America on the Brink   /   Fall 2020   /    Book Reviews

To Forgive Us Our Trespasses…

What is the role of forgiveness in the law?

Nancy Isenberg

Nadine Collier (in green dress), the daughter of Ethel Lance, one of nine victims in the 2015 shooting at Emanuel A.M.E. Church, Charleston, South Carolina, forgave the perpetrator Dylann Roof; photograph by David Goldman AP.

Harvard law professor Martha Minow would have found a kindred soul in John R. Lewis, the Georgia congressman who died this past July. One story in particular captures his generous spirit. In 1961, Elwin Wilson was the leader of a gang of young white men who beat up Lewis for entering the whites-only waiting area in a South Carolina Greyhound bus station. A practitioner of nonviolence, Lewis did not fight back. He never pressed charges. Forty-eight years later, Wilson arranged to meet the congressman, and Lewis forgave him. The civil rights champion recalled, “He started crying, his son started crying, and I started crying.” The two men appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Wilson explained himself in a way that challenged the political logic of those conservatives who refuse to admit wrongdoing: “Well, my daddy always told me that a fool never changes his mind and a smart man changes his mind. And that’s what I’ve done and I’m not ashamed.”

Although this story does not appear in Minow’s book, it would fit nicely. She defines forgiveness as “a conscious, deliberate decision to forgo rightful grounds of grievance against those who have committed a wrong or harm.” The challenge involves separating and then expelling the demons of resentment and the desire for revenge, while maintaining a “recognition of the wrong.” Wary of going too far afield of legal traditions, Minow focuses on the well-established jurisprudence of bankruptcy, pardons, and amnesties, taking up international law only when discussing the “odious debt” of nations or the plight of child soldiers in war-torn African countries.

Religion can be a minefield, and Minow avoids endorsing any one creed. (Most of the religious discussion appears in the endnotes.) The one symbol she does find useful, however, is the biblical practice of jubilee: Every fifty years, rulers forgave all debts and freed debt slaves. Although the year of jubilee was about atonement and mercy, the word atonement never appears in When Should the Law Forgive? (Mercy comes up only eight times.) The only cleric to get sustained attention is Archbishop Desmond Tutu, whose central role in South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission makes him hard to ignore. Minow tries to carve out a neutral position, seeing a place for a view of forgiveness that respects the barrier between church and state. The words of retired Supreme Court justice Anthony Kennedy capture this balance in his observation that “a people confident in its laws and institutions should not be ashamed of mercy.”

Forgiveness played a part in the drafting of the U.S. Constitution, since the main reason for calling the 1787 Constitutional Convention was the looming danger of Shays’s Rebellion, a debtors’ uprising in Massachusetts. Many of the participants in the uprising were arrested, convicted, and ultimately pardoned by the state’s new governor—none other than the president of the Second Continental Congress, John Hancock. For a few of the Shaysites, forgiveness was granted as they stood at the gallows with the noose around their necks. A moratorium was placed on the debts. The men went from veterans to traitors, then back to full citizens; several ran for political office and won. President Washington’s pardon in 1795 of the participants in the Whiskey Rebellion and President John Adams’s pardon five years later of the men who took part in Fries’s Rebellion likewise treated forgiveness as an “act of grace.”

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