Chapter 6



God of unbounded grace, whose Son reconciled us to the Father through his death and resurrection: Grant us the courage to search our souls, the humility to confess our sins and the faith to accept God’s forgiveness; open our hearts to extend loving compassion to those who seek our mercy; and empower us to model forgiveness and reconciliation in a world hurt, pained and broken; through Jesus Christ, our only Mediator and Advocate. Amen.


  • Explore the theological foundations for forgiveness and reconciliation and their practice in the life of the faithful

  • Examine social and political models of conflict resolution and the pursuit of justice which embody theological principles of forgiveness and reconciliation

  • Discuss the potential application of models of forgiveness and reconciliation in the resolution of challenges confronting contemporary society


For consideration:

Psalm 94.1-3, 22-23 O LORD, you God of vengeance, you God of vengeance, shine forth! Rise up, O judge of the earth; give to the proud what they deserve!

O LORD, how long shall the wicked, how long shall the wicked exult?

But the LORD has become my stronghold, and my God the rock of my refuge.

He will repay them for their iniquity and wipe them out for their wickedness; the LORD our God will wipe them out.

Isaiah 59.14-20 Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands at a distance; for truth stumbles in the public square, and uprightness cannot enter. Truth is lacking, and whoever turns from evil is despoiled. The LORD saw it, and it displeased him that there was no justice. He saw that there was no one, and was appalled that there was no one to intervene; so his own arm brought him victory, and his righteousness upheld him. He put on righteousness like a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head; he put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrapped himself in fury as in a mantle. According to their deeds, so will he repay; wrath to his adversaries, requital to his enemies; to the coastlands he will render requital. So those in the west shall fear the name of the LORD, and those in the east, his glory; for he will come like a pent-up stream that the wind of the LORD drives on. And he will come to Zion as Redeemer, to those in Jacob who turn from transgression, says the LORD.

Romans 12.14-21 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

1 Peter 2.23-25 When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.


On November 19, 2018, 53-year-old Thomas Bruce allegedly entered the Catholic Supply store in suburban St. Louis, sexually assaulted two women and murdered a third. Several days later, retired St. Louis County Police Chief and recently elected County Councilman Tim Fitch demanded that Bruce be subjected to the death penalty. “God killed lots of people back then,” Fitch said attempting to appropriate Biblical support. “He wiped out whole villages and towns, and I get the whole ‘Thou shall not kill,’ but with an individual like this, there are rare instances where someone is just pure evil and they need this penalty … This horrific sexual assault and murder begs for the ultimate penalty upon conviction,” he said. “The community needs to send a convincing message in senseless deaths such as the one forced upon the victim, Jamie Schmidt.” (Byers, 2018).

Retribution looms large in human history and the narratives which have attempted to capture it. Both the Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament are replete with calls for Divine and, occasionally human, action to remedy injustice. Psalm 79.9-10, for example, exhorts God to, “Let the avenging of the outpoured blood of your servants be known among the nations before our eyes.” Although Israel implored God to wield the full force of overwhelming might against her enemies, clear limits were established for punishment administered under Jewish Law. Specifically, Exodus 21.23-25 codified the lex talionis of proportional response to acts of individual violence: “If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” And while human vengeance is generally discouraged in the New Testament, it is clear that the emerging Church expected God to render the most severe penalties against the faithless: “for his judgments are true and just; he has judged the great whore who corrupted the earth with her fornication, and he has avenged on her the blood of his servants” (Revelation 19.2).

However, the Biblical canon is not the sole repository of accounts of retribution and vengeful behavior. Literature and popular culture reflect an affinity for it, as well. Achilles, Hamlet, Captain Ahab and Carrie each provide perspective and depth to the violence of revenge and its capacity to consume those who pursue it. Likewise, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Clint Eastwood – not to mention any number of videogames, comics and television shows – have regularly portrayed this dimension of human conduct.

The propensity to seek revenge knows no bounds. It’s individual and collective. It’s grounded in imagined offenses and real trauma. And, it’s empowered by caustic invectives and lethal force. Yet, ultimately, it’s hollow. It resolves nothing. And, it corrodes the very person who seeks it. So, too, does it destroy the spirit and very core of all who refuse to acknowledge their own wrongdoings and culpability for them.

The infinite circumstances that give rise to acts of revenge by individuals, groups and nations render a single model to redress real or perceived offenses – even one grounded in the forgiveness and reconciliation modeled by Jesus – difficult to construct. Therefore, it seems most appropriate that several be considered and their relative merits and limitations explored.

At one end of the spectrum are collective offenses against the prevailing social order and the remedies which have been developed to pursue justice in response. The overthrow of the French aristocracy and political elite, the Bolshevik revolt against the Russian Czar and the struggles on the African and Asian continents for release from the oppression of colonialism are clear examples of societal wrongs redressed by violent response. However, it is the creation of an international tribunal at the end of World War II to assign culpability for the atrocities of the Holocaust – the genocide of 6 million Jews and millions of other “undesirables” by the Nazis – which provides the model for retributive justice.

At the conclusion of World War II, the victorious Allies created the International Military Tribunal (IMT) for the punishment of major war criminals, including the political and military leaders of the Third Reich and the organizations that supported them. The indictments issued against these individuals were directed toward four areas of conduct, specifically: initiating a war of aggression; conspiring in a crime against peace; war crimes; and crimes against humanity. Of those who held prominent positions and were the first to be accused, several evaded trial by committing suicide or being killed in the final days of the war, while 12 were sentenced to death and hanged, seven received prison sentences and three were acquitted. Subsequent trials were held for physicians, lawyers and business leaders who were complicit in these crimes. Similar trials also were held for the military and political leaders of Japan.

In addition to holding those principally responsible for massive crimes against the people of the world, the IMT (“Nuremberg Trials”) markedly advanced the development of international criminal law, human rights and the conventions for the conduct of war. Despite their success in punishing war criminals and establishing norms for political and military conduct, they nonetheless were subjected to severe criticism. No less than the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court Harlan Fiske Stone, for example, decried the proceedings, stating that, “[Chief U.S. Prosecutor] Jackson is away conducting his high-grade lynching party in Nuremberg … I don’t mind what he does to the Nazis, but I hate to see the pretense that he is running a court and proceeding according to common law. This is a little too sanctimonious a fraud to meet my old-fashioned ideas.” (Mason). Although a decidedly minority opinion, Stone’s critique was echoed by jurists and elected officials across the political spectrum. In retrospect, the IMT is arguably best understood as both the progenitor of modern international jurisprudence and accountability, as well as a hastily crafted official proceeding, hobbled by the different legal traditions and political objectives of the four Allied nations and intent on meeting out retribution for among the most horrific offenses in human history. Unfortunately, the approach taken by the IMT failed to force the public to acknowledge the reality of the crimes and its complicity in suborning them – both of which remain prominent in the ultra-nationalist movements in Europe and the United States.

The work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in post-apartheid South Africa offers a different model for the resolution of offenses at the hand of the state. Although a new nation freed from the bonds of enforced racial segregation emerged in 1994, political, civic and religious leaders were confronted with the daunting challenge of dealing with their country’s past while laying the foundation for a truly democratic society. As Desmond Tutu, the retired Archbishop of Cape Town observed, the options initially appeared to be limited to: (1) the creation of a judicial process similar to the IMT for the prosecution of those who designed and sustained the apartheid state, as well as those who committed crimes in its imposition; or (2) universal amnesty without public disclosure or accountability. However, “Our country’s negotiators rejected the two extremes and opted for a ‘third way,’ a compromise between the extreme of the Nuremberg trials and blanket amnesty or national amnesia. And that third way was granting amnesty to individuals in exchange for a full disclosure relating to the crime for which amnesty was being sought” (Tutu).

Through the 1995 Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act, the South African Parliament established a process that sought public accountability for the atrocities of apartheid, as well as the opportunity to move forward with a common vision for the future. Importantly, not all crimes committed during the decades of apartheid were eligible for adjudication by the TRC. Specifically, the offense(s) had to have been: committed between 1960 and 1994; politically motivated; and fully disclosed by the perpetrator in public testimony. Deeply imbedded in this process was a principle of traditional African jurisprudence, ubuntu, “the central concern [of which] is the healing of breaches, the redressing of imbalances, the restoration of broken relationships, a seeking to rehabilitate both the victim and perpetrator, who should be given the opportunity to be reintegrated into the community he has injured by his offense” (Tutu). Victims were invited to participate in all proceedings and even oppose applications for amnesty. However, they were not empowered to veto them. Thus, the long- term interests of the state were pursued by exposing the vulnerabilities of perpetrators and victims alike and inviting both to shape and share the life of a new national community (Battle).

The IMT and TRC reflect the broad spectrum of societal responses to collective criminal offenses committed by state actors, as well as two distinct theories of justice – the retributive model which seeks the proportional punishment of perpetrators with no expectation of rehabilitation and the restorative principle which is directed toward the healing of broken relationships and the reintegration of perpetrators into the larger community (Sankowski and Hooker). Likewise, the responses to individual acts of violence mirror a similar breadth of judicial theories and theological perspectives.

From the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi (18th century BCE) and Biblical injunctions included in the Torah to English Common Law and modern Western jurisprudence, proportional retribution has been the foundation of both criminal and civil law. Its purpose is to impose penalties consistent with offenses and provide the state or plaintiff with an equitable settlement, which may include a range of penalties from probation and fines to incarceration and even death. Although the extent to which retributive justice also embodies deterrence remains the subject of continuing debate, few any longer accept the proposition that rehabilitation is fundamental to it (Hooker). Offenders may gain insight and perspective, as well as reorient their lives, as a result of the sentence imposed, but that is not the purpose of retributive justice. Consequently, its capacity to transform individual lives and relationships, let alone facilitate healing and reconciliation, is severely limited.

An alternative has been suggested by the response of several of the families of those murdered at Emanuel AME Church, a storied congregation in Charleston, South Carolina with a rich history of social justice leadership. On the evening of June 17, 2005, 13 members of “Mother Emanuel” gathered in the church basement for their weekly Bible Study. Shortly after beginning, a 21-year-old white man, Dylan Roof, quietly joined this otherwise all-black study group and sat with them for almost an hour. Then, he calmly removed a pistol from his fanny pack and massacred nine people. He was caught in neighboring North Carolina the following morning and immediately extradited to be held in custody, charged and eventually tried. At his video arraignment the next day, a number of the victims’ family members attended and remarkably expressed their forgiveness. So unexpected and powerful was their act that those who chronicled this story observed that, “There is virtually no precedent in America for what transpired at that bond hearing” (Frazier, Powers and Wentworth).

The story immediately went viral, portraying an entire Christian community “turning the other cheek,” forgiving without hesitation and urging judicial mercy. The media and public readily adopted this narrative and promoted it aggressively. Unfortunately, it wasn’t true. Although several family members did, in fact, share their forgiveness with Dylan Roof (albeit amidst confusion and profound pain), others struggled to even consider the possibility. And still others, including the cousin of one of the victims, were deeply offended, pleading that the misconstrued public portrayal, “took away our narrative to be rightfully hurt” (Frazier, Powers and Wentworth, 2016).

Notably, Dylan Roof was emotionless during his arraignment and expressed no remorse at trial or sentencing. No doubt, the quick and unrequited forgiveness shared by several of the victims’ families reflected deeply held beliefs and long-standing practices, especially within the African-American community. As the renowned black liberation theologian James Cone has observed, “One forgives the oppressor in order to transform anger into something that nourishes the soul” (Parker). However, other survivors have found such “blanket amnesty” to be an impediment to accountability and affront to justice, precisely the reason this approach was rejected by South Africa’s TRC in responding to the crimes of apartheid.

Clearly, neither model of individual justice – legalized retribution or “blanket amnesty” – provides a consistent basis for healing and the restoration of deeply fractured relationships. Alternatively, Martin Smith (1985), the former superior of the Society of St. John the Evangelist in Cambridge, Massachusetts, summons victims and perpetrators alike to the sacramental rite of confession as the vehicle to affect justice and restore comity. The rite is grounded in Jesus’ ministry, reflecting a life shared with prostitutes, tax collectors and well-known sinners. Jesus welcomed them (often at table) and in doing so modeled a process of forgiveness and reconciliation based on contrition and a radical change of heart and behavior. As the early church began to emerge, it adopted this process as an extension of baptism. Thus, as the church bears witness to the new life born in baptism, so too does it foster the Christian community through which forgiveness and reconciliation are mediated (Smith, 1985).

In practice, sacramental confession formalizes this process. The rite is structured to include a general declaration of sinfulness by the penitent and the priest’s invitation to repent. Following a detailed confession of the offense(s) and recognition of sins unremembered or unknown, the priest offers “counsel, direction, and comfort” and an absolution (Book of Common Prayer). The rite concludes with the priest’s request for prayers for his or her sins and the exhortation to return to the community forgiven and whole.

Although offered in a decidedly Christian and pastoral context, the elements of the sacramental rite of reconciliation are readily applicable outside the liturgical life of the church. The willingness of the broader community, for example, to embrace mechanisms for individual reconciliation based on a full disclosure of the offense by the perpetrator and a voluntary and unconstrained commitment to a redirected life has much to commend it. On the one hand, it demands personal accountability through confession, avoiding the pitfalls of “blanket amnesty.” On the other, it offers complete and immediate restoration of broken relationships and reintegration into the larger community.

As difficult as acts of mass or individual violence are to comprehend, the capacity for forgiveness, reconciliation of relationships and restoration of the community is equally daunting. No doubt, we will continue to be challenged especially by the most heinous of offenses against the most vulnerable among us. The lex talionis of retributive justice will continue to hold considerable appeal despite its limited ability to prevent violent acts or rehabilitate perpetrators. The question for people and communities of faith also will endure. Can we offer a better way – a way that appeals to “the better angels of our nature,” a way that embraces the unbounded mercy of Jesus, a way that offers hope and grace to all?


The Very Reverend Kathie Adams-Shepherd
Dean, Christ Church Cathedral
St. Louis, Missouri


  1. What roles do retribution and restoration play in the American judicial system? What are the consequences of each? What roles should they play? Why?

  2. What can we learn from the experience of the International Military Tribunal formed to prosecute Nazi war criminals and South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission? How might these models of justice be used in resolving international conflicts and individual disputes?

  3. How do you reconcile the Biblical injunctions of “an eye for an eye” and “turning the other cheek?” How have they shaped the ways in which you resolve conflict? What have you learned?

  4. Is there a place for the “blanket amnesty” exhibited by several of the families of those murdered at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina? If so, under what circumstances? If not, why not?

  5. How might the tenets of sacramental confession and absolution be used to model the reconciliation of relationships between those responsible for offenses and those who are their victims? What role might faith communities have in pressing this form of restorative justice?



There could be no more potent symbol of resurrection and new life than a sunrise. And, though it is so often used that it can become a cliché and lose its meaning, this particular sunrise is special. The sun is rising over the Dead Sea, and the photo was taken as I stood on the ancient hilltop fortress of Masada in Israel. Masada is the site where Jewish rebels fighting against Rome had fled and where, in 73 C.E., 960 of them perished by their own hands. Whether you believe they were heroes or fools, it is a powerful experience to climb the steep steps of that fort in the dark – before dawn – remembering those who perished and then watch the sun rise, bringing with it hope and new life.


O God, the Father of all, whose Son commanded us to love our enemies: Lead them and us from prejudice to truth; deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge; and in your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer)


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Battle, M. Reconciliation: The Ubuntu Theology of Desmond Tutu. Cleveland, Ohio: The Pilgrim Press, 2009.

Byers, C. “Death penalty should be on the table for Catholic Supply killer, former police chief says” in St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 28, 2018.

Frazier, H., Powers, B.E. and Wentworth, M. We Are Charleston: Tragedy and Triumph at Mother Emanuel. Nashville, Tennessee: W Publishing Group, 2016.

Hooker, B.W. “Justice,” in The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy: Second Edition (Audi, R. Ed.). New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Lamott, A. Hallelujah Anyway. New York: Random House, 2017.

Mason, A.T. Harlan Fiske Stone: Pillar of the Law. Hamden, Connecticut: Archon Books, 1968.

Nussbaum, M.C. Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity and Justice. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.

Parker, A. “Theologian James Cone to Visit Charleston Area” in Post and Courier, November 11, 2015.

Sankowski, E. “Justice” in The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (2nd Ed.)” (Honderich, T. Ed.). New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Smith, M.L. Reconciliation: Preparing for Confession in the Episcopal Church. Lanham, Maryland: A Cowley Publications Book, 1985.

Tran M.L. Reset the Heart: Unlearning Violence, Relearning Hope. Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 2017.

Tutu, D. No Future Without Forgiveness. New York: Doubleday, 1999.