What is the purpose of forgiveness? When you’re the party that has been wronged, it can feel like forgiveness only stands the person who has wronged you. That all it will do is make them feel better when they don’t deserve to.
Nobody could have blamed Thordis Elva for feeling that way about Tom Stranger, who raped her at their school dance when she was just 16 years old. Yet the video above tells a remarkable story of strength, courage and yes, forgiveness, that shows how powerful it can be.
The power of forgiveness reaches far beyond the person being forgiven, and even the person doing the forgiving, to our ability as people to recognise and relate to our shared humanity. Even when one of us does something that feels inhuman.
When we’re able to do this, we take a vital first step towards understanding the reasons why people who are capable of good do things which are so evil, and that, as Thordis and Tom show us, is the first step towards freeing ourselves from the suffering they cause.
Just in case you’ve been living under a rock (or are wise enough not to use Twitter), back in May, a black man named Christian Cooper was birdwatching in Central Park, when he noticed that Amy Cooper (no relation) had let her dog off its leash in an area where it was against the rules to do so.
Because the dog was frightening the birds in the area, he asked her to put a leash on her dog. Video of the incident begins with Amy asking Christian to stop recording her, and when he doesn’t, she says she’s going to call the police and “tell them that an African American man is threatening my life.”
Thankfully nobody was hurt, but the incident is a fairly chilling example of racism. A woman trying to turn a man’s blackness into a weapon that might literally have been used to kill him. So it might surprise you to learn that Christian has chosen not to press charges or aid the investigation. Here’s what he had to say:
I believe in punishments that are commensurate with the wrongdoing. Considering that Amy Cooper has already lost her job and her reputation, it’s hard to see what is to be gained by a criminal charge, aside from the upholding of principle. If her current setbacks aren’t deterrent enough to others seeking to weaponize race, it’s unlikely the threat of legal action would change that…
…would I consider it fair and just if Cooper were found guilty and sentenced to anti-bias training and some form of community service? Yes. But black people know all too well that the criminal justice system often doesn’t work that way — that an ambitious DA with an election next year, in the current social climate, might seek and achieve a sentence of a year behind bars. All for an offense from which I suffered no harm, physical or mental. That wouldn’t be a commensurate punishment.
In these divisive times, there’s a lot of talk about the need for compassion. But having the compassion to consider the impact a punishment might have on someone else’s life. Someone who was willing to endanger your life, over a rule they were breaking, is a standard many of us would fail to meet.
In fact many people, including his sister, have made it clear that they believe he has a responsibility to push for her to be punished as harshly as possible, as a deterrent to others who might endanger the lives of innocent people.
I’m not going to try to convince you of which view is more correct. Personally I believe that demonstrating our shared humanity is a more effective means of changing people’s hearts than the fear of punishment . It appears Christian does too. And I’m grateful for his example.