Forgiveness as a Transformative from Victimhood to Virtue

David Stewart
August 9, 2015

In the early 90s, little more than 20 years ago, two horrific acts of murder against young women played out halfway around the world from each other. The first, a college freshman in California, was shot in the head when robbed by a couple of thieves who were high on crystal meth. The second, an American Fulbright scholar studying the lives of women in Apartheid South Africa was stoned and stabbed by a mob of black militants who thought she was an Afrikaner, a member of the ruling white class. Both women had very capable, motivated parents. However, these parents had strong differences in how they chose to deal with their grief from the murders of their daughters. The forgiveness in the hearts of one set of parents when compared to the other will help illuminate what is quite possibly the most important part of forgiveness: the outcomes for individuals and societies.

Mike Reynolds’ daughter was shot in a California robbery that defied explanation. The robbers had been in and out of prison, seven times for one, and another so many times that counting didn’t make sense. One of the murderous thieves stated about the murder that, “I wasn’t really thinking much  of nothing, you know. When it happens, it happens, you know. It just happened suddenly. We were just out doing what we do. I mean, that’s all I can tell you.”

Mike Reynolds’ reaction to this bewildering occurrence was to start a movement. You have all likely heard of it: he spearheaded the effort to pass the first Three Strikes law in the nation in the state of California. The original three strikes law automatically jailed criminals convicted of any second offense to twice the standard sentencing guideline in prison. Any third offense, trivial or murderous, was sentenced to twenty-five years to life in prison. The death of Mike Reynolds’ daughter and his decision to accept the mantle of a victim gave him a moral authority that swiftly popularized the effort to pass Three Strikes. It passed with 72% of the vote in California in 1994.

Initially, the outcome of the adoption of Three Strikes in California seemed like a brilliant success, with California’s prison population doubling in four years and violent crimes dropping anywhere from 20% to 41% depending on the specific crime. However, researchers soon understood that the crime rate was dropping across the county and that Three Strikes had nothing to do with it. Researchers found several problematic assumptions underlying Three Strikes: 1) that criminals behave rationally when considering criminal behavior, 2) that ex-convicts could choose to get jobs rather than continue as criminals to support themselves, and, 3) that communities benefit when imprisoning law-breakers. These flaws in how Three Strikes operated and their devastating impact on some communities led to the rollback of the worst aspects of the law in 2014.

To this day, Mike Reynolds is still crusading about his daughter’s murder. He still views himself as the victim 23 years later. He recently asked Malcolm Gladwell, the author who detailed this information in his book David and Goliath, to see where she was murdered. He still wants people to share strong negative emotional reactions and feel overwhelming anger, as he does, about her senseless murder.

In contrast, Linda and Peter Biehl’s reaction to their daughter’s murder in South Africa in 1993 at the hands of a crowd has taken a much different path that focused on outcomes rather than their role as victims. Several members of the murderous mob that could be identified and brought to trial were sentenced to 18 years in prison. Four applied for amnesty via the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa and were thereby pardoned after serving 4 years in prison.

The Biehls could have spoken up against the amnesty that was granted the young men. They did not. They instead started a non-profit in South Africa to teach welding, and provide after-school classes to youth very much like those who had killed their daughter. They bankrolled economic development by building eight bread factories in various areas in South Africa. In 1999, they met with two of men granted amnesty and eventually bankrolled them in both skills training, establishing a youth club and eventually a construction company. Eventually, one of the men started working directly for the Biehl’s non-profit. The Biehls thought it important to honor the memory of their daughter to fight poverty in South Africa, helping to transform that country from a violent, unstable, unfair place, into a place of opportunity for all South Africans.

History, then, turns on these emotions and motivations. Anger, fear, self-righteousness, determination, victimhood. Forgiveness, love, enthusiasm, determination, virtue.

In the examples I gave before, the Biehls were able to adopt a virtuous path in part because their daughter was trying to accomplish extraordinary things for South Africa. The murderers had nothing personal against their daughter, she was seemingly a symbol of their oppression. Ultimately, their daughter’s life created an example for her parents to follow to forgiveness and to continue her mission, even unto this day. To me, this underscores the importance of sense-making on the path towards forgiveness. The Biehls chose to make sense of their daughter’s life, not her death. In increasing the importance of their daughter’s life relative to her death, they were able to let go of the negatives and attempt to fulfill her life mission.

On the other hand, Mike Reynolds chose to focus on his daughter’s death. More than twenty years later, he feels the agony of watching her die in the hospital. He raged against the possibility that other parents might have to experience this grief and their childrens’ death. His motivation to change the world was to create laws and regulations to put away any potential murderer before they can do harm to future children and future parents. The saddest part of Mr. Reynolds’ tragedy is that his push for Three Strikes came from an honest place, from a pledge to his dead daughter to never let this happen to another parent again.

However, in trying to prevent violent crime and the tragedy that goes with it, he created a new set of tragedies, tragedies of unfair sentencing, communities destroyed, families torn apart, not to mention any race or class dimensions of the prison industry. I wonder what his daughter might have thought were she able to see the outcome and judge it for herself. I wonder, too, what such a motivated person could have done with his life if he had been able to reframe his feelings of victimization, to find a way to heal instead of divide, to hug instead of to rage, to help instead of jail people struggling to make their life work. To forgive instead of to accept the mantle of a victim.

How, then, can we transform our negative emotions and perspectives that result in our victimhood into forgiveness, love, and virtue? Do the circumstances of the trespass against us all make a difference in how we can overcome these negative emotions? How can we help others who are trapped in negativity to transform their victimization into a virtuous cycle?

At the end of my consideration, forgiveness allows you to not use your victimhood to change the world. Forgiveness allows you to use the wisdom you have gained to improve the world. Forgiveness joins you to a larger community – all of us have hurts, many of us have tragedies, some of us have endured irreparable harm. Forgiveness allows us to internalize that our hurts, while painful, are not the only ones, are quite possibly not the worst, that others have suffered much more than us.

Does forgiveness provide a path to be at peace with the vulnerability of human life and live our life without prejudice? I ask you today, on this beautiful summer day, to listen to that quiet voice in your heart instead of the raging emotion when responding to your wounds. And for the betterment of yourself and our world, make every effort to write your hurts in sand and your benefits in stone.