PSYCHIATRIST BRAM BAKKER IS NO STRANGER TO VIOLENT HUMAN EMOTIONS. YET, HE WAS SHOCKED BY THE LEVEL OF HATRED TANGIBLE IN THE ROOM DURING A COURT SESSION OF A MURDER CASE. THERE WAS ZERO INTEREST FOR THE PERPETRATOR’S MOTIVES. OF COURSE NOT, FOR THERE IS NO EXCUSE. THE OFFENDER MUST BE PUNISHED. END OF STORY. FOR BRAM BAKKER, HOWEVER, IT DOES NOT END THERE.
A while ago I attended a court session where a gruesome act of violence was being dealt with. A young man stood trial under suspicion of murdering his ex-wife. Together they had three children who, since he was taken into custody, were staying with his ex’s brother. Was it murder or manslaughter? I don’t know, but the judge would give his verdict. It was, however, an indisputable fact that the man had killed his ex-wife. The perpetrator did not deny this and was in agreement that he deserved punishment for what he had done.
At some point halfway through the day, there was an opportunity for two of the victim’s next of kin to speak. This right to speak is a relatively new phenomenon in Dutch law courts and is primarily aimed at doing right by crime victims and their next of kin: it allows them an opportunity to let the suspect know what has happened to them and what effect the events have had on their lives.
It was the victim’s brother who spoke first, the one who was now looking after the children, and after him the woman’s father. The fact that both men read their statement from a sheet of paper indicated that they were well prepared. Beforehand they declared to the judge when so questioned, that they were fully aware of what they could and couldn’t speak of in their allotted time.
These were two emotional stories. About the pain of missing a sister and daughter. About the challenges of caring for three children who suddenly lost both parents. About their own children who suddenly found themselves sharing their home and parents with three cousins and about how well they coped with that.
Both father and brother made it abundantly clear how they felt about what their former son and brother-in-law had done. Their body language spoke of nothing but fury toward the offender. The offender just sat there looking chastened and had no choice but to listen to the accusing statements.
I WAS SHOCKED BY THEIR ANGER. MAYBE IT WAS PURE HATRED
I don’t think there was anyone present in the courtroom that day who couldn’t understand the emotions of these two people. Still, I was shocked by the intensity of their anger toward the offender, almost a year after the crime. Maybe it was pure hatred that communicated itself.
PERPETRATOR OR VICTIM?
It is not difficult to judge others for their actions, we all do it every day. But when you ask people to consider the motives that a person had for his or her objectionable behavior, it immediately becomes a whole lot more difficult. To show understanding of what precedes misconduct is a bridge too far for most of us. This is probably because we get the uncomfortable feeling that in doing so we accept these circumstances as an excuse. Yet, this doesn’t need to be the case: it is certainly possible to feel empathy for someone, without sanctioning their actions.
IT IS POSSIBLE TO FEEL EMPATHY FOR SOMEONE, WITHOUT SANCTIONING THEIR ACTIONS
During the years leading up to the death of his ex-wife, a lot of things were going on in the life of the offender. None of them were factors that could ever be brought forward as an excuse for his actions, but they were nonetheless events that put the act of violence in a broader context. Anyone who would spend the time looking into this would be able to come to the conclusion that this man’s emotional landscape had always been deficient, that he never knew how to deal with difficult emotions, that he primarily tried to suppress every uncomfortable feeling. With this knowledge in mind, one could argue that this was not just a case of a man committing a heinous crime, but equally about a man who was a victim of his own circumstances.
The ex-wife is dead, the children have not only lost their mother, but also their father. The man will be put behind bars for a long time, but is all of that really his greatest punishment? One day, at one point in the future, he will have to face his children and he will have to respond to the unanswerable question: “Why did you do it?” When anyone tries to imagine what it would be like to not only have taken the life of your former lover but also to have caused irreparable damage in the lives of three young children, they would most likely come to the conclusion that all this adds up to a life sentence. Weighed against this balance, the damage the offender has done to himself becomes inconsequential.
Is it necessary in this case to pass a devastating judgment on this impaired man? Or is it okay to show empathy and can we allow ourselves a somehow more multilayered attitude toward this damaged and disabled man? And I don’t mean that we should pin some mental disorder on him which will redeem him of all obligation to take responsibility for his actions. Nevertheless, emotions are hardly ever unequivocal and are often mixed up.
WHO KNOWS THEMSELVES?
“Let anyone of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her,” Jesus said to the religious leaders of his time. They wanted to stone a woman caught in an act of adultery (see the gospel according to John, 7:53-8:11). Ashamed, they abandoned their plan to carry out the verdict. You could bend Jesus’ comment a bit and turn it into a question: who among you is absolutely sure that they would never kill another person? There are no doubt people who would claim that this would never happen to them. Never trust those people, because they don’t know themselves at all. We do not know the circumstances that might enable us to kill someone, and they will differ very much from one person to another. To exclude the possibility that you could do something like that speaks of arrogance, not of insight into human behavior, which from time to time is terribly flawed, especially under emotionally heavily charged circumstances.
Once again, a more multilayered response does not leave the offender without responsibility. Would the offender have felt better if the father and brother had been capable of pointing out in their statement how horrific the events had been for himself? I suspect not so. It probably would only have amplified his feelings of repentance and guilt. Showing empathy does not acquit a person of their sense of guilt. I think itis more likely to amplify it.
So what should these two family members have done? I think that the ability to forgive is one of the greatest gifts of mankind. By offering forgiveness you make the rest of life bearable. Not only the life of the one you’re forgiving but also your own life. When you open your heart to the man or woman who has wronged you, the miracle of forgiveness can transpire.
Forgiveness is something you offer with your heart, not with your head. Forgiveness is not a product of reason, or of common sense. It comes from the heart, where the greatest human strengths can be found. Forgiveness does not replace punishment, but it goes alongside it. When you manage to let your heart speak, you can give the other and yourself peace. The purpose of forgiveness is not to forget the painful event, but it can make the memory of the event more bearable. Anger and hatred devour a lot of energy and they are of no use to anyone. It would be so much the better to avoid these and to come in contact with the person who has wronged you – often in a terrible manner. By closing the chapter with the aid of forgiveness, you do yourself and the other person a great service.
MANDELA THE SAINT
In this modern life there are also people, every now and then, who approximate Jesus in grandeur. Just think of Nelson Mandela who, after his release from Robben Island, did not choose the path of revenge and retribution. As President, he even established the only fertile ground for a different South Africa: uniting the different peoples within the nation. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of post-apartheid South Africa was a demonstration of civilization and human dignity. Or as the President himself phrased it after the presentation of the TRC’s report: “With all its imperfections, this report is an aid to help reconcile and build our nation.” There was a reason why many people saw Mandela as some sort of saint: after everything that was done to him, he had managed to hold on to the ability to forgive. Just like Jesus.
Church attendance has gone down in our society. More and more people have little or no knowledge of the Bible and at every scandal where the church is involved, harsh words are spoken about faith. No matter how deserved, it is not all what the church is about. There are many beautiful and inspiring stories in the Bible. For example those about Jesus who always offered forgiveness to everyone. Even when he was hanging on the cross and said: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
As long as we realize that forgiveness is the most beautiful thing we can offer those who have hurt us, Jesus will live on in us. That is not an old-fashioned faith, but it is being aware of this unique gift mankind possesses. An animal cannot offer forgiveness, a human being can. Let’s do all we can to cherish and hold on to this gift.