Justice and The nassar Case

I have all sorts of opinions on philosophy of law, on justice, on Christian ethics. But when I began researching to write this op-ed on the sentencing of Larry Nassar, it quickly became apparently to me that what was necessary to say ought not come from me at all. More than 150 women and girls testified of being abused by Larry Nassar, former USA Gymnastics sports doctor. Rachael Denhollander was the first to publicly speak out against Nassar and her testimony in court is simply unforgettable. In this op-ed, I want to highlight Rachael’s insights on justice, to offer all of us a chance to learn from her and to honor her for her bravery. I was planning on critiquing the vision of justice from the judge who sentenced Nassar to 150 years, told him she was “signing his death warrant” and noted that if it were lawful, she would subject him to the same assaults that he perpetuated. As it turns out, Rachel’s testimony offers that very critique (implicitly) and sets forth a vision of justice that is much more profound than anything I might have written.

During her court testimony, Rachael said that truth “must be realized to its fullest depth if justice is to ever be served.” And the truth that Rachael had to speak was both forceful and personal. Looking directly at Nassar, she said, “you have become a man ruled by selfish and perverted desires.” As a Christian, Rachael has a particular vision of justice that she desires. Again speaking directly to Nassar, she said: “I pray you experience the soul-crushing weight of guilt so you may someday experience true repentance and true forgiveness from God, which you need far more than forgiveness from me—though I extend that to you as well.”

In an exclusive interview with Christianity Today magazine after the sentencing, the interviewer noted that Christians often “use God’s call to forgive as a weapon against survivors.” Rachael said “every single Christian publication or speaker that has mentioned my statement has only ever focused on the aspect of forgiveness. Very few, if any of them, have recognized what else came with that statement, which was a swift and intentional pursuit of God’s justice. Both of those are biblical concepts. Both of those represent Christ. We do not do well when we focus on only one of them.”

What does it mean to extend forgiveness to someone in service to justice and not denial of it? Rachael says “it means that I trust in God’s justice and I release bitterness and anger and a desire for personal vengeance” But, crucially, Rachael adds that “it does not mean that I minimize or mitigate or excuse what he has done. It does not mean that I pursue justice on earth any less zealously.”

Justice is not about vengeance or karma. The French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil, in her classic book The Need for Roots, wrote the following. “By committing crime, a man places himself, of his own accord, outside the chain of eternal obligations which bind every human being to every other one. Punishment alone can weld him back again.” I think that Rachael Denhollander would likely agree with Weil. And in learning from both incredible women, I am moved to pray that I, too, might always feel “the soul-crushing weight of guilt” of my sin in order that I am always led to true repentance. And while I cannot even imagine having the strength to forgive someone as wicked as Nassar and to desire just punishment for the sake of his well being and not just my own gratification, Rachael’s testimony stands as sharp rebuke to me for my lack of charity toward those who wrong me. I think Rachael has a lot to teach us about justice, and I know that I will reread her testimony many more times.

Sources: The Atlantic; CNN; Christianity Today; The Need for Roots (Simone Weil)

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