Forgiveness stretches far and wide

A pair of hands hoving over the keyboard of a laptop
 on May 1, 2021

Forgiveness: it’s a quality drilled into us as essential for our Christian faith.

It’s at the heart of our relationship with God and with others. We see plenty of references to forgiveness in the Bible. Jesus speaks about forgiveness often and weaves this quality into his instruction on how we should pray (Matthew 6:9-13).

All of us have been hurt by others. It’s not easy to forgive a wrongdoer. Yet Jesus underscores the importance of forgiveness in the famous episode where he says we should be prepared to forgive not seven times, but 77 times – in effect, to practise forgiveness without end (Matthew 18:22). He drives the point home in the following passage in the parable about the unforgiving servant.

Forgiveness, however, like so much of Christian faith, is not only about our individual lives. It has a communal dimension as well. How do we practise forgiveness as a society?

One way is by forgiving ex-offenders. The concept of restorative justice, in which communities try to repair the hurt caused by crime, is an important example of this. Indigenous people have been practising this kind of community-based justice for generations. More recently, a Mennonite-inspired program called Circles of Support and Accountability (CoSA) strives to put this belief into action. A small group of volunteers walks alongside a former inmate determined to turn his life around (and we are usually talking about males in these cases).

For the past several months, I’ve been working with a Circle group involved with an ex-offender I’ll call Andy. When first asked if I’d join his circle, I hesitated. Andy spent time in prison for sex-related crimes and as a survivor of sexual assault as a child, I wondered if I could find it in my heart to forgive Andy. I prayed about it and decided to give it a try.

When I first met Andy and the rest of the Circle team, I felt apprehensive.  But as we met and got to know each other, I felt more at ease. I quickly learned that the CoSA program is anything but a “get out of jail free” card.  The program’s accountability element is front and centre. An ex-offender must show sincere willingness to work on his challenges. He also lives under many conditions affecting his life, including whom he can associate with, where he can go and his access to the Internet. I soon realized that Andy is determined to leave his mistakes behind and he acknowledges the harm he’s done. In fact, Andy began looking for programs that could help him re-integrate into society while he was still in prison.

For the Rev. Christian Harvey, executive director of the One City Peterborough community agency that sponsors the CoSA program in my city, a key element is that this initiative tries to re-integrate sex offenders back into society – or to welcome people into the community who have always been isolated, never feeling they were part of the community. If someone is further isolated after release from jail, they’re more likely to re-offend.

“The narrative from much of society is that sex offenders are monsters,” notes Mr. Harvey, a deacon at St. John the Evangelist in Peterborough. “When you’re told repeatedly you’re a monster, you’re more likely to do monstrous things.”

The message of forgiveness along with accountability upon which the Circles program is based ties in with Christian faith, he says. “Jesus was always going to those pushed to the margins and saying what you did wrong doesn’t define you.” Mr. Harvey has spent time with many former inmates and has found their willingness to repent beautiful and Gospel-based – as I have, when listening to Andy own up for his harmful actions.

Nonetheless, forgiveness is far from easy. When I find it tough to forgive, I say the Lord’s Prayer slowly, pondering the words, “As we forgive those who trespass against us.” I also meditate on the rap-style reflection in a powerful song called Forgive, by folksinger Trevor Hall:


Forgive everything that has ever happened
Life is everything we can imagine
Laid out in patterns of pain and passion
You cannot control it so keep your compassion
There are no accidents
And there are no factions
There is no “us” and “them”
And only forgiveness can make that happen.


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