Every Sunday for the past nine years, members of the Landisville (Pa.) Mennonite Church have prayed for a son of their congregation. Every month they send him a small sum of money, and every month some of them visit him.

Prayer, money, and visits: fairly typical examples of congregational caregiving, one might suppose. What's atypical is that nine years ago, after a meal with relatives on a calm Sunday afternoon, 14-year-old Keith Weaver killed his parents, Clair and Anna May, and his sister, Kimberly. The inexplicable horror of the crime and the loss of lives rocked the Weavers' family, church, and community to the core.

In the middle of their grief and disillusionment, however, members of the Landisville congregation got busy. They helped clean the house where the murders occurred, established a legal support committee to care for Keith's needs so that the surviving brother and sister wouldn't have to, and founded a "seventy times seven" fund to collect money for his expenses. They studied grief, forgiveness, and victimization in Sunday school and sermons, calling on the expertise of area chaplains and counselors. A year after the tragedy, they held a memorial service to lament the loss of their loved ones and to recommit themselves to the journey of forgiveness.

These days they are continuing that journey, through prayers and financial help and visits to Keith in prison.

"Forgiveness is an act of God's grace," says Landisville pastor Sam Thomas. "You don't forgive and forget; you forgive again and again and again."

This story is one of many included in God and the Victim, a recently released collection of essays. The chapter authors—a zesty mix of theologians, pastors, and counselors—examine topics of evil, victimization, justice, and forgiveness with psychological and spiritual insight. By invoking the stories of Cain and Abel, Job, and the Good Samaritan, the writers for the most part abandon conventional understandings of crime and move us toward more compassionate and complex responses. They refute several myths in both church and society: that crime results exclusively from offenders' social environment or free will; that offenders' actions are primarily wrongs against the state; that victims need to simply forgive, forget, and move on with their lives.

God and the Victim is the result of a 1997 theological forum on crime victims and the church, sponsored by Neighbors Who Care (NWC), the crime-victim branch of Prison Fellowship Ministries. Part of a trend of Christian responses to people affected by crime, this book asserts that the spiritual dimension of crime is frequently ignored. While the church has discovered ways to care for offenders, such as prison ministries and halfway houses, it is only now coming to terms with its responsibility to reach out to victims, says Lisa Barnes Lampman, executive director of NWC. According to one survey, crime victims turn to the faith community for assistance five times more often than to governmental and social services. And with more than 43 million people becoming victims of crime per year, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, NWC says the church cannot afford to remain silent.

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A parallel development to crime-victim ministries like NWC is the burgeoning of victim-offender conferencing (VOC) programs across the country (also called victim-offender reconciliation programs). Churches are becoming increasingly involved in establishing VOC in their communities, moving the number of such programs in the U.S. from only a handful in the 1970s to approximately 250 today. These programs, operating out of a restorative justice perspective, bring together victims, offenders, and sometimes community members to identify the needs and obligations of each that may lead to restitution and healing.

With increasing numbers of local churches reaching out to people affected by crime—whether by repairing windows and locks after property crimes or organizing VOC programs—Christians across the country are facing levels of trauma and upheaval that defy callow explanation and comfort. God and the Victim is a good place for guidance on some of victims' perplexing questions about evil, victimization, justice, and forgiveness.


Loretta, whose father had beaten her regularly as a child, came for counseling to Dan Allender, professor of counseling at Western Seminary in Seattle and contributor to God and the Victim. The beatings would often continue until she was nearly unconscious. Loretta recalls now that as she began to regain consciousness and started moaning in pain, her father would sneer at her, "Stop whining. You sound pathetic. Just get up and clean yourself up."

"Evil feels no remorse, loss, or pain regarding the harm that is perpetrated," writes Allender. "[F]ar more, evil enjoys the planning, the setup, the trap, and the physical and emotional consequences of the harm." Such encounters with evil awaken theological questions about the character of God. That age-old and unanswerable question—why doesn't God always act when we most need divine help?--can wreak havoc with crime victims' image of a compassionate and powerful God. "Victims must face difficult issues of safety, meaning, and the future," says Lampman. "They often ask, 'What is the meaning of life? Who is the God I thought was there? Is there a God?'"
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The essayists in God and the Victim issue an unequivocal call for Christians to understand and respect the intense questioning and anger that often accompany victimization, rather than to offer simplistic advice or counsel. Theologian Miroslav Volf voices his disquiet with liberal and conservative responses to evil and crime: that evil actions are entirely the result of social circumstance, or that they are entirely the will of the individual committing them. Instead of choosing one or the other, Volf walks right into the tangled space between the liberal and conservative camps, clearing a space in which environment and free will can been seen as interacting in complex and shifting ways. In the story of Cain and Abel, Cain's economic success sets the stage for his reaction to God's overturning of privilege; when God grants favor to Abel, we expect Cain to be angry. Yet Cain also chooses, in an exercise of his free will, to commit the ultimate act of exclusion, murdering his brother.

Volf thwarts the reader's rather automatic identification with Abel, the victim; "We cannot choose only one: each of us is both Abel and Cain," he writes. Volf and other writers refuse to negotiate on one point: that we must each come to terms with our own sinfulness, whatever form it takes, and by doing so, remember to offer grace to the guilty.

These complex and at times wrenching truths—that we are all both victims and perpetrators, that God's grace is unearned, and that God's love is given without regard to a moral scoreboard—are essential if crime-victim ministries are to avoid demonizing offenders.


Margaret can't erase the picture from her mind: the three men walking toward her on that night, then grabbing her, holding her down, raping her. Sleep comes slowly these days, and when it does come, it brings nightmares of the assault. She has recently moved to a new city, on the recommendation of officials involved in the case. Here she knows no one; here she has no job or furniture or transportation.

Then a woman Margaret doesn't know calls and asks if she needs anything. The stranger arrives at her apartment and takes her to the Salvation Army to buy furniture. The woman takes her grocery shopping, makes a list of other items that Margaret mentions, and offers transportation when she needs it. Then the woman prays with Margaret, tells her to call whenever she needs anything or just wants to talk.

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That stranger is the Rev. Ana Martinez. Sitting at her desk in the wood-paneled office of the Harrisburg, Pa., chapter of Neighbors Who Care, Martinez speaks with such passion that her desk seems transformed into a pulpit. "When you're victimized, you feel stripped of control," Martinez says, her small hand hewing the air. "You feel naked. And you don't want to say what happened to you because you know that people are going to say the wrong things anyway. … When I counsel victims I say, 'You're angry at God, and that's OK. Go ahead and say anything you want to say. You're not going to throw God off his throne.' "

Martinez, copastor with her husband of the First Spanish Christian Church across the street, helped start the Harrisburg NWC in July 1998 and directs the program part time. Located in Allison Hill, a neighborhood known more for its high crime rate and crumbling buildings than its solid network of churches and neighborhood organizations, Harrisburg's NWC assisted 340 victims of crime last year—changing locks, buying diapers, and providing spiritual counseling.

Today the office is stacked with emergency supplies. Several volunteers stop by to pick up money to purchase items for victims or to receive directions from Martinez. "Before we connected to NWC, our church was doing a lot of the things we do now—helping families, visiting somebody in jail, providing money," Martinez says as she returns to her desk after two volunteers leave. "When NWC came to us and told us about what they wanted to do in our community, I said, 'That's what we do!' "

One of 16 directors of NWC chapters across the United States, Martinez says that connecting to NWC has made her congregation's work easier. Some people are more open to being assisted by an organization than a church, she says, and volunteers' training in trauma counseling has been invaluable.

Responding to victimization is not always as clear-cut as providing food and counseling, however. The authors of God and the Victim offer contradictory perspectives on victimization and consequences of crime, which inform different approaches to crime ministries.

For example, theologian Carl F. H. Henry writes that crime is "an offense against God, the Creator of life," and a "rejection of transcendent divine law." The ultimate victim of crime, then, is not society or the person who has been hurt by the crime: "God stands as the unrequited victim of a criminalized society."

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Many of the contributors do not share Henry's perspective on crime. Howard Zehr, one of the pioneers of the restorative-justice movement, disputes the notion that crime is merely about breaking rules. He writes that the wrongness of crime is "less that it breaks rules than that it damages relationships, making the right relationships of shalom impossible." Zehr also argues that the traditional Christian idea that criminal behavior is a violation of God's authority has actually contributed to the sidelining of victims. If crime is a sin against God, chaplains can encourage offenders to seek swift forgiveness from God without paying much attention to the offenders' responsibility to those hurt by their actions. If crime is instead viewed primarily in terms of the harm inflicted, according to Zehr, then victims and their needs can be restored to a central place in justice-making.


One placid Saturday evening in Detroit, on the sidewalk outside the Twelfth Street Baptist Church, parishioners lingered after choir practice to chat and enjoy the summer air. Suddenly their conversation was punctuated by gunfire. A woman across the street, on her way home from the store with her children, fell to the ground. She died the next morning.

The Rev. Lee Earl of Twelfth Street Baptist knew his congregation had to respond to the murder. The congregation offered its sanctuary for the funeral, and church members called the family to offer condolences, meals, and money. Church members helped bring about reconciliation between the murdered woman's family and the offender's mother and brother.

Out of these efforts came community programs that offer food, housing, and childcare. In a neighborhood previously forsaken by the police, who had stopped sending squad cars after a certain time of night, crime declined 37 percent in the years following the incident.

The Twelfth Street parishioners were doing restorative justice work. Told by Earl in the last chapter of God and the Victim, the story of Twelfth Street Baptist is a story of shalom, or fullness and flourishing of life, created as church members became reconcilers in the aftermath of a crime in their neighborhood.

The middle chapters of the volume, written by philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff and Zehr on the theme of justice, provide a sturdy fulcrum to balance the other chapters. By tracing the biblical claim that every human being has the right to shalom, Wolterstorff makes the case that God is intently concerned about injustice, and that our task as Christians is to work toward a more just world.

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Wolterstorff is not naïvely counting on some human action bringing about the reign of God; rather, he presents a nuanced perspective that means neither resignation to injustice nor pompous resolve to change the world. Just as Jesus' ministry was not simply waiting around for shalom or forcing it upon humanity, Wolterstorff argues, so is our work with the outcasts and oppressed a sign of God's reign that is both here and not yet here.

This perspective on justice undergirds much of the work of Christians involved in restorative justice. A restorative-justice approach to crime provides opportunities for dialogue between victims and offenders, as appropriate; works toward restoring victims and responding to victims' self-identified needs; and supports offenders while encouraging them to understand, accept, and carry out their obligations.

Restorative justice is increasingly being applied to cases of severe violence. Dave Doerfler, the Lutheran minister who directs the Victim-Offender Mediation/ Dialogue Office of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, emphasizes that his program is victim-initiated and victim-centered, and that it often takes a year or more to bring victims and offenders together for face-to-face dialogue. "This allows both parties to grieve, to identify feelings they're wrestling with," Doerfler says. "What we also know is that the meeting between victim and offender is only a tool; it's not intended as a panacea. All the work has to be done inside each person."

While Doerfler's program is victim-centered, he says that meeting with the victim can also help the offender deal with guilt and shame—which in turn helps prevent recidivism. "People recommit crimes because they are caught in the same cycle they were in when they committed their first one," Doerfler says. "That is, they're haunted by a sense of shame and guilt--'Life has no purpose, I'm worth nothing.' " Recognizing the harm they've caused can break that cycle of criminal activity.

But how does one balance the victim's desires and the offender's right to a punishment that matches the crime? Doesn't giving victims more say about justice mean that offenders will face stricter sentences? Lorraine Stutzman Amstutz, director of Mennonite Central Commit tee's Office on Crime and Justice, says such fears are largely unfounded. "The assumption that if we meet victims' needs we will hurt the offender is a myth," Amstutz says. "Victims don't necessarily want this person to rot in prison. … Once they're able to make a human connection [with the offender], they often want the offender to become a better person."

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Perhaps the greatest contribution of God and the Victim is its reclaiming the concept of forgiveness, one of the most maligned words in Christian vocabulary. The chapter authors repeatedly refute the worn-out adage "forgive and forget," which has characterized much of traditional Christian teaching on how to respond to crime. Forgiveness is a process that may take a lifetime, they reiterate, not a once-and-done event. It is anything but a simple act of the will. Forgiveness includes "the imagination and enactment of a future that is not bound by the past or condemned to repeat it," writes L. Gregory Jones, the dean of Duke Divinity School.

Rather than empowering the offender and weakening the victim, forgiveness actually benefits the forgiver as much as the forgiven, writes Mary White, whose 30-year-old son was murdered in 1990. "The forgiver finds peace and power and release through the act of forgiving," White asserts. "He or she breaks the chains of angry thoughts toward the perpetrator and walks into healing and freedom."

Forgetting is also granted a new light. Jones suggests that to forget wrongdoing—our own or others'--is to miss a valuable reminder of our separation from God and each other. Jones suggests replacing the myth of "forgive and forget" with "remembering well," which expresses "the desire to view the past from a place of wholeness." He embraces the idea of healing memories rather than erasing or forgetting them.

Victims often experience isolation and rejection by friends, family, and church members. "We don't know how to act around victims of violent crime," says Doerfler. "By telling victims that they have to forgive, we've alienated a lot of victims from the church." In fact, Doerfler adds, the word forgiveness carries such hurtful overtones that it's sometimes best to find other words to use to describe the same concept when working with victims. "We work with victims who still say they'll never forgive the offender but who have done some of the most forgiving things for the offender and his/her family," Doerfler says.

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He offers the example of a woman whose daughter was murdered who now gives presentations to juvenile offenders—alongside the person who killed her daughter. The woman and her sister recently met with five members of the offender's family in what is called a "healing circle," in which people affected by a crime come together for dialogue. Doerfler says the woman continues to claim that she can't forgive her daughter's murderer.

"I say, 'Fine. Call it whatever you want,' " Doerfler says with a smile. "Just keep doing what you're doing."


By including voices from varying perspectives, God and the Victim offers readers a full-orbed theological examination of crime-related issues. One lapse in the volume's otherwise extensive scope, however, is its failure to examine how crime, deviance, and victimization are constructed in the public imagination. How do we define crime, and whose purposes do these definitions serve? Why do we assume that the main threat to our safety and well-being comes from those below—rather than above—us on the socioeconomic ladder?

For example, why does the victims' rights movement not include the concerns of victims of white-collar crime and industrial pollution? And if, as some studies show, poverty increases the pressures to commit property crimes, why do we not work to eliminate our nation's criminally large income gap rather than simply deploring the high crime rates of impoverished neighborhoods?

These questions remain largely unasked in the volume. Investigation into these and similar questions could inform, broaden, and deepen the scope of both crime-victim ministries and restorative-justice programs.

God and the Victim provides a valuable jumping-off point for Sunday-school classes, small groups, and individuals to reflect on victimization and how to become involved in helping victims. Issues of evil, victimization, justice, and forgiveness cannot be contained between the covers of a book, nor can they be dislodged from their political, economic, and social casings. Indeed, as more and more Christians involve themselves in crime-victim ministries, we need a Christian sociopolitical inquiry into constructions of crime and victimization that is as informed, penetrating, and prophetic as the theological reflections of God and the Victim.

Valerie Weaver-Zercher of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, is a graduate student in the University of Pennsylvania's Reading/ Writing/Literacy program and former assistant and managing editor of Gospel Herald.

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This essay's one-name references to crime victims are pseudonyms.

Related Elsewhere

The Neighbors Who Care Web site offers more information about the organization, help for crime victims, what churches can do to become more involved, and a blurb or two about God and the Victim.

God and the Victim can be ordered through the Christianity Online bookstore and other book retailers.

Earlier Christianity Today articles on crime victims and restoration include Charles Colson's column "Why We Should Be Hopeful" (Apr. 26, 1999) and "Redeeming the Prisoners" (Mar. 1, 1999). Today's Christian Woman, a Christianity Today sister publication, also looked at restorative justice in its May/June 1999 cover story, "Forgiving the Dead Man Walking | What would it take for crime survivor Debbie Morris to finally find peace?"

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