Should murderers and rapists be shown mercy? Should people who commit lesser sins or crimes be shown mercy? Or should people simply be punished for their crimes and be kept away from the victims?

We often read in the media about victims of crime or their families that refuse to even think about forgiving the criminals. When a Scottish backpacker was murdered, a relative was quoted as saying that “she will never succumb to pressure to forgive the killer”.

On rare occasions we read about victims that forgive the criminals or sinners, and then there is another uproar about these people’s gullibility and soft-heartedness. When a gunman killed five Amish girls and injured five others in Pennsylvania in 2006, the world was surprised when the Amish supported the family of the gunman.

Showing mercy is not limited to criminal activities against individuals. How do the Jews forgive the holocaust in Germany? How do the Poles forgive the Russians for the results of wars against them and for communism that was forced on Poland? How do people from Iran show mercy towards the Americans and the British?

The traditional religious definition ranges from acting as if nothing has happened, to giving tacit approval to hurtful behaviour, to sympathizing with the criminal instead of the victim. Showing mercy is often presented as an exercise of setting aside resentment or giving up grudges. In all of these the underlying assumption is that the victims have a right to judge the perpetrators, and that showing mercy is a withholding or a watering down of the right to judge.

However, the first commandment in the Bible is often overlooked. No, the first commandment is not the first of the famous Ten Commandments. The first commandment in the Bible (Genesis 2:17) states that “but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it; for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.”

Of course anything that is written down can be interpreted in many different ways. I choose to interpret this verse as saying”If you decide what is good or evil, you judge yourself and others, and that means that you become unaware of your true nature, which is Love. This lack of awareness is equal to spiritual death”.

Where showing mercy or forgiveness is only about withholding judgement, it does not necessarily mean that the forgiveness is based on Love. Forgiveness is about knowledge which brings us closer to Love.

South Africa had a unique situation for years where young white South African men were conscripted by the government to fight against the “enemy”, which were young black South African men. The white men went to war, not being sure who their enemy was. The black men organised a defence, not being sure who their enemy was. Both sides united on the basis of skin colour, and fought against people who had a different skin colour. They were all citizens of a country they loved, and they all fought for their country. You cannot get a more superficial or a more personal war than that.

The outcome of the civil war in South Africa included a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The objective of this Commission was to provide a platform to victims of the civil war where they could be heard, and at the same time to provide a platform for perpetrators of violence to give testimony and provide amnesty from prosecution.

There has been much criticism of the work of the TRC in the sense that many people felt the reparations were slow and meagre. However, there have also been tales of the personal journeys of some of the participants and the release that they experienced as a result of letting go of hatred and desires for revenge.

These outcomes reflect two aspects of mercy, namely understanding and taking responsibility.

Let us take a step back and explore the spiritual meaning of forgiveness. Assume that life if eternal, that our souls are eternal, and that we incarnate into this life with a purpose. This life purpose forms a central theme that runs throughout our live on earth, and the theme is repeated until we understand. This may even mean that we need to return for another incarnation before we understand.

We can only have learning experiences as a result of our interaction with other people. Does this interaction simply happen? No. We contract with these people before they incarnate that they will help us to learn what we need to learn. These contracts include experiences that are as ugly as war and rape and murder, and they are not necessarily limited to a single lifetime.

Jesus is quoted in Mat. 5:38-39 as having said “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you . . . whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.” Is this because we are supposed to be spineless nincompoops that must simply accept abuse? No, of course not. I am sure Jesus meant that we would have to go through the same experience again and again until we understand what it is that we have to learn about ourselves (like eventually standing up to bullies or having serial marriages before finding happiness). Having revenge does not reflect any understanding – it simply reflects a lack of awareness of our spirit.

Forgiveness is not a sanctimonious withholding of judgement. Forgiveness is about introspection and meditation and achieving that moment of understanding and gratitude that brings tears to our eyes, where the victim can reach out to the perpetrator or the perpetrator can reach out to the victim and say “thank you for being the perfect teacher for this life”. That is what some of the victims at the TRC experienced and expressed.

Does this mean that people can harm others and get away with it simply because they are forgiven? Of course not. There is a difference between “an eye for an eye” and “do unto others what you want done until yourself”. People that harm others are here to learn their own lessons, which include taking responsibility for their actions. There is a lack of balance when the focus is on how to ensure that perpetrators get punished for their actions, because such a focus is often based on revenge and resentment. A murderer or rapist should have the same opportunity for introspection and spiritual discovery than their victims. They also came to this earth to play their part and to grow to a better understanding of their actions.

This is where mercy comes in. Does mercy mean letting people off the hook when they have committed crimes? Certainly not. Mercy means helping the perpetrators to understand themselves and their actions.

For example, if a teenager with a rich parent commits a crime that is punishable by a fine, how about exchanging the fine with community service that relates to the crime? The teenager would not learn anything if the parent pays the fine, but they would learn a lot about themselves by doing appropriate community service.

That is mercy. That is also taking responsibility for all our actions, whether our actions result in us becoming a victim or a perpetrator. True forgiveness brings us closer to Love.

First printed in The If Journal volume 124

Author's Bio: 

Elsabe Smit is the author of, Spiritual interpretations of everyday life.