Much has been made lately of the message of hope and forgiveness given to former police officer Amber Guyger by Brandt Jean, brother of the man she killed. Displays of forgiveness such as the one described here are no common, particularly in the litigation culture in which we live, where words are closely guarded and lawyers serve as gatekeepers of what should and should not be said. Most of the time, rather than forgiveness, we run in the direction of anger, revenge, litigation, and punishment. Rarely do we see the wronged and hurting move in the direction of love, forgiveness, and mercy.
And I’m not going to say I hope you rot and die, just like my brother did, but I personally want the best for you. And I wasn’t going to say this in front of my family or anyone, but I don’t even want you to go to jail. I want the best for you because I know that’s exactly what Botham would want you to do.”
One wonders what his family thought of this statement and the subsequent embrace that he offered to Amber in the front of the courtroom. Based on his comment, it seems likely the others in his family may have not been on the same page; in which case makes his words all the more powerful.
Reading this story and watching the video of the extended and heartfelt embrace, I couldn’t help but see healing already in process. I imagined what it might be like to be in Brandt’s shoes—would I be able to say the same kinds of things that came from his heart? What if I were in Amber’s shoes? What would words like that mean to me?
Back in the 1980’s controversial Christian musician Steve Taylor released a song that, unlike much of his other music, did NOT ruffle the feather of the religious establishment. Its message was powerful:
I saw a man, he was holding the hand
That had fired a gun at his heart
Oh, will we live to forgive?
I saw the eyes and the look of surprise
As he left an indelible mark
Oh, will we live to forgive?
—First verse of “To Forgive” by Steve Taylor
The opening words of Taylor’s song refer back to 1981 when Pope John Paul II was shot, and nearly killed, by Mehmet Ali Aqca (see more of this story here). Aqca was sentenced to life in prison by an Italian court and then, in 1983, after having recovered from his life-threatening wounds, the Pope visited Aqca in prison. The photo of the two of them talking in the bare prison cell became an iconic reflection of Pope John Paul II life and work. In 2000, having remained in communication with Aqca’s family, the Pope requested, and was granted, a full pardon for the man who tried to murder him.
Follow his lead
Let the madness recede
When we shatter the cycle of pain
Oh, we will live to forgive
—Second verse of “To Forgive” by Steve Taylor
A similar story is told of Ronald Reagan, following his attempted assassination by John Hinkley. In a Seattle Times article from 2004, Ronald Reagan is said to have been inspired by the Pope’s actions and truly desired to do the same for Hinkley, but knowing that HInkley had been found to be insane by the courts, said he “only wanted to do what was in Mr. Hinckley's best interests.” In the end, Hinckley’s caretakers decided it would not be wise for the President to visit. This was not the only time that Reagan expressed compassion for Hinkley. The President, according to Hinkley’s own lawyer, was ”a man of grace, great grace."
I saw a Man
With a hole in His hand
Who could offer the miracle cure
Oh, He said live, I forgive
—Verse three of “To Forgive” by Steve Taylor
Thirteen years ago on October 2, 2006 Charles Roberts IV walked into the one-room schoolhouse in Old Order Amish community of Nickel Mines, took the female students, aged 6-13 hostage and shot 8 of them, killing 5, before killing himself. Read more here. In the midst of grief, questions, and tragic loss, the Amish community did something uncommon. They didn’t point fingers, cast blame, hold press conferences with their attorneys, or demand justice. What they did do was reach out with compassion toward the killer’s family, visiting the Robert’s family to comfort them in their sorrow and pain.
The Amish seek to closely follow the teachings of Jesus. Anyone who has spent much time in the Scriptures, and particularly with Jesus, will see clearly that forgiveness is a significant theme in his teachings, along with placing the needs of others on par with, if not above, ones own. Vengeance, revenge, and pay-backs are to be left to God. But as Jonah found out, even God is more than willing to offer mercy and forgiveness—a fact that God’s people today, same as Jonah, find that hard to accept and leave alone. It can seem much better—even right—to take things into our own hands.
The killers mother explained in the years following this tragedy that “love just emanated from them.” She recalled one of the Amish fathers saying to her that “none of us would have ever chosen this. But the relationships that we have built through it, you can't put a price on that." The Amish community, it seems, understand the power of the “miracle cure” of forgiveness. Some will surely question the wisdom, perhaps even the fairness and honor, of offering such forgiveness. But then we see Jesus, teaching his followers to pray, “forgive us our sins, as we have forgiven those who sin against us” (Mt 6:12).
Unfortunately, the Church does not always reflect Christ’s love and forgiveness in it attitudes and actions towards others. Christian leaders to not always model the the humility, and courageous love that causes the victimized to show uncommon grace to the guilty. Followers of Christ, in their daily interactions at school, work, and social media, too often cling to their rights, resort to name-calling, labeling, and general rudeness in order to win the battle of words with those who oppose their own thoughts and ideas. There is a reason stories like Brandt Jean, Pope John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and Amish community of Nickel Mines make headlines. They are uncommon.
"The pillars of true peace are justice and that form of love which is forgiveness.”
—Pope John Paul II
“Forgiveness is above all a personal choice,” said Pope John Paul on January 1, 2002 celebration of the World Day of Peace, “a decision of the heart to go against the natural instinct to pay back evil with evil.” This can only be done by the power of holy love; the love that God pours into the hearts of those who, in faith, have put their trust in him. Again, the perfect example if Jesus Christ on the cross, praying, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34).
Forgiveness is all about a potential long-term good even when the short-term prognosis seems anything but good, fair, or just. Violence and revenge are all about indulging short-term impulses at the expense of never finding the miracle cure, never breaking the cycle of pain, and never having the opportunity to leave an indelible mark of hope, grace and peace.
The Pope continues, saying that “Forgiveness may seem like weakness, but it demands great spiritual strength and moral courage, both in granting it and in accepting it.” Some will say that forgiveness weakens us, causes us to lose our place of power, or makes us less than what we ought to be. Forgiveness, he says, “leads us to a fuller and richer humanity, more radiant with the splendour of the Creator.”
It was said of John Paul II, that he was “unafraid of the vulnerability created by living in forgiveness, of sitting in total love with the enemy. It was a stunning paradox, and one he didn’t just preach about from pulpits far removed from ‘real life,’ but one he lived right to the end.” Or, in the words of Scripture,
Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 13 bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful.
—Colossians 3:12-15 (ESV)
If I must err, let it be in the direction of love.
***If you’ve been challenged, inspired or blessed (or anything else) by this article, please take a moment to share in the comments below. I’d love to hear what you have to say, particularly any experiences you have had with either giving or receiving “uncommon forgiveness.” Thanks!
Links: and Sources
Steve Taylor / Album: On The Fritz / 1985