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Monday, April 17, 2006

The gospel of forgiveness.

The Boston Globe has been telling a story that goes right to the heart of Jesus' good news. When five-year-old Kai Leigh Harriott spoke in a sentencing hearing last week to the man who shot and paralyzed her in 2004, she said: "What you done to me was wrong. But I still forgive him." The Globe reported:

[I]n emotionally wrenching victim-impact statements that left many spectators in tears, Kai and four members of her family told a Suffolk Superior Court judge that the shooting had changed their lives forever, but had also shown them the value of forgiveness.

"We're not victims here; we're victors," said Kai's mother, Tonya David, addressing the court.

Moments later, [Anthony] Warren, 29, a convicted felon who pleaded guilty yesterday to avoid a trial, approached Kai and her family and, in barely audible tones, apologized.

[The girl's mother] recalled his words later. "I'm sorry for what I've done to you and your family," she said Warren told her. "I was known in the street for all the wrong reasons, and now I want to be known for the right reasons."

David shook his handcuffed right hand and embraced him.

Can you imagine? The little girl and her mother forgave the man who shot her even before he had acknowledged his wrongdoing. Saturday's paper followed up with a story about people's amazement and incredulousness about the very idea of forgiveness. One woman saw the little girl's statement on TV. "I was sobbing," she said, "not just because of what happened to her, but because a mother, in the year 2006, was able to raise that type of child." Others were less impressed:

"The mother of the little girl might have forgiven him, and the little girl might have forgiven him, but I don't forgive him," said Johnny Calderon, a mechanic at the shop, arguing in Spanish and English with co-workers who praised the forgiveness. "I have no forgiveness for anyone who shoots a child. I say, an eye for an eye. He took her life; now she can't walk forever. Someone should take his life."

The disbelief many people expressed makes sense: Vengeance has an innate appeal; it's as human as love. Violence and misery and hatred and cruelty and selfishness devastate lives every minute of every day. It's a cruel world; why not give up all fantasies of peace and reconciliation? An idiot showing off shot a little girl. That's how the world is. I can't recall reading a news story that so directly conveys the personal challenge of the Christian moral life, nor a story that so clearly names the point of adopting such a difficult life. The mother said:

"We live in a world today that seems to want people to be bitter, angry," David said. "But I don't want bitterness and anger in my life, and I don't want that for Kai Leigh. We are Christians. I tried very hard from the depths of my soul to hate Anthony, but it wouldn't come out."

Television footage being replayed nationwide yesterday showed David hugging Warren, 29, after he apologized for shooting her daughter and just before he was sentenced to 13 to 15 years in state prison. She only intended to shake his hand, she said, but he surprised her when he pulled her in for an embrace. Inspired by her daughter's strength, David said she couldn't let the man go.

"I whispered in his ear: 'Here is your chance for a new beginning. Don't let God down,'" said David, a devoted member of Jubilee Christian Church in Mattapan.

Was Anthony Warren's heart truly broken when the people he hurt forgave him? I have no idea whether he's a changed man. I hope he is. But what's so striking to me is that this family had been strengthened — through their Christian community — to find a way past vengeance, not in some abstract or sentimental way but in the midst of a child's paralysis and in a direct confrontation with the man who shot her. Few of us could say what those family members said; even fewer of us could mean it. But that's where this story helped shape my observance of the resurrection this year.

The story says that as he was dying Jesus forgave the men who crucified him. I find this incomprehensible. I can just barely begin to comprehend that a little girl, through grace and the example of her mother and her church, might learn to forgive her assailant. (The mother obviously understands the situation in ways the girl cannot.) But there it is, the astonishing fact, right there in the news: These women and this little girl had the strength of character to forgive rather than seek vengeance. They even reached out to the man in an act of fellowship. Could I? Not yet. But when I made the decision eight years ago to renew my baptismal vows in an Easter vigil at King's Chapel, I did it because I wanted to learn the discipline of living the resurrection. Jesus did not teach an easy path: His is a gospel of forgiveness and reconciliation, a witness to the grace that can take a vengeful world and a bitter heart and make it new.

At the Easter vigil early yesterday morning at the Episcopal monastery, Br Curtis Almquist preached a marvelous, heart-breaking sermon based on the parallel resurrections of Lazarus and Jesus in the Fourth Gospel. He focused on the attention both stories give to the linen wrappings. When Jesus comes to the tomb of his friend Lazarus, he says:

"Lazarus, come out!" The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, "Unbind him, and let him go." (John 11:43-44 NRSV)

Br Curtis observed that the story of Jesus' resurrection lingers on the cloths, too:

[The other disciple] bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus' head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. (John 20:5-7 NRSV)

Why all this attention to the wrappings? Br Curtis said he was struck by a difference in the two stories: In the story of Lazarus Jesus says, "Unbind him," and the astonished witnesses unwrap the resurrected man. But who unbinds Jesus after he is resurrected? He couldn't unbind himself. Who unbinds him?

We unbind Jesus, Br Curtis said — we unbind the dead, cooperating with God's resurrection power and living in the resurrection (which is what baptism symbolizes), when we feed the hungry and clothe the naked and visit the captive, when we practice the disciplines of compassion and forgiveness. Kai Leigh's family is unbound. That's what astonished people in Boston last week. Their lives haven't become easier, they haven't become free of trouble or grief, but they are living in the resurrection. And they reached out to the criminal and unbound him, too. Thanks be to God!

("'I still forgive him': Paralyzed at 3 by a stray gunshot, Hub girl faces the man who fired it," Jonathan Saltzman, Boston Globe 4.14.06, reg req'd; "A child's message of grace amazes her city," Megan Tench, Boston Globe 4.15.06, reg req'd)

[Update 4.30.08: Anthony Warren publicly apologized and thanked Kai Leigh Harriott for her forgiveness in a videotaped statement from the prison: "To be blessed with the opportunity to be forgiven by a beautiful person like Kai, it made me want to change," Warren said. "It made me want to be less colder and harder. It made me really want to take a look at myself and take a look at my duties and responsibilities as black man in my community."]

Copyright © 2006 by Philocrites | Posted 17 April 2006 at 3:31 PM

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Next: Principles and Purposes redux.





April 18, 2006 01:11 AM | Permalink for this comment

I believe i heard that Matthew Sheppard's mother argued against capital punishment for the men who killed Matthew.


April 18, 2006 07:13 AM | Permalink for this comment

The Gospel of Forgiveness by Philocrites is powerful. I have been a Cristian for over 40 years now but I struggle with this sin called "unforgiveness". I am kind, I give to the poor and widows and visit the sick in hospital and orphans but when it comes to someone hurting me or my loved ones with words and deeds I harbour unforgiveness in my heart and show it to the people concerned that I do not want to have anything to do with them let alone allow them into my home. Your article and the Easter sermon about the grave linen cloth at Lazarus' and Jesus' tombs has taught me the lesson to re-examine my faith and beleif in the ressurection power and to free myself from the grave cloth of unforgiveness that I have allowed to bind myself for many years. With God's help I will be free indeed and I thank you for this column. God bless you and the work.


May 3, 2006 11:03 PM | Permalink for this comment

Curtis Almquist's Easter Vigil sermon is now online; I've added a link to the entry above, too.

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