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Local Murder Raises Questions on Nature of Forgiveness

CAS prof probes when to forgive, when not to


Malcolm Astley has empathized with the family of Nathaniel Fujita (above), accused of murdering Astley’s daughter, Lauren. Photo courtesy of the Associated Press

Your only child, fresh out of high school, is found dead, strangled with a bungee cord and her throat cut. With reporters’ cameras and microphones in your face, what do you say when asked about her accused killer?

Malcolm Astley (SED’82) sympathized with the man’s family, his comments drawing praise from many local residents and media.

The murder of Lauren Astley, 18, has horrified her hometown of Wayland, Mass. Police say her ex-boyfriend, Nathaniel Fujita, killed her July 3 following troubles in their relationship. He has pleaded not guilty.

“Lauren’s mother and I share the anguish of Nate’s parents, who put so much caring into Nate, and my daughter as well,” Astley said after Fujita’s arraignment. A former principal and admirer of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. (GRS’55, Hon.’59), Astley told a Boston Globe reporter that “anger will not match anger. You have to engage with what may feel like torment to you, to get at the roots. Then many more conflicts will yield to common interests. That has got to be the goal if we’re not going to destroy each other and ourselves.”

Charles Griswold, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of philosophy, has studied the nature of forgiving. He wrote Forgiveness: A Philosophical Exploration. He and the Rev. William Meninger, a Catholic priest, wrote dueling opinion pieces about unconditional forgiveness in a 2008 Tikkun magazine forum, and last year, Griswold revisited the topic in the New York Times.

BU Today asked Griswold his take on the issues raised by the Astley case.

BU Today: Have you followed Malcolm Astley’s public comments about his daughter’s murder, and what’s your reaction to them?
Griswold: I read one story in the Boston Globe. I was astonished by his apparent ability to stay his anger and to express, if not feel, empathy for the alleged murderer’s family. I am struck by his determination to contextualize his daughter’s death in a way that gives it meaning and provides room for some sort of reconciliation. I note that he is not quoted as speaking the language of forgiveness, but does indicate a sort of empathetic understanding for what he takes to be the alleged murderer’s motivations. This seems to lead him to something more like excusing rather than forgiving his daughter’s alleged murderer.

Do people like Whitey Bulger and Nathaniel Fujita, if they’re convicted, need forgiveness from the community as well as from their victims?
Whether they need forgiveness and whether they deserve it are, of course, two very different questions. I am skeptical, in any case, that members of the community who didn’t even know the victims and who were not themselves injured by the offender have the standing to forgive the crimes in question. In thinking through these complex issues, it’s helpful to ask yourself what exactly it is that is being forgiven.

Suppose that you do know the victim well: in forgiving the offender, are you forgiving, on behalf of the victim, the injury done to the victim (this is sometimes referred to as “third-party forgiveness”)? Or are you forgiving the offender for the injury done to you by means of, or as a result of, the injury done to the victim? They are very different things. It may be that you don’t have the standing to forgive on behalf of the victim, but do have the standing to forgive the injury indirectly done to you by the offender. Mr. Astley was certainly injured by the murder of his daughter, but in a very different way than his daughter was wronged by being murdered. He might be in a position to forgive on the one account, but not the other. The same logic arguably applies to excuse.

Your book argues against the Christian notion of unconditional forgiveness. Under what circumstances is it appropriate to withhold forgiveness? Do any recent public examples come to mind?
I argue in Forgiveness that when an offender refuses to take any steps that warrant forgiveness, that person is conditionally unforgivable—that is, should not be forgiven until and unless basic steps, such as taking responsibility for the injury, are taken. I hold that the notion of warranted anger makes sense. It doesn’t follow that the person is unforgivable no matter what—that is, even if he or she does take such steps. Nor does it follow that one should not put aside one’s anger even when the offender takes none of the appropriate steps, for there are other reasons that may commend letting go of anger—having to do, for example, with one’s own welfare. And there are means other than forgiveness for doing so.

That said, I am not convinced that Christianity has always spoken unequivocally in favor of “unconditional forgiveness.” Moreover, what is referred to under that name often sounds much more like excuse. Some of these issues are discussed in my exchange with Father William Meninger.

As for other public examples of appropriate withholding of forgiveness: where does one start?

Could you suggest some strategies for forgiving a person who has wronged us?
If the injury done is not humanly possible to forgive, and if the wrongdoer has at least taken some elementary steps, it may be possible to imagine empathetically that he or she would take further steps were a bit more time to pass or certain conditions in that person’s life were to change. By such means, it may be possible for forgiveness to gain some traction. It’s also useful not to demonize the offender or to paint oneself as exceptionally virtuous by comparison. Finally, it’s very important that one’s anger be proportionate to the injury, and for that, something like right perspective is indispensable.

You say in your book that the United States avoided confronting the morality of the Vietnam War, and therefore, the question of whether it should apologize. Some say the idea of group guilt unfairly blames members who didn’t commit the wrong and may encourage a false sense of victimhood among people who didn’t suffer.
I do think our country has, as a community, failed to confront the problem of the morality of that war, and that partly as a result, there is simply no consensus about it. We continue not only to reenact the same basic divisions, but to give ourselves not dissimilar reasons for venturing into new wars. Honesty and reason on the topic of the Vietnam War have long been politically impossible, and correspondingly there is little place for reflection on the possible appropriateness of apology.

The question as to whether successive generations bear any responsibility for the past wrongs of their country is very complicated. But note that we regularly assume an affirmative answer (and do so as well when discussing the liabilities of, say, corporations and other institutions over time). As to a false sense of victimhood: if it’s false, in the sense of unjustified, it’s certainly not to be encouraged. But what if it’s justified? Wrongs may be perfectly real even though inherited from an earlier generation and perpetuated by an earlier generation. Are not the inheritors of such wrongs due an apology, at the very least?

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.


11 Comments on Local Murder Raises Questions on Nature of Forgiveness

  • Anonymous on 07.12.2011 at 8:40 am

    I am a BU student and I live in the town right next to the town in which Lauren lived. I unfortunately never got to meet her, but this was a terrible situation and while I can’t imagine what could have caused this teenage fight to escalate to that level of violence, I cannot help but feel sorry for the Fujita family as well, because if their son is found guilty they essentially lose him as well. My prayers go out to both families, and Rest In Peace Lauren Astley

  • bp on 07.12.2011 at 8:55 am

    The Christian notion of forgiveness, is not that injustices are simply overlooked, but rather exchanged for the injustice of the execution of Jesus Christ. Christians don’t forgive because the perpetrator deserves to be forgiven, but because God has made a way for forgiveness. Vengeance has been paid making the courageous act of extending mercy and quelling violence conceivable.

    Mr. Astley, whatever his motivation or his view of forgiveness, furnishes a refreshingly different response to anger than the perpetrator of his daughters murder. Wherever his strength comes from, I admire his courage.

  • Anonymous on 07.12.2011 at 9:52 am

    never said "forgive" or "excuse"

    I live in Wayland and have followed this story very closely.

    I think Malcolm Astley’s public demeanor throughout this tragedy has been exemplary. His empathy for Nate Fujita’s family has been very healing, and has “allowed” people within the town to sympathize with the Fujita family without feeling like they are in any way betraying the Astleys.

    However, I never heard any of what Mr. Astley said as implying that he either excused or forgave Nate Fujita — only that he sympathized with the Astleys and understood they were grieving as well. That is very different, and not even comparable.

  • Anonymous on 07.12.2011 at 10:17 am

    This is a very peculiar piece to be writing after a tragedy like this. I cannot imagine the motivations of BU Today for publishing a story like this, nor of Professor Griswold for publicly parsing the speech of a person who has so recently lost a child. Including the class and graduation year of the victim of such a tragic crime seems completely inappropriate and makes me more than a little embarrassed to be affiliated with this institution. I’m sure Dr. King would feel the same way. I realize that it is your standard practice to include alumni affiliations. The fact that it seems so grossly inappropriate in this context should have been your first hint that you had no business printing this article.

  • Anonymous on 07.12.2011 at 11:10 am

    Mixed contexts

    Professor Griswold is guilty of giving philosophical answers to populist questions – but his guilt is minor. Until I read the “dueling opinions” link, I saw his answers as insensitive. Now I realize that he was operating from an ethically rigorous, philosophical perspective. I see the connection between Mr. Astley’s statements and Professor Griswold’s expertise – unfortunately the reviewer selected the wrong questions to help people make sense of the current situation.

  • KW on 07.12.2011 at 1:06 pm

    I am a BU student. Dr. Malcolm Astley was my elementary school principal. He is one of the most genuinely kind people I have ever come across in my life. He just lost his only daughter to a tragically horrendous event. Everyone deals with trauma differently. I think it is completely out of line for people to be critiquing this poor man’s empathetic statements to the media, and it disgusted me to see this article was the headline of BU Today. In the wake of this travesty, it should have been an article on the dangers of abusive relationships, signs friends and family should be aware of, or really anything other than this terribly timed, judgmental article. Get a heart and a brain while you’re at it and stop criticizing this kind, kind man who just lost his entire world.

  • Keisha on 07.12.2011 at 2:56 pm

    Mr. Griswald & Jesus agree!

    Matthew 6:14-15 of the Bible says, “14 For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.

    Is God’s love conditional? No, it’s unconditional. The Bible distinguishes the fact that if we’re not capable of forgiving someone who wrongs us, we don’t have the capacity to accept forgiveness. God pours out forgiveness, but if we hold our hand over the cup, we don’t allow the forgiveness to take place. It can’t.

    And once someone understands forgiveness, it’s impossible for repentence to not take place (or assuming responsibility and genuine remorse for one’s actions). Seems that Charles Griswald agrees with the Bible after all! :) At least sort of.

    The probem is that if one witholds forgiveness, grudging is perpetuated in the world because now that person also cannot be forgiven; he/she can’t forgive others. What isn’t the same is that Mr. Griswald says to continue to be angry is ok. One has that option, but in my personal experiences and in what I’ve seen, it is absolutely exhausting and miserable. To mourn loss and be angry at injustice is totally natural and healthy – but to always be angry about the past, after a while, becomes an unbearingly heavy weight to carry through life. I think it unwise to let evil win two-fold and let it keep one from the satisfaction that comes with joy, peace, love and hope for the future…

    But justice surely should be carried out! (Different from revenge.)

    Can we hate evil and still love the person? No human is fully evil. Yin and yang…

    Of course, this is ideal and in a broken world, much easier to say than do. I haven’t dealt with murder, so I don’t want to come off as ignorant to the type of pain both parties are experiencing in this case and the way it’s so easy to criple love after experiencing something so evill… I too admire Mr. Astley’s attitude and strength.

    I disagree that making this public is a bad idea. You can hold stuff in your hold life and be private – you’re entitled. But how much good is there to take place in the world as a result of people sharing, learning and understanding life more deeply?

  • Anonymous on 07.12.2011 at 3:45 pm

    I would say this level of violence could be caused by playing too many violent video games such as Black Ops.

  • disappointing on 07.12.2011 at 3:48 pm

    I am a recent Wayland graduate, someone close to both parties in this tragedy. The fact that this article, critiquing the grieving process of a man who lost his only child, was published is infuriating and extremely distasteful. Clearly the comments show that not everyone at BU is as disrespectful as Mr. Barlow and Mr. Griswold. Mr. Astley’s temperance and grace have been, and continue to be an inspiration to the town of Wayland, setting the tone and guiding thousands through an intensely emotional situation. It is more than likely that neither Barlow nor Griswold have had to deal with a situation as heartbreaking as this, and therefore they really have to right to be commenting or passing judgement on how Mr. Astley is handling this situation. You should be ashamed of yourselves for publishing this and making it BU Today’s top story. In doing so you have sullied the reputation of a wonderful institution and its bright and compassionate students.

  • Anonymous on 07.12.2011 at 4:07 pm

    Who is being criticized??? Nobody.

    I don’t see why everyone’s up in a huff over this article. Moreover I wonder if some even read it. Neither the prof nor author are critiquing Mr Astley. The article clearly views Mr Astley’s response to his daughter’s murder and the ability to empathize with Nathaniel Fujita’s family as something impressive and honorable, and raises questions that surround human nature and the ability to empathize and forgive. There’s nothing offensive here in the least.

  • Emily on 03.13.2012 at 3:15 pm

    Thanks for the article. I have so much respect for Astley handling this horrible issue with grace. I will definitely check out Griswold’s book, it sounds really interesting. I just finished reading “Forgiving the Unforgivable” by Master Charles Cannon (http://forgivingtheunforgivable.com/), and it seems like they touch on some similar points.

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