Shortly after Michael and Cathryn Borden of Lititz, Pa., were slain by their daughter’s boyfriend (David Ludwig), family and clergy – at least those who presented themselves to the media – indicated their readiness to forgive little Lizzie, I mean Kara Borden. Forgiveness at least implies some acknowledgment of wrongdoing. The media, for the most, wouldn’t even impugn the girl.
After the shootings, Borden hopped into her beau’s get-away car. She told him she wanted to “get as far away as possible, get married and start a new life.” Only after Borden was confronted with surveillance cameras did she confess to accompanying Ludwig of her own free will.
The two had been involved in an intense sexual relationship. They were hopped-up on feelings of uniqueness and had a heightened sense of being misunderstood. In e-mail exchanges with girlfriends, Borden had intimated her woes would soon be over – by this, she meant the separation from Ludwig her parents had imposed. On the fateful day the boy executed the Bordens, an argument had ensued. The teens had stayed out all night, violating Kara’s curfew. It now seems more than likely she had summoned the heavily armed Ludwig to the house.
Before instant clemency came disbelief.
Kevin Eshleman, the Borden’s pastor, assured Paula Zahn (who investigates only in the sense that Larry King “interviews”) that since he knew the teen personally, he could say with certainty she would never conspire against her parents in this manner. “It just is almost incomprehensible,” he emphasized. Borden’s brother’s best friend also vouched for her. Said Kellymarie Conlon: “It’s impossible to believe that Kara had any involvement in this at all.”
Scott Peterson’s friends and family said the same of him. Practically every alleged criminal’s kin repeat similar incantations. By now, we know these testimonials are worthless.
Still, one can understand family and friends refusing to believe the cherubic 14-year-old was nothing but a victim in the squalid affair. But what excuse do the chronically incurious and uncritical media have in view of the emerging – and incriminating – evidence?
“Probably none” is how MSNBC’s Clint Van Zandt, a private investigator, evaluated Borden’s possible involvement in the murders. The sentiment was seconded by John Kasich, sitting in for Bill O’Reilly. They were not alone. Out of liberal deference to youth, and Franco Zeffirelli’s film, “Endless Love,” some of them even called the two “the couple.”
At the funeral, family friend Bill Bradford waxed poetic about Kara’s “ability to reach out in compassion and touch even the most unlovely people.” They’d been touched by an angel, no less. Church elder David Sheaffer assured reporters that there was no strain between Kara and the other children and that the family was supportive, refraining from any finger-pointing. Acquaintance Vera Zimmerman contributed this corrosive cliche: “They were good kids … they just made some bad choices.” Oops. There was more talk of faith-dictated unconditional forgiveness.
These all-too familiar spasms of no-fault forgiveness, however, are more a distillation of the mass culture than a reflection of any real religious sensibility. If anything, they are a sign of people adrift in a moral twilight zone. In so charitably absolving and embracing alleged killers and their culprits, well-meaning clergy and flock are supplanting the power of the God whose mercy they claim to represent; evincing religious doctrinal failure; and doing injustice to the victims, to society and, inadvertently, to the offender.
For mercy without justice is no mercy at all.
If punishment is a declaration of those values we wish to uphold, then pardoning a killer or an accessory before he has made amends and paid for his crime perverts and subverts those values. Redemption can be achieved only when the consequences of one’s actions are faced. With each easy act of absolution, the sanctity of life is diminished and murder becomes a little less abhorrent.
In the Jewish perspective, justice always precedes and is a prerequisite for mercy.
A Jew is not obliged to forgive a transgressor unless he has ceased his harmful actions, compensated the victim for the harm done, and asked forgiveness. Even then, he can but is not obligated to forgive. This is both ethically elegant and psychologically prudent. It upholds the notion of right and wrong and lends meaning and force to the process of asking for and extending forgiveness. And it doesn’t mandate the incongruous emotion of compassion for someone who has murdered, maimed or committed other unforgivable crimes.
A Jew is, however, obliged to seek justice. And so are Christians.
In their much-missed “Orthodoxy” column, in the (now-defunct) Report Newsmagazine, Ted and Virginia Byfield confirmed that the Christian and Jewish doctrines are very similar. Christian forgiveness is also contingent on the sinner’s repentance, and can be granted only by the one sinned against, and not by the various proxies of popularity. Instant expiation flows more from the values of the 1960s than from any doctrinal Christian values. The corollary of the current practice of minute-made forgiveness is that “it not only abolishes the necessity of repentance; it abolishes sin itself,” the couple wrote.
These memorable words are the perfect caption to the picture of Kara Borden in a front-row seat at the funeral she may have helped plan.