A version of the following post originally appeared on the Prison Fellowship blog (a/k/a, my day job). Check it out sometime!
“How do people forgive a crime like murder?” The headline from a BBC News Magazine story asks a question that most of us hope we never have to answer, but it is a question that we would all be wise to ponder.
The BBC article interviews Bill Pelke. In 1985, Pelke’s grandmother was brutally killed by four teenaged girls in her home in northwest Indiana. Fifteen-year-old Paula Cooper, viewed by prosecutors as the leader of the group, was convicted of murder for the stabbing death of the 78-year-old Bible teacher, and sentenced to death. A subsequent appeal based on Cooper’s age reduced the sentence to life in prison.
At the time of the conviction, Pelke said he felt the conviction was appropriate. But after reflecting on the values he had learned from his grandmother, and seeing the impact the sentencing had on Cooper’s grandfather, Pelke began to reconsider.
“My grandmother would not have wanted this old man to witness his teenage grand-daughter die,” he says. “Everyone in north-west Indiana wanted Paula Cooper to die – Nana would have been appalled by the anger.”
Pelke decided that forgiving Cooper was what both God and his grandmother would have wanted him to do. For eight years, he attempted to meet with Cooper, only to be denied the opportunity by prison officials. Finally, on Thanksgiving day in 1994, Pelke was allowed to come face-to-face with his grandmother’s killer.
“I walked in and gave her a hug,” Pelke recounts. He then offered her his forgiveness.
Pelke’s act of mercy was not without its detractors. His relationship with his father, who found his mother’s body after her murder, was damaged for years following the decision to forgive Cooper.
“I knew I was doing the right thing,” says Pelke, “and later my father forgave me for forgiving Paula Cooper. He came a long way.”
Such a desire to offer forgiveness to someone who has done something as unconscionable as murder is difficult for many to understand. Was Cooper not guilty of the crime? Had she done anything to warrant Pelke’s forgiveness? To hold out the promise of compassion in the face of such evil seems unjust – even unnatural.
And that’s because it is unnatural.
The forgiveness offered by Bill Pelke to Paula Cooper is not something common to human nature. The automatic response is to seek retribution or vengeance for being wronged, not mercy. To empathize with someone who has inflicted suffering on you or those you love is not natural, it is supernatural – the gift of the Holy Spirit.
And while forgiveness is not common to mankind, it is the very nature of a God who seeks that none shall perish, but that all should come to eternal life.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells the story of a servant who owes a great amount to his king. He and his family are to be sold into indentured servitude until the full amount can be repaid. The servant pleads with the king for his forgiveness, and mercy is extended. However, that same servant failed to extend mercy to a debtor who owed him a small fraction of what he owed to his own master. When the king hears of the merciless behavior of his servant, he orders him jailed until his debt is paid in full. “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you,” Jesus says, “if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
The power to forgive sins – even sins as heinous as the murder of a loved family member – can only come from God working in us, transforming us into His likeness. And we are never more like Jesus than when we are forgiving others, especially when those whom we forgive are incapable of paying back the debt they owe.
Bill Pelke’s decision to forgive Paula Cooper is evidence of such a transformation. The author and perfecter of our faith (not to mention forgiveness) calls us to follow Him, both in where He calls us to go and in example. As we follow, He pours into us His Holy Spirit, which overflows with a promise of forgiveness to a thirsty world.
May we receive with thanksgiving God’s love and mercy, but may we also not tire of passing that mercy on to others, that those lives also may proclaim the power of the forgiveness available through Jesus Christ.