Generous Orthodoxy  

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Justification in action: an amazing story

This article from the October 18 New York Times by Paul Vitello is extraordinary, not only because it illustrates mercy, but far more rare and memorable, it describes an almost perfect balance between justice and mercy, condemnation and acquittal, punishment and restoration. I can't remember ever having read anything quite like it.

RIVERHEAD, N.Y., Oct. 17 - The compassion of a Long Island woman, Victoria Ruvolo, who was nearly killed 11 months ago when a 20-pound frozen turkey was thrown into the windshield of the car she was driving, helped secure a lenient jail sentence on Monday for the young man who was charged with the crime.

"You're being given an extraordinary gift," Judge Barbara Kahn of Suffolk County Court told the defendant, Ryan Cushing, 19, in sentencing him to six months in the county jail and five years' probation.

Mr. Cushing might have faced as much as 25 years in prison on the multiple felony charges originally brought against him in the attack, on Nov. 13, which broke every bone in Ms. Ruvolo's face and left her with brain injuries. After two weeks in an induced coma, she underwent months of surgery and rehabilitation, and continues to suffer impairments, though she has returned to work.

The Suffolk County district attorney, Thomas J. Spota, and Mr. Cushing's lawyer, William Keahon, seemed genuinely awed by the victim's temperate sense of justice. "Had she taken a different position than she did," Mr. Keahon said, "my client would have been incarcerated for many years. This to me is a very spiritual thing."

Before Monday's sentencing, Mr. Cushing handed Ms. Ruvolo an envelope containing what his lawyer said was a four-page letter. In it, Mr. Cushing apologized for what he had done: tossing the turkey into oncoming traffic from the back seat of a moving car carrying him and four other teenagers. And he thanked Ms. Ruvolo for her central role in urging Mr. Spota to be lenient in his prosecution. The defendant and the victim then embraced.

In his formal statement before sentencing, which he read from notes, the defendant turned to Ms. Ruvolo and said: "Your ability to forgive has had a profound effect on me. It has already made a positive change in my life."

But despite her role in swaying Mr. Spota, and despite a highly emotional scene in the courtroom last August, when Ms. Ruvolo stroked Mr. Cushing's head while he repeatedly apologized and sobbed on her shoulder, Ms. Ruvolo showed her sterner side as she delivered a victim impact statement...She said: "I have not absolved you. I expect you to take the consequences of your actions, both criminally and civilly." Courthouse observers assumed she intended to file a suit for damages. She has said she holds all five of the teenagers in the car that night responsible. The four others involved in the case have settled by pleading guilty to lesser charges and accepting terms of probation...

In [Ms. Ruvolo’s] statement, she said: "If I had been alone in the car that night, I would have died. It upsets me that at the cost of my life, not one of the teenagers had the guts or decency to come back or call 911. This haunts me. I wouldn't leave an animal to suffer on the side of the road, let alone my fellow man."

Still, Ms. Ruvolo's statement remained anchored in the same sense of compassion and justice that seems to have guided her throughout the case. It is a sense that seems rooted in the personal and particular, rather than in any fixed idea of justice.

"I sincerely hope you have learned from this awful experience, Ryan," she said. "There is no room for vengeance in my life. I know you are remorseful."
She added: "I've stubbornly rejected the notion that you should be treated more harshly. I truly hope that by demonstrating compassion and leniency, I have encouraged you to seek an honorable life."

"I believe that sometimes different paths cross for one reason or another," she concluded. "Ryan, prove me right."


Reaction to this post (and the Times article) has already been noteworthy. For instance, Peter Hoytema writes:

"I don't know about you, but my pastoral experience has indicated on many occasions that people are often misguided in their understanding about the nature of forgiveness. I continue to be surprised by the fact that many seasoned Christian believers commonly equate forgiveness with the suspension of judgement. True mercy, it is often assumed, cancels out the consequences of sinful behavior. Forgiveness, in the opinon of many, basically means that people should not be held accountable for whatever foolish choices they may have made. I'm not sure what kind of categories Ms. Ruvolo is working with in her own thinking about forgiveness, but her gracious act sure looks like forgiveness to me, despite her own statement to the contrary. She says she has not absolved Ryan of facing the consequences of his action. This is well and good. It's unfortunate that too many people think that forgiveness negates all judgement, and that mercy does away with accountability. The cross of Jesus Christ clearly indicates otherwise. There, the preeminent manifestation of grace coincides with the supreme display of judgement. Grace, as Bonhoeffer famously pointed out, is always free but it is never cheap. I've always liked the way Augustine put it: we are not so much punished for our sins as we are by them. That, it seems to me is exactly the difference between judgement and discernment and why, especially in the practice of forgiveness, it is so important that we heed our Lord's admonition to be as shrewd as serpents and as innocent as doves."


Another friend was baffled by Ms. Ruvolo, did not think she was sincerely forgiving. In this context I recalled an observation of the distinguished New Testament scholar Reginald Fuller, who wrote (I forget the source), "forgiveness is not enough." It is helpful for our understanding when we realize that the apostle Paul almost never spoke of forgiveness. His term was justification. A better translation of this word, which is gaining in favor, is rectification. The point here is that forgiveness is too weak a word to encompass all that is involved in God's creative action to set things right. Justification is not simply acquittal (or "legal fiction," as some have complained). Rather, it is God's transforming, redemptive action on behalf of his creature and his created world. Judgment upon what is wrong is necessary for the rectification of the sinner and, ultimately, of the principalities and powers and the whole cosmos.