When in 1973 Queen Juliana (reigned in the Netherlands from 1948 to 1980) celebrated the 25th of her rule, she proposed to the then prime minister Dries van Agt that this should be marked by a large-scale pardon of prisoners. The latter, as a legal expert and a former Minister of Justice, was abhorred by the idea, but found it difficult to contradict Her Majesty. According to his biographer, he therefore sent his deputy prime minister Hans Wiegel to the weekly meeting with Juliana. Wiegel suggested to the monarch that she send a cake to all inmates in Dutch prisons with the words: “Many happy returns!”
The Dutch legal system knows the phenomenon of pardon, but this is restricted by very clear rules. Th king/queen may grant a pardon, but only upon advice of the cabinet minister of justice, based on further advice by the courts. In other words: What happens at the end of a presidential term in the United States, when the president decides to grant pardon or to commute the sentences of a number of persons, is unthinkable in the Dutch legal system. And this is even more true when pardons are granted to criminals who show no sign of remorse, or to friends of politicians who have ended up behind bars because of fraud or other serious crimes.
In most languages, the concept of “pardon” is related to the the concept of “grace.” However, handing out pardons–as practiced by former President Donald Trump–has nothing to do with grace, but rather with opportunism. It is a favoritism that at some time must be repaid in some form or another. It has nothing to do with restoring damaged relationships and giving those involved a chance to make a fresh start and to avoid making the same mistakes in the future.
God is the Ultimate Pardoner. When we come to Him and ask for forgiveness we can be sure to receive His pardon. Thereby, not only is our sentence fully annulled, but we can start all over, with a clean slate. The relationship between us and God is restored. With a biblical term, this is called “reconciliation.” The good news about the gospel is that, if we are willing to ask God for forgiveness, we can be sure to receive it. And in the process, we also receive the inner strength to forgive those who have mistreated us through their actions or words, and to accept forgiveness from other people when we ask for it because we have mistreated them. Not with an underlying idea of “let’s just forget about it” or “if you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours,” but from a desire for a relationship characterized by reconciliation and wholeness.
People who misbehave should, as a rule, be punished. Sometimes a warning or a symbolic punishment suffices, but often it is not enough. When people storm a government building, threaten politicians and leave a trail of destruction, as happened in the United States on January 6, they cannot remain unpunished. And if, as happened in the Netherlands earlier this week, demonstrations against Corona-measures are used as a cover for violence and widespread vandalism, punishments must be handed out. However, after that has been done, we cannot go on thinking that this settles the matter, because the culprits have received the treatment they deserved. What society needs now above all is a restoration of mutual trust, respect for each other and for the property of others. What is also needed, above all, is that we learn to listen to each other, instead of shouting at each other. It’s about doing everything possible–individually and collectively–to turn polarization and conflict into true reconciliation and wholeness. That may seem like an impossible task. But if we want to live in a land of peace and security, it is the only way.