After Occidental College in Pasadena, California, was rocked by an anti-Asian hate speech incident, the offending student was doxed on social media and her name was written in chalk on campus walkways. Eventually she withdrew from the school.

To some people, justice was served. But it wasn’t restorative justice, in which part of the wrongdoer’s rehabilitation is being reconciled with the person who was hurt and the community at large. This concept, which emerged in the criminal justice system in the 1970s, requires effort from both the wrongdoer and the wronged.

We all face situations in our lives that force us to ask: What is the right response to serious wrongdoing? Should all infractions be forgiven? If not, which ones? And if so, how on earth do we do that?

In the wake of events at Occidental, a small group of students wanted to investigate these questions, so with the help of a courageous professor, they organized a debate to probe their community’s values around justice and forgiveness. The specific topic was, “Is restorative justice a viable way to address grievances?”

Among the participants was a charismatic Colombian freshman named Tomás Gómez who spoke powerfully of his country’s experience with truth and reconciliation. He told how a peace agreement based on these ideals transformed a nation ravaged for five decades by conflicts between the government, guerrilla rebel FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) forces and roving bands of mercenaries. There have been setbacks, but there is progress nonetheless.

On the other side was a starkly eloquent speech by Máté Major, a Hungarian youth whose ancestors died in Nazi gas chambers. Major argued that restorative justice is a contradiction in terms: restoration and justice are two separate ends that cannot be served by the same process. “Some things,” he asserted, “can never be forgiven.”

Major is right on at least one count: Justice is an end in itself. People who ask, “What is the point of pursuing justice without healing?” are missing something crucial: The human soul cries out for justice, not as a means but as an end. We hope for healing beyond that, but justice is a fundamental thing we crave; otherwise our cry would be “We need healing!” Instead, it is always “We demand justice!”

Major’s claim that some things can never be forgiven is more complex. It is understandable coming from someone whose family experienced the Holocaust. But the horrors the FARC and others perpetrated in Colombia were also profound, if smaller in scale.

When someone asked Gómez to address Major’s claim that some things can never be forgiven, he responded, “What other option do you have? In my country, people were killing each other all the time, in many different groups, for decades. The violence was endless. The truth and reconciliation process helped us stop and recover. What is the point of holding on to hate?”

It’s a valid question, and it begs a broader one: How do we live with the past? How do we live on in light of profound, and seemingly unforgivable, sins?

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On one level, the only satisfactory answer is that God will mete out justice and mercy in the right way, at the end of it all. However, until that time comes, we do have to continue living in this life. And in many cases, we cannot erase the perpetrators of these crimes from the Earth or even from our lives, so we must find some way to continue, often with the help of religion. Both Christianity and Judaism offer paths to forgiveness; Christianity emphasizes making things right with God, and Judaism emphasizes making things right with the wronged party. But it’s often hard to know what it actually means to fix a relationship shattered by wrong action.

An understanding of trauma and grief can help us here. The simplest definition of trauma is an event that exceeds the resilience of its object. Bone trauma, for example, occurs when a force exceeds the resilience of bone and breaks it. Psychological trauma exceeds the resilience of an individual’s mind in some way. The trauma incurred in Colombia and Nazi Germany was not (or not only) to an individual mind, but also to a relationship, or rather a network of relationships in the form of a family, community, people, group or nation.

Traumatic events by definition not only cause great pain, but shatter preexisting beliefs about the world. This can affect just one area of life — hospitals and medical care, for example — or it can affect virtually everything. This shattering is reflected neurologically in the ineffective storage of traumatic memories, which then intrude into daily life as fragments, known as flashbacks. As Judith Herman describes in her seminal text “Trauma and Recovery,” an essential part of healing both the neurological and experiential damage of trauma is constructing a new narrative, one that captures the deep truth of the experience and places it in a coherent story about the world and the individual’s life within it.

The key here is that it is a new narrative, not a continuation of the prior one. As David Brooks wrote in a recent column on suffering, “Post-traumatic growth is more like rewriting a novel than like solving a problem or healing a wound. It’s a process of reconsidering and reorganizing — crafting a different story.”

I work in a field sometimes placed in the category of peacemaking, and I believe people often misunderstand the term “peacemaker.” People focus on the first half of the word, peace, rather than on the second half, maker. The common understanding of a peacemaker is someone who negotiates peace between two warring parties, presumably by helping them agree to compromises. But there’s much more to it than that.

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Peace must be made, woven anew out of the frayed threads of conflict. It requires us not just to agree to cease and desist fighting — that’s a truce. To make peace, we must transcend our prior way of being into something higher. Think of the last time you successfully repaired a relationship: Did you do so with logical compromise, or by bringing forth your real heart?

Successful trauma healing narratives do not simply explain the unfolding of events; indeed, unhealed trauma survivors can often articulate what happened to them without emotion. Successful narratives capture the truth of the individual’s experience and then typically draw some kind of meaning from it. Meaning is the province of the soul. Real healing, real peace, requires not only our minds at the table, but also our souls.

Next time you experience a deep rupture of a relationship, whether you are the cause of the breach or the recipient, think about what it could mean not to resurrect the prior relationship, but to create a new one on the basis of a new story.

April Lawson is director of debates for the nonprofit Braver Angels.

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