and granting – is required spiritually in situations as this, but we also have a responsibility to seek justice for those who have been harmed. Asking that those who commit crimes – even those who come from Christian upbringings – receive just punishment is also part of the healing process.

The best outcome possible to this situation is one where everyone – the families and the community – can heal both the divisions this has created, as well as the hurt everyone is feeling in his or her heart.