There is a chapter in Roberta Bondi’s book To Pray and to Love that has always grabbed my attention (Roberta was my Christian History and Theology professor in seminary). The chapter is entitled “Our Life and Death Is with Our Neighbor.” She makes the very bold comment that wanting another’s well-being is not necessarily wanting what he or she wants; it is wanting to be able to live in the love God created us for.
Her book reminded me of something that happened in Atlanta while I was in seminary. A brutal murder took place by a MARTA train station; four teenagers tried to steal a man’s car as he waited for his wife to get off the train from work. He resisted and the boys shot and killed him. It was a black-on-black crime, and it outraged the city. Three of the boys admitted their part in the crime, and testified against the fourth, who was the boy that actually shot the man. Despite the testimony of the three boys and several other witnesses, the boy who pulled the trigger never admitted his guilt. At the sentencing, the judge gave the widowed woman an opportunity to address all the boys. She had nothing to say to the gunman. She said this to the other three:
"I’d like to say it takes a lot of courage to admit your guilt… [my husband] cannot be brought back to life,” she told them in calm, reassuring tones. But the killing, she said, “doesn’t have to be a stumbling block for the rest of your lives. I challenge you to rise above this, to realize that God loves you and you are somebody. You can be better. I bear no ill will toward you. Your life can make a difference. We’re losing our young, black men every day… For your sake, for your mother’s sake, make a difference. That’s what I challenge you to do.” – Atlanta Constitution, July 18, 1990.
The three boys received a light sentence. The gunman drew a lengthy sentence. The widow wanted these three boys to rise above the murder, become good men, and join the community of faith.
It doesn’t mean that Christians are suckers – and “repeat offenders” of any sin or crime need to be dealt with accordingly for the sake of community. But in order for us to love, we have to be willing to forgive. So many of us carry around hurts that are a result of our being unable to forgive: injuries that parents or adults inflicted upon us, injuries from former marriages, injuries from children, wounds from strangers, wounds from loved ones.
How do we do it? We pray for their well-being – not for what they want, but for what they need. That prayer not only benefits those whom we need to forgive – it needs to be our prayer, too. In the words of Jesus, son of Joseph: “Father, forgive them… they don’t know what they’re doing.”