Politics & Policy

Never Having to Say You’re Sorry

The challenges of forgiveness in an age of relativism

Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. — Matthew 6:12

There are moments in history when the goodness of humanity brilliantly illuminates the darkness. June 1, 2010, was just such a moment. The place, appropriately, was one of the darkest cities in America — Detroit, ravaged by the collapse of the automobile industry.

At Comerica Park, the Detroit Tigers’ Armando Galarraga was pitching. The crowd fell silent as Galarraga — a young man who had been slated to be sent to the minor leagues — retired the first 26 batters. He was on the verge of making baseball history. Only 20 perfect games have ever been pitched.

Galarraga was one out away from throwing the 21st. With two outs in the ninth, the Cleveland Indians batter hit an easy grounder to the Tiger first baseman. Galarraga, the pitcher, raced to cover first. It’s a routine play; Galarraga and the ball reached first base at least a step ahead of the runner. Galarraga was about to become a baseball immortal.

Except he didn’t. “Safe!” shouted umpire Jim Joyce. Galarraga’s response was a simple smile — a smile that, as Joe Posnanski of Sports Illustrated said, seemed to ask, “Are you sure? I really hope you are sure.”

The blown call outraged fans across the country. For Joyce’s part, as soon as he saw the replay, he knew that he had gotten it wrong. He told reporters, “I just cost that kid a perfect game.”

By baseball standards, such an admission was extraordinary: Umpires are paid to make judgment calls and stand by them. Players and managers can argue with them, but only within limits, and with no expectation of having the call reversed.

So when Joyce apologized to Galarraga, we were already in unfamiliar territory. When Galarraga, in turn, forgave Joyce, adding that the umpire probably felt worse than he did and that “nobody’s perfect,” we were witnessing something extraordinary.

The victim of what Posnanski calls one of the “most absurd injustices in the history of baseball” went out of his way to comfort the umpire who made the mistake. And the umpire was humble enough to ask for forgiveness. It was a spontaneous, unforgettable moment.

The ability to forgive is one of the most powerful forces for good in any society. It can reconcile the most grievous altercations, which are an ever-present reality in a fallen world. Forgiveness brings about shalom — the biblical term for concord and harmony — between people who have the greatest differences imaginable and can transform institutions and even warring nations.

America is rightly known for its forgiving nature. The land of second chances, we like to say. What other nation in history has simultaneously fought major world wars against two mighty military powers — Japan and Germany — eventually conquered its attackers, and then turned right around to rebuild the very countries it fought?

And yet in recent years, Americans have become a deeply cynical and unforgiving people. A 1988 Gallup poll revealed that 50 percent of Americans do not believe that they could forgive others; another revealed that “forgiveness is something virtually all Americans aspire to” (94 percent) but “is not something we frequently offer.” Only 48 percent acknowledged attempting to forgive others. And yet, as Melissa Healy, in the Los Angeles Times article “The Science of Forgiveness” noted a few years ago, a refusal to forgive those who have harmed us can increase the risk of heart attacks and depression.

How and why did we reach this tragic place?

Some saw this sad state of affairs coming. In 1973, psychiatrist Karl Menninger wrote a popular book titled Whatever Happened to Sin? Good question. What happened is that sin has become the most politically incorrect subject we can possibly raise in polite company, because it involves being judgmental.

But a society that doesn’t take sin seriously has difficulty taking forgiveness seriously: After all, if nobody does anything wrong, there’s nothing to forgive.

The consequences of this are compounded by the long-running series of public transgressions, from the granddaddy of all scandals — Watergate — to the savings-and-loan scandals, Enron, Wall Street, and a raft of “pro-family” lawmakers like Gov. Mark Sanford being caught in adulterous affairs.

This parade of offenses, besides giving hypocrisy — the tribute vice pays to virtue — a bad name, has inured people, turning us into a nation of cynics. Americans have become accustomed to the stage-managed, scripted public apology. Americans have come to recognize that those doing the apologizing seem to be a lot sorrier for having been caught than for engaging in sinful behavior.

Consider Tiger Woods, who was forced to reveal that he had been unfaithful to his wife. I watched as Woods stood in front of the cameras and gave a tortured attempt at an apology. And then, in a monotone, with all the emotion of a marionette on a string, he asked for forgiveness. But his effort fell flat, because it was clear that he was reading from a script. No questions were allowed.

For me, and millions of others, I suspect, it was shattering to watch. This young man was tutored by his dad, close to his own family — so it seemed — and a great role model. Why couldn’t he face up to his failure and ask God and his family and his fans to forgive him? There was not a hint of authenticity. This may be why Woods continued to lose endorsements and why few people showed much sympathy toward him.

The difference between Tiger Woods and umpire Jim Joyce is sincerity. Joyce did not have to apologize, and yet he did — with deep regret for a mistake any umpire could have made. And because his apology was sincerely offered, Armando Galarraga accepted it, willingly forgiving someone who had done him harm.

But with such widespread public cynicism, many Americans no longer recognize genuine repentance when they see it, never mind offer sincere forgiveness. I’ve experienced this. Five years after Watergate I was invited to appear on The Phil Donahue show. By then I had been working in the prisons for about four years. My conversion to Christianity had been well publicized, and I had made public statements of genuine repentance.

But that day I ran into a buzz-saw of hatred. When Donahue made a particularly condemning statement, the audience would erupt in catcalls. Donahue really baited me. When I tried to answer his questions, he cut me off. One working-class woman in the audience got up and said, “I don’t understand all you big shots. You get into big trouble and you steal us poor people blind. And then you claim to have found religion, and now you’ve got God on your side. Why don’t you guys just find God and go home and be quiet?”

The audience cheered wildly. I was upset because while I knew my conversion was sincere, I also knew there was no way I was going to convince this woman. And I understand why in the succeeding years the cynicism has only deepened.

But I wish that woman, and so many others, could come with me into America’s prisons where she would witness what is missing in our culture. I’ve seen extraordinary examples of repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation behind prison walls — dark, dank places that are Satan’s playground.

For instance, many years ago, a young woman named Dee Dee Washington sat in a car waiting for her boyfriend, a young man who, unbeknownst to Dee Dee, was purchasing drugs. The boyfriend got into an altercation with the drug dealer, whose name was Ron Flowers. Racing from the scene, Ron pulled out a gun and shot Dee Dee as she waited in the car. She died of her wounds, and Flowers was convicted of her murder.

For 14 years, Ron denied killing Dee Dee. But then he became involved in Prison Fellowship’s ministry. In our Inner-Change Freedom Initiative (IFI), offenders are confronted with the harm they have done to their victims and the families of victims.

Ron finally admitted to the murder. He then wrote to Dee Dee’s mother, Anna Washington, expressing deep remorse for his crime. Every year of Ron’s sentence, Mrs. Washington had written to the parole board urging them to deny him parole. However, the week Ron confessed, Mrs. Washington felt an overwhelming conviction that she should meet with the man who killed her daughter.

When the visit was arranged, a repentant Ron told Mrs. Washington how he had come to kill her precious daughter, and he asked to be forgiven. Mrs. Washington took his hands in hers. “I forgive you,” she said.

I attended Ron’s graduation service in the prison. As he was walking toward me to receive his certificate I saw out of the corner of my eye a tall, handsome, African American woman stand up in the crowd and come toward us. She threw her arms around Ron and announced, “I am the mother of the young girl that Ron murdered.” She proceeded to tell the stunned crowd the story, and ended by declaring, “This young man is my adopted son.”

After his release, Mrs. Washington helped Ron Flowers adjust to life back in the community, invited him over for dinner, and even attended his wedding. This beautiful ending to a tragic story could only happen through God’s grace. Only he can bring about such reconciliation and healing.

The ability to recognize serious wrongs as such, and then to be able to turn the other cheek and forgive — that takes God’s transforming power. I’m not talking about what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called cheap grace, in which one immediately and unthinkingly dispenses with a serious transgression. I’m talking about the kind of offenses people agonize over. I have witnessed forgiveness leading even warring nations to work toward real peace and reconciliation.

In Northern Ireland, “the Troubles” began in August of 1969 when British troops marched onto the streets of Belfast and Londonderry. Then came Bloody Sunday: Jan. 30, 1972. British soldiers, attempting to break up a civil-rights rally in Londonderry, shot and killed 14 demonstrators, some of them teenagers. The killings set off waves of retaliatory violence. Those who survived each new blast lived in fear of the next attack by Irish Republican Army terrorists. In just three years over a thousand Protestants and Catholics were killed.

When I first visited Belfast in 1977, nearly every block contained bomb-blackened, boarded up buildings. Police stations of the Royal Ulster Constabulary were fortresses rolled in barbed wire, their thick, high walls tented with steel mesh to guard against the terrorists’ habit of lobbing homemade bombs over the walls. One exploded as I was standing less than a block away. Terror was an ever-present reality.

On a subsequent visit I went to the notorious Maze Prison and befriended inmates on both sides who refused to talk with one another. I listened to the stories, not only of the Catholic and Protestant inmates, but also of their victims and their families.

There was Liam McCloskey who, for much of his violent young life, had been a member of the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA), a Marxist offshoot of the IRA. Convicted of armed hijacking and robbery, Liam was serving a ten-year sentence at Maze. He took part in a hunger strike in 1981, going without food for 55 days. Lying in a hospital bed, Liam began to pray. There has to be a God, he thought. “Life makes no sense without one. Can I go before God with nothing but a self-centered life of striving after sex, drink, and good times? And what about my involvement in Republicanism?”

On Day 55, Liam’s mother arrived and tearfully told him that when he entered a coma, she would have him fed intravenously. She pleaded with him to end the strike immediately so that his starvation-induced blindness would not become permanent. He reluctantly agreed. As he recovered, Liam continued to think about God and the truths he had discovered on his hunger strike. He realized he could not walk the way of Republicanism and the way of Jesus at the same time; he had to choose.

“I took the way of Jesus,” Liam told me. “I began to realize that God loved me and I loved God.” He resigned from the INLA and determined to become a force for reconciliation.

His first effort was to join Protestant prisoners in the prison dining room, breaking the self-imposed segregation between Catholics and Protestants. There, Liam met Jimmy Gibson, a Protestant paramilitary member serving time for attempted murder. Jimmy couldn’t wait to go after Catholic paramilitaries when he got out of prison. Partly because of his inner turmoil, and partly through Liam’s influence, Jimmy instead gave his life to Jesus and joined a Bible study with those who had once been his sworn enemies.

Like Liam, Jimmy began learning how to forgive and seek reconciliation rather than plot revenge. Each participant would confess his sins against the other side and experience incredible healing.

One evening, as the Bible study met for prayer, they came upon the name of a young girl at the top of the list: Karen McKeown, a Protestant who was deeply committed to serving Christ. While working at her church one evening, Karen had been shot by an INLA terrorist. Liam, as a former member of the INLA, felt a special responsibility for Karen’s suffering and had written to her mother.

A few days later, when Karen finally died after weeks of suffering, Liam wrote again to Karen’s mother, Pearl McKeown.

“Pearl, we make strange friends in this troubled land,” Liam wrote. “It is to the glory of God and He who makes it possible. Remember John 8:51, ‘And I tell you most solemnly. Whoever keeps My Word will never see death.’ Karen has left us, and even though it was no choice of mine, yet you can make a conscious decision in your own mind to see it as a gift of God. Your beautiful daughter to our beautiful Father who knows best. Surely the peace of Christ will be yours.”

I returned to Belfast some years later in 1983 to attend Prison Fellowship’s first international conference. The highlight came one evening during a meeting open to the public. Some 800 townspeople — both Protestant and Catholic — streamed into Queen’s University’s elegant Whitlow Hall, the space donated for the occasion. Clearly, our ministry in Northern Ireland’s prisons had captured the interest of many of Ulster’s citizens.

Liam McCloskey and Jimmy Gibson had been furloughed from prison to be with us for the week. Their presence, more than anything else, evidenced the reconciling power of the gospel. That evening, each told how he had come to know Christ. Liam concluded by putting his thin arm around Jimmy’s muscular shoulders.

“My hope is to believe that God is changing the hearts of men like myself and Jimmy,” Liam said. “That’s the only hope I have for peace in Northern Ireland. Before, if I had seen Jimmy on the street, I would have shot him. Now he’s my brother in Christ. I would die for him.”

As members of the audience murmured in disbelief, James McIlroy, director of Prison Fellowship for Northern Ireland, took the microphone. “There’s a woman I’d like you to meet,” he said, motioning to someone in the back row.

A lithe, energetic woman, Pearl McKeown, began to thread her way toward the front. As she did, James briefly told the story of Pearl and Karen McKeown; of Karen’s death at the hands of an INLA gunman; of Pearl’s friendship through the mail with Liam, the former INLA terrorist; and how Pearl and Liam had grown to love one another as mother and son, though they had never met.

Pearl climbed the stage steps and walked slowly toward Liam, arms outstretched. They hugged. Then Pearl held Liam’s hand as she tearfully explained how Karen’s death had been to God’s glory.

“Liam told me his prayer is now that of St. Francis,” she said. “‘Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.’ And Liam has been God’s instrument of peace to me,” she concluded in a choked voice. “For he is the one who has showed me how to love God again.”

By now tears glistened in many eyes as the audience strained to capture the incredible tableau: the two former paramilitary members, one Catholic, one Protestant, once sworn enemies, now standing together as brothers in Christ; the bereaved Protestant mother and the former Catholic terrorist, holding hands. I saw eight hundred people in tears, standing and cheering at first, but then simply watching with deep emotion as this healing took place. It was a moment of hope, a joyful wedge thrust into forty years of religious hate and bitterness. I’d never seen anything like it.

Afterward, a small army of Christian volunteers, both Catholic and Protestant, began organizing into groups. They worked in all of the prisons in Northern Ireland and marched for peace. On one visit I had to be searched by the British troops before I could enter the Catholic part of Londonderry. But there I found a hall full of Catholics and Protestants singing praise songs together — something that a few years ago would have been unthinkable.

The movement that began in the prisons began to spread to churches. Groups of Protestants and Catholics began to meet, march together, and conduct rallies for peace.

Ultimately, the private acts of forgiveness, which blossomed into a full-blown movement, led to public consequences. On April 10, 1998 — Good Friday — Britain and Northern Ireland reached a peace and power-sharing agreement. British troops began to withdraw and peace broke out in Northern Ireland — shaky at first, but peace nonetheless.

I recalled that electrifying moment in a Belfast prison in June of 2010, when newly elected British prime minister David Cameron publically apologized to the people of Northern Ireland for the 1972 Bloody Sunday killings, calling them “both unjustified and unjustifiable.”

“What happened should never, ever have happened,” Cameron said. “The families of those who died should not have had to live with the pain and hurt of that day and a lifetime of loss. Some members of our armed forces acted wrongly. The government is ultimately responsible for the conduct of the armed forces. And for that, on behalf of the government — and indeed our country — I am deeply sorry.”

I watched Cameron’s apology on television. Tears came to my eyes as I watched Belfast factory workers stopping to listen, and then weeping or jumping for joy. I watched as Londoners stood in the rain, listening with tears on their cheeks. Clearly, they all knew genuine repentance when they saw it.

No one witnessing that scene could deny that the greatest power on earth is love. It is demonstrated most dramatically when we learn how to love our enemies — when we learn to repent, accept forgiveness, and learn how to forgive others.

— Chuck Colson is the founder of Prison Fellowship. This essay is an excerpt from Acculturated.

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