Faith, Forgiveness, and Offenders

Today’s question comes from Yvette. She wrote: “As we see the mentally handicapped, day in and day out commit crimes that usually the same would not — how do you best advise us as a society, to forgive? We have our laws– but how do we not have hatred and bad wishes towards the ones that have created so much hurt on their own. And does God forgive these crimes? I mean assuredly God knows everybody’s demons– and knows their limits to fighting those demons.”

Thanks for the question. It’s a complicated one on many levels, so let me throw out a few initial thoughts and then invite you into the conversation.

Let me begin by saying, the vast majority of people living with mental illness do NOT commit crimes. I say this out of the gate, because if you watch certain television shows and movies, you would think that a high percentage of violent crime is committed by those living with mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and other conditions such as bipolarity. That’s simply not the case.

With that said, let me move on to those instances where a person living with mental illness does commit a crime.

How we handle those situations has become increasingly complicated over the years. In the days following John Hinkley’s attempt to take President Reagan’s life back in the early 1980’s, there have been a rash of instances where criminal defense attorneys have tried to get their clients off using a “not guilty by reason of insanity” defense. This has created the impression that mental health issues are simply a tool that can be used to manipulate the legal system in order to get a guilty person off. That’s too bad.

So how can we deal with things in a healthier way?

I would begin by suggesting our society do a better job helping individuals and families better understand mental health issues. This would help society decrease the stigma associated with mental illness and increase the likelihood that parents would get early assessment and intervention for children who have a mental illness. It could also increase the likelihood that the affected individuals would get the help they need in order to manage their illness.

Of course one of the greatest challenges involves getting individuals to STAY on their medication. It has been great to see a state like California pass Laura’s Law that helps family members of those living with a mental illness take action to ensure their adult children get the help they need (even if the individual living with a mental illness is resistant to treatment).

We should also take steps to limit access to dangerous weapons (i.e. guns) by those who live with reality-altering illnesses.

Those are some of the most important preventative steps we can take. What do we do when our prevention efforts fail and an individual with a mental illness commits a crime?

We give them an appropriate consequence for the crime. Sounds simple enough. The challenge then becomes interpreting what “appropriate” means.

Since an individual living with a mental illness has a different way of processing things than others, I do not believe the individual with a serious mental health issue should be put in the general population when incarcerated. I also believe the individual should have access to the services they need (i.e. medications and support services) in order to manage their illness. I would be leery about shortening their sentences, however, as this would encourage some defense attorneys to try to use claims of mental illness simply to get their clients a shorter sentence.

One of the most challenging aspects of this conversation has been whether or not a person living with a mental illness should be eligible to receive the death penalty. I am not a fan of the death penalty as a whole, so needless to say I’m DEFINITELY not supportive of putting to death offenders who live with a mental illness.

Before I leave the topic, I want to take on a question that you raised that has more explicitly spiritual dimensions: the issue of forgiveness as it relates to offenders. And in doing that, I will move beyond the issue of offenders living with mental illness to the broader issue of offenders in general.

I believe that every single human being is a beloved and sacred child of God. That status does not change during a person’s lifetime no matter what.

That last statement is very counter-intuitive for us. The human part of us tells us that a person’s value is contingent on what she or he does. We can love and value a person if they make good choices and hate or despise an individual if they do bad things. That human view is so ingrained in us that it seems impossible for us to get around that. That’s why so many religious folks feel completely justified in speaking in horrible ways about offenders.

Thankfully, God’s perspective is much larger than ours. God can see sacred value and worth in individuals that no human being can see. One example I like to use here is the Apostle Paul. Acts 22:20 tells us that when individuals in the community stoned Stephen to death (making Stephen into the first Christian martyr), that the Apostle Paul was present and held the coats of those stoning Stephen. By today’s legal standards, that would make Paul an accessory to murder. God saw things differently, however, and was able to use Paul to accomplish amazing things that helped transform the world.

So if every individual (including horribly violent offenders) is a beloved and sacred child of God, does that mean we get rid of prisons and consequences?

No. I believe we can still see an individual as a beloved and sacred child of God and STILL give the individual appropriate consequences for their harmful behavior. What I do believe is that our faith means are called to surrender our hatred toward the individual offender.

As a society we constantly confuse a person’s behavior with a person’s value or worth. I don’t believe God makes that mistake. I believe that God sees each individual as a wonderful sum total of their thoughts, their behaviors, the potential, and their possibility. And in God’s eye, the possibility of transformation ALWAYS exists. My faith calls me to believe that too.

If we as a society learned how to give appropriate consequences while still helping the individual with their sacred value and worth, I believe we would have a much higher rate of rehabilitation in ways that matter most.

So what about you? What do you think?

And keep the questions coming please!

About Pastor Craig

I'm a 54-year-old who lives in Los Angeles, CA with his black Labrador Retriever named Max. I'm an ordained clergy person in the United Church of Christ. My passions include spirituality, politics, and sports (Go Houston teams, go!). I use my blog to start conversations rather than merely spout my perspectives and opinions. I hope you'll post a question, comment, or observation for me to respond - so we can get the conversation started!
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Faith, Forgiveness, and Offenders

  1. Stevie says:

    Craig, part of your answer struck a nerve with me, the same nerve that is struck when I see someone on the news being sentenced, and I see their family in the gallery supporting him/her.

    I was given three babies, and when you do, you see not only a child of God, but your gift from God. Your love for them will never change, no matter what. You hope they will be happy, be good citizens, and be kind and helpful. We all have those hopes for our kids. As each one grew up, there were bumps. We faced all of them one at a time, tried our best, and prayed for God’s grace.

    But as I look at the family in the courtroom, I always remember that they had the same dreams. How would it have been if I had had a child with mental illness, and when you could see the signs, there was nowhere to turn? That is a reality in this country. I worked for a few years in a mental health facility, and I learned these things: That amazing progress can be made if a child has proper resources, and that those resources are few. Here in Spokane, for families who really need these services, they are either very expensive or almost nonexistent. For the illness “borderline personality disorder”, for example, there were two doctors qualified to treat, and one recently moved to Alabama. Often a child doesn’t get treatment until it is court ordered, and then sometimes it’s too late.

    It’s hard to know what the answer is. It saddens me.

  2. ruthwabel says:

    Forgiveness is really more for the benefit of the forgiver than it is for the forgive. Hatred will eat away at one if not eliminated. People pay a heavy price for hanging on to that hatred. The person being forgiven does not bear that burden. Forgiveness becomes a process, it is not a single act, it takes time and effort but the freedom it brings is well worth it.

  3. ruthwabel says:

    Forgiveness is really more for the benefit of the forgiver than it is for the forgivee. Hatred will eat away at one if not eliminated. People pay a heavy price for hanging on to that hatred. The person being forgiven does not bear that burden. Forgiveness becomes a process, it is not a single act, it takes time and effort but the freedom it brings is well worth it.

  4. Beverly Marshall Saling says:

    Another thing we need to do is work harder to develop more effective treatments for mental illnesses—not just meds but also talk and physical therapies, nutritional strategies, and self-calming techniques people can use when they don’t have access to useful meds or when meds alone aren’t enough.

    A big problem with relying on psychoactive meds is that individual patients react to them differently; what calms one person in a bipolar manic phase can send another into a suicidal tailspin and leave a third so dull and sleepy that they are unable to function at all. And then we wonder why they don’t want to take their meds! We have a tendency to declare one drug the “preferred treatment” and push it on everybody with a particular diagnosis, when what we need is a suite of med and non-med options so patients and doctors can find the combo that works best for each individual.

    We also need to realize that people with severe mental illnesses often have additional problems—unemployment, poverty, homelessness, estrangement from family and friends, substance abuse issues, history of trauma, chronic physical illness—that prevent them from being the ideal patients we keep expecting them to be. So punishing them for going off their meds or missing an appointment isn’t going to be as effective as working with them to eliminate the obstacles they face in complying with prescribed treatments.

  5. ybabb001 says:

    I totally agree with you about the majority of the mentally ill do not commit crimes; however, do you NOT believe that the majority of those that commit crimes are mentally ill? I mean is it not agreeable that the majority of addicted have a mental illness or a deficiency on their make up to search out their drug of choice on a daily basis? We are not talking about someone who gets drunk/uses once and goes out of their right mind and commits a crime–
    And as far as the violent offenders and re-offenders, do you not agree that the majority have mental issues. I mean who in their right mind would actually willfully hurt another human being– unless brainwashed, which I believe is a form of mental illness. They mentally are not strong enough to do the right thing– when they know he right thing is presented to them .
    And, how do I, who feels like I have a grasp on reality and right and wrong forgive the mentally ill– when I believe in my heart that they are not right, and for whatever reason, they do not go down the right path. Especially when innocent people are involved and hurt in the action of the wrong doer.

    • Beverly Marshall Saling says:

      I guess that depends on your definition of “mentally ill.” The more we study addiction, the more we learn that it’s less about “mental makeup” or lack of willpower and more about physical and environmental issues. People with genetic predispositions toward addiction are more likely to become and stay addicted than others. And people who live in chronically traumatizing conditions (poverty, war, abuse) are more likely to become and stay addicted than those who do not. Rehabs that focus on retraining people’s mental and emotional habits can help, but are not as effective long term as those that focus on ending the physical dependency and/or changing the addict’s circumstances to something less traumatic.

      As for violence, I believe that everyone is capable of it in the right circumstances. Most people would be willing to willfully hurt someone else in defense of self or others, or to prevent some greater harm from occurring. The trick is that it doesn’t require mental illness to be grossly mistaken about whether you’re in one of those circumstances. For example, someone temporarily blinded by the pain of great harm done to them or someone they love might perceive violence as necessary to prevent the person who hurt them from harming someone else. Most people who commit violent crimes do not see themselves as “not strong enough to do the right thing”; they fully believe they ARE doing the right thing, or at least the necessary thing. They’re just mistaken about that. And being mistaken about important stuff is sadly a part of the human condition for everyone, not just those with mental illnesses.

      For me, forgiving is not entirely voluntary. I can do my best to try to understand why the person did what they did—what right or necessary thing they thought they were doing—but that doesn’t always help. Last year a teenage girl close to my family was murdered, and I’m still struggling to understand how that could have seemed right or necessary to anybody. Some of my family have found comfort in asking God for the grace to forgive. The best I can do is avoid dwelling on our loss, devote myself to more positive things, and hold the door open to the idea that forgiveness will be possible someday when my heart is so full of positive things that I forget to keep that particular anger burning.

  6. capete67 says:

    Yvette, when I worked in the juvenile detention system from 1989-95, the largest factor was drug and alcohol use and not mental health issues. Roughly 80% of the juvenile offenders were under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol at the time of their offense. I’m not sure to what degree the statistics from the adult correction system mirror this, but I can’t imagine them being too far off from this.

    Your question about why would someone “in their right mind” would commit a violent crime raises another issue. A person’s understanding of what “normal” or “acceptable” behavior is is largely influenced by the individual’s early experience. I have dealt with lots of individuals who grew up in homes where the expression of violence against others was considered normal. Kids who grew up seeing Dad beat Mom are more likely to grow up and commit acts of domestic violence against their partners because they grew up thinking such violence is “normal”. Of course the cycle of violence isn’t restricted to just domestic violence. There are a lot of homes where kids are raised to violently lash out against those who cause them harm/frustration. That’s why its important for us as a society to first identify and then work with those who are subjected to violence early so we can help them heal from the experience and learn new ways of dealing with their emotions.

    Finally, in terms of the forgiveness issue, I want to re-iterate my belief that understanding why someone commits an act of violence (i.e. being under the influence of drugs/alcohol, having a mental illness, acting out the violence that was taught to them in their homes) does not mean the individual should not receive a consequence for their offense. I strongly believe each individual should receive an appropriate consequence of their behavior. Appropriate consequences must be combined with systemic responses that make it less likely that those offenses will be repeated. We should, for instance, increase funding for early assessment and intervention for those living with mental illnesses; increase funding for drug and alcohol treatment; increase access to counseling services; and increase funding for education and training programs – including for those already incarcerated – that give people the ability to lead productive lives.

    When it comes to the forgiveness issue specifically, ultimately the individual affected by an offense has to decide what they will give their life to: will they give their life over to anger and rage about a past offense; or will they learn to let go of the anger and rage and embrace other, more positive emotions. For one should remember it is not the individual who committed the offense that ultimately pays the price for surrendering one’s life to anger and rage; it is the individual who chooses to live each day from that place who lives their life locked in the worst prison possible.

    • ybabb001 says:

      As I retread and retread the statements , from peso nail experience I have to dis agree at least on one aspect. The Aspect of addiction, and predisposition — I have both parents growing up in alcoholic households. One parent clinically depressed and possibly psychotic that was a raging alcoholic. One parent who did not touch and still does not touch alcohol. I believe that the parent who was depressed and an alcoholic and owned an arsenal of firearms could have, and would have committed a crime of violence if he wouldn’t have taken his own life. God knows that he threatened as much. I cannot believe in my heart that without this disposition of depression and alcoholism that this person would have committed the same outcome or made the same offenses.
      I also am a bit naive, but I am assuming ones upbringing, and mental capacity does not go by GOD who should know everyone inside and out. So, if GOd forgives these offenders, and I know that I understand their lets call it “weaknesses”, why is it so hard to forgive or accept? I understand that it will make my life easier. But none of this knowledge eases my heart at times when I feel anger towards the alleged criminal or society as a whole for letting these things happen.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s