The tensions between law and forgiveness, as well as those between justice and mercy, are familiar ones in the Western canon. The contrast is powerfully portrayed through the characters of Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert in Victor Hugo’s famous novel, Les Miserables. Valjean symbolizes the redemptive and constructive potential of the law’s ability to forgive; he is doggedly pursued over decades by Javert’s unwavering pursuit of law and justice in the strictest sense. In Hugo’s novel, of course, the law ultimately comes to realize its error—despite some superficial impressions, forgiveness is a concept deeply embedded in Western jurisprudence. Martha Minow has pointed out, for example, that bankruptcy law is premised on forgiveness, rather than the strict enforcement of some kinds of debts. The possibility of legal pardon exists in criminal, contract, tort, and other fields of law as well. Still, the expressions of forgiveness that occurred at Amber Guyger’s sentencing for the murder of Jean Bothan on October 2, 2019 drew national attention. While some of this focus is attributable to the context—Guyger’s conviction was a rare instance of a white police officer being held legally accountable for shooting a black victim at a time during which such incidents are receiving increased scrutiny—much attention was given to the fact that both the victim’s family and the trial judge allowed concerns of mercy and forgiveness to intrude into the legal realm.

This past February, Canopy Forum explored the intersection of law and forgiveness in American law from a variety of religious perspectives. Nathan Chapman and Robert Fastiggi offer two distinct perspectives on the role forgiveness plays in Christian theology and jurisprudence. Hassan Shahawy discusses how concerns for mercy and forgiveness have contributed to Islamic law’s preference for mercy and reconciliation between disputing parties, rather than the strict enforcement of legal norms. Finally, Michael Broyde and Samuel Levine offer two Jewish law perspectives on the jurisprudence of forgiveness: Levine focuses on the theology of teshuva (repentance), and Broyde emphasizes Jewish law’s concern for holding dangerous wrongdoers accountable for their harmful conduct.

Forgiveness as a legal value may be discomforting in its demand for more individualized justice that is heavily dependent on the parties involved—litigants, defendants, prosecutors, judges, and victims—which departs from conventional notions of the rule of law. In a world in which we are increasingly cognizant and attentive to such particularized circumstances—and in which law and policy are ever more responsive to the needs of differentiated individuals and experiences—heightened conversation about the merits of forgiveness jurisprudence is warranted. Religious traditions have long focused on the well-being of the individual in ways that legal systems traditionally have not. Thus, religious conceptualizations of how to balance justice and forgiveness have helpful things to add to this timely conversation.

— Shlomo C. Pill

“Judgment and Forgiveness in Texas: Christian Reflections on the Guyger Case

Nathan S. Chapman
February 3rd, 2020

“Americans are talking about forgiveness. Forgiveness happened where many believe it shouldn’t have, in a place, at a time, and by people who should have left it alone…”  

“Jewish Justice: Guyger, Forgiveness, and Christian Love”

Michael J. Broyde
February 5th, 2020

“Nathan S. Chapman asks the right question: “How can justice and forgiveness co-exist?” This problem is one to which the Jewish tradition has offered at least three different answers…”

“Judgment and Forgiveness in Texas: The Amber Guyger Case through the Lens of Islamic Law”

Hassaan Shahawy
February 10th, 2020

“Amber Guyger, a white police officer, mistakenly entered the home of Botham Jean, a black man, and shot him dead. Months later, a Texas jury convicted Guyger of murder. Some celebrated the rare verdict, while others protested that Guyger’s 10-year sentence was too lenient…” 

“Law, Justice, Mercy and Forgiveness from a Catholic Perspective”

Dr. Robert Fastiggi
February 17th, 2020

“From a Catholic perspective, law, justice, mercy, and forgiveness ultimately converge in God, who is the ultimate source of law and combines justice, mercy, and forgiveness in his dealings with human beings…”

“Teshuva: A Look at Repentance, Forgiveness, and Atonement in Jewish Law and Philosophy and American Legal Thought”

Samuel J. Levine
February 25th, 2020

“In his contribution to an important UCLA Law Review symposium, Professor Stephen Garvey introduced and developed the possibility of viewing “punishment as atonement.” Recognizing that the concept of atonement “sounds religious,” Garvey insisted and set out to demonstrate that “atonement makes perfectly good sense independent of religion”…”