Two forgiveness stories that are worth your time

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Forgiveness has been making a lot of headlines lately, at least it seems to me.

Pope Francis asked for forgiveness for the evil committed by priests who molested children (for more insight, see George Conger’s post Wednesday). A Louisiana congressman who campaigned on a Christian family values platform requested forgiveness for an extramarital affair.

In Texas, a Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnist found “one of the most moving accounts of forgiveness” ever involving a severely wounded victim of the 2009 Fort Hood shooting rampage. In California, the Contra Costa Times reported on the “power of forgiveness” by a burned Oakland teen’s mother.

But I wanted to call special attention to two recent stories on forgiveness.

The first appeared in The Tennessean newspaper and reported on a “lesson in forgiveness” taught by former hostage Terry Waite:

Chained to a basement wall for five years, his only measure of time a mosque’s blaring calls to prayer, Terry Waite didn’t feel particularly close to God.

He’d been kidnapped in 1987, an Anglican envoy and hostage negotiator now himself in need of aid after associates of the Islamic militant group Hezbollah snatched him. His disappearance made daily international news for weeks, then occasionally for years, the irresistible story of a father, peacemaker and man of God whose life was shattered trying to save others.

Every day, as Waite’s muscles deteriorated and his skin grew whiter, he took a piece of bread he’d saved from scant meals, dipped it water and experienced a true communion, mentally traveling to his home country of England, or to Africa, uniting with the worldwide fellowship he’d known. And he said a prayer from his youth that had exceptional meaning now: “Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord …”

He’s not a “happy-clappy” Christian, he told a crowd of local pastors and students at a Lipscomb University question-and-answer session this month. And being starved and beaten in that basement, he felt isolated and alone. But faith isn’t dependent on how one is feeling, and Waite never lost it.

Perhaps he’s not happy-clappy, but Waite’s story of forgiveness and his dry wit — he chuckles recounting how he once mistook a Ugandan carjacker for a parking attendant — is resonating with a generation of students who’d never heard of him before.

Read on, and there’s this compelling anecdote:

That Waite could forgive his captors and return to Beirut is incredible, said Kevin Sanders, a Lipscomb student and soldier who fought in the Middle East. Sanders stood up during that Q-and-A with Waite, his voice shaking ever so slightly. “The people in the Middle East — to go back and look them in the eye and forgive them for what they did to you, I wanted to let you know that inspires me,” he told Waite.

In my view, The Tennessean story — at roughly 800 words — was much too short. I found myself at the end much sooner than I would have liked. Still, the piece presented a poignant portrait of Waite and the concept of forgiveness.

On the other hand, the second story I’d like to highlight did not suffer from a space limitation, running close to 2,000 words. In fact, the in-depth report by the CNN Belief Blog is truly exceptional. Given the byline — Tim Townsend, the former St. Louis Post-Dispatch Godbeat pro — that’s probably no surprise.

“Forgiving the unforgivable in Rwanda” is the title of Townsend’s piece.

Forgive me for feeling compelled to copy and paste such a big chunk of the opening:

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Politics, sin and serious reporting in La. bayou country

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As I’ve shared before, I spent a few years of my early childhood in West Monroe, La., where my dad attended the White’s Ferry Road School of Preaching.

That now-defunct school was operated by the White’s Ferry Road Church of Christ, now known nationally as the home congregation of the Robertson family of “Duck Dynasty” fame. Through my work with The Christian Chronicle, I remain in touch with a number of White’s Ferry Road church leaders and members.

Given my personal connection, national news out of Louisiana bayou country tends to catch my attention. The latest headlines involve Congressman Vance McAllister, who ran on a Christian family values platform but got caught in a compromising video with a woman who is not his wife. (I met McAllister’s predecessor, Rodney Alexander, several years ago when he caught a ride on a private plane that the White’s Ferry Road church’s disaster relief ministry chartered to assess Hurricane Katrina damages.)

The brouhaha over McAllister prompted this Facebook post by my good friend John Dobbs, who preaches for the Forsythe Church of Christ in Monroe, La., across the Ouachita River from West Monroe:

I’m embarrassed for Vance and his family, sorry that he made some choices that have caused a lot of pain. I realize he lives a very public life. But we are all sinners, and I wonder how any of us would feel to have our sin video taped and put up for all the world to see? Vance needs to work that out with God and his family. He is working in a culture of adultery in Washington D.C. (does anyone doubt that?) and I pray that he can restore his family and keep his guard up.

Dobbs’ post generated lively feedback about sin, forgiveness, politics and media coverage, including this response from Keith Roberts, minister and elder of the Calhoun Church of Christ, east of West Monroe:

I’m disappointed. I like Vance and thought he would bring a bit of ‘fresh air’ to the process. Instead — more of the same.

And the aftermath of this incident isn’t about forgiveness (any of us can fall quickly) but about leadership.

A man who’s unwilling to keep the most fundamental promise in his life will have trouble keeping his word in other areas (I’ve always wondered why people didn’t see that in Bill Clinton’s case).

I need to pray for Vance & his family.

Overall, that Facebook discussion was serious and respectful in tone. Differences of opinion were evident. But each side was fairly represented. Believe it or not, I felt the same way about a New York Times story this week on how McAllister’s northeast Louisiana district is reacting to the scandal.

From the top of the NYTimes report:

WEST MONROE, La. — As she handed out garbage bags on Saturday as part of an anti-litter drive, Patsy Edmondson drew a parallel to Louisiana’s history of tawdry politics.

“If we grow up in litter, we accept it,” she said. “If we grow up with this kind of politician, we accept it.” Rolling her eyes, she said both were learned behaviors. “We’re trying to teach our children it costs us money to be dirty.”

Ms. Edmondson’s congressman, Representative Vance McAllister, is the latest Louisiana official facing demands for his resignation, after a leaked video last week showed him passionately kissing a woman who was not his wife.

After winning an election pledging to “defend our Christian way of life,” Mr. McAllister now faces accusations of hypocrisy as thick as spring mosquitoes on the bayou. Gov. Bobby Jindal, a fellow Republican, has called on him to step down, and the state Republican chairman labeled him “an example of why ordinary people are fed up with politics.”

A quick aside: What do you think of “hypocrisy as thick as spring mosquitoes on the bayou?” Clever or cliche?

Keep reading, and the NYTimes provides this background:

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Media obsession dangers: Pope and gay priests edition


Ermagerd, everybody! The Pope has renounced all church teaching on everything! Stop the presses! Start them again! Freak out!

That’s my impression of Twitter, online and broadcast and cable news today. From my morning read:

CBSNews: Pope Francis: “Who am I to judge” gay clergy? http://cbsn.ws/14dnXJD

BreakingNews: Pope Francis says he won’t judge priests for their sexual orientation – @AP http://apne.ws/17Oyvw2

Raushenbush: Pope Francis on Gays: Who am I to judge them? http://huff.to/12xEA1z

DavidCraryAP: #PopeFrancis reaches out to gays, says he won’t judge gay priests http://bit.ly/16tTmDo  by @AP #LGBT #Catholic

Biggest news story of the day. And why, exactly, is this news? Everyone agrees it’s news, but why? It would be news if he was changing church teaching on whether homosexual acts are sin, for instance. It would be news if he were changing church teaching on whether sexually active gay men should be priests, for instance. It would be news if he were changing church teaching on whether strong homosexual tendencies are a barrier to ordination. And, to be honest, no matter what was said it would be news even if the word “homosexual” or “gay” were uttered by Pope Francis, since that’s all that the media really care about these days. What, specifically, is the news?

I was glad I read the Associated Press story first because, setting aside the headline and lede, it included the minor detail that Pope Francis did not depart from traditional church teaching on sin and homosexuality. That was a detail left absent from most every other report I read:

ABOARD THE PAPAL AIRCRAFT (AP) — Pope Francis reached out to gays on Monday, saying he wouldn’t judge priests for their sexual orientation in a remarkably open and wide-ranging news conference as he returned from his first foreign trip.

“If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” Francis asked.

His predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, signed a document in 2005 that said men with deep-rooted homosexual tendencies should not be priests. Francis was much more conciliatory, saying gay clergymen should be forgiven and their sins forgotten.

Could we all pause to agree that this is the best dateline in the history of datelines?

The distinction being suggested here is clear — the Vatican in 2005 said that deep-rooted homosexual tendencies are a barrier to priesthood. Now the Pope says that if you a priest who confesses to sexual sin, you should be forgiven and your sin forgotten. But is this the contradiction or change of policy the media fervently pray it is? I’m not sure. The original document signed by Benedict was about the formation of priests — in no way was it about not forgiving ordained priests who have sinned — sexually or otherwise. Likewise, Francis isn’t referring (at least as far as what’s been published to this point) to the formation of priests but, rather, about forgiving clergy who have sinned sexually.

Anyway, note the last line “gay clergymen should be forgiven and their sins forgotten.” What you’re seeing here is traditional Christian teaching both in terms of a clear understanding of what sin is and that sin is forgiven and forgotten. You can’t forgive, obviously, something which is not a sin. There would be no need to forgive and wipe away something that should be celebrated, right?

I’ve written before about how poorly the media understand forgiveness as a key Christian teaching. Yes, Christianity has for 2,000 years had an impossibly rigorous moral code that its adherents strive to follow. That these same adherents fail is not exactly news-breaking. It has been said that the life of the Christian is one of repentance. (To repent, by the way, means to turn away from. If one repents from a sin, that means they have turned away from the sin.) That the Gospel of Jesus Christ is about the forgiveness of these sins is — somehow, even after it has changed the hearts of billions of humans — the great under-covered story of those last few thousand years. Again, this forgiveness means something very little in a culture without sin. Thus, I guess, the confused stories coming out today.

One particularly bad story was out of USA Today, built off of an AP story:

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Pod people: Forgiveness is such a simple word

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Forgiveness is such a simple word

But it’s so hard to do when you’ve been hurt 

The above lyrics from Kellie Pickler’s “I Wonder” provide a fitting introduction to this post.

On this week’s Crossroads podcast, host Todd Wilken and I discuss forgiveness and media coverage of it. We focus on two recent GetReligion posts touching on that subject.

The first related to my critique of a St. Louis Post-Dispatch story that opened this way:

STOVER, Mo. — Last Sunday, the Rev. Travis Smith paced First Baptist Church’s sanctuary, decorated for the holidays with poinsettias and a Christmas tree. He addressed his congregation, speaking to them about forgiveness.

Smith read verses from the Gospel of Matthew that follow the Lord’s Prayer:

“For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you,” he said.

Since Smith’s arrest in October on sexual abuse and statutory rape charges, which follow similar allegations from 2010, forgiveness from his congregation has become critical to his survival as its pastor. It is this group of about 100 souls — not a bishop, nor a disciplinary committee nor national church leaders at a faraway headquarters — who will decide Smith’s future in the Southern Baptist Convention.

The second concerned my critique of a CBS News report on someone forgiving someone else for — at least based on the news account — some unknown reason.

As my original post noted, that report contained a major ghost.

Also on the podcast, Wilken and I talk about my critique of a USA Today story on a business marketing its products using an R-rated word.

We recorded the podcast before the tragedy in Connecticut, so I was thinking more clearly than I am now. However, I did forget the question about three or four sentences into one long-winded reply — but please don’t tell Wilken!

Anyway, check out the podcast and hug your children.

For some reason, someone forgave someone else

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If someone took your child’s life, would you forgive the killer?

Renee Napier did.

But why?

That’s the giant unanswered question — the ghost — in a recent CBS News report:

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Not many convicts consider themselves blessed, but Eric Smallridge does, and for good reason. He’s getting out of prison — way early.

“It’s going to be like being on borrowed time, because I know I should still be in prison, because the justice system said I should still be in prison,” Eric says.

In 2003, Eric, of Tallahassee, Fla., was found guilty of two counts of DUI manslaughter. While driving at twice the legal limit for alcohol, he hit a car carrying Lisa Dickson and Meagan Napier, both 20, killing both girls instantly. He got 22 years for the crime, which sounded just about right to Renee Napier, Meagan’s mom.

“I felt like our system had served us well and justice had been served. I definitely felt that,” Renee says.

But a few years later, a woman came forward and asked the judge to reduce Eric’s sentence by half. She claimed Eric was truly sorry for what he’d done and deserved leniency. The judge obliged — partly because of what she said, but mostly because of who she was.

Keep reading, and Napier speaks to her change of heart:

“I could hate him forever and the world would tell me that I have a right to do that,” Renee says. “It’s not going to do me any good, and it’s not going to do him any good. I would grow old and bitter and angry and hateful. … In my opinion, forgiveness is the only way to heal.”

She says it did heal her — almost as much as it healed him.

“It was like a burden,” he says. “It was a weight off my chest. I no longer had to hide behind this facade.”

Here at GetReligion, we define holy ghosts as “facts and stories and faces linked to the power of religious faith.” Often, these facts don’t show up in a story, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there. In the case of the CBS News story, I couldn’t help but think that there might be more to the story than reported. More precisely, I couldn’t help but think that perhaps, religious faith played a role in Napier’s decision to forgive.

So I checked LexisNexis and did a Google search to see if I could find any more details.

I found a recent Tennessean story that mentioned Napier inspiring the song “Forgiveness” (video above) on contemporary Christian singer Matthew West’s new album. However, that story did not delve into Napier’s faith (or lack thereof).

But then I found a 2011 blog post by a Baptist pastor in Florida that did some GetReligion-style ghostbusting on Napier:

I had Renee’s email address from the Sheriff’s office, so I wrote her an email explaining that we were so proud to host her, but asking about this concept of forgiveness. I mentioned that as believers, we understand forgiveness (or at least say we do) and that I have preached about the revolutionary power of it. I asked if she had a faith background and wondered if that led her to be able to promote forgiveness in such a way.

It wasn’t long before my phone rang. Renee had called me. She said she was writing an email response and decided that a phone call would be better. We talked for quite some time and she shared how her faith in Jesus Christ was what enabled and empowered her to forgive Eric. I was so encouraged and overwhelmed by this. To hear a mother that had lost one of her children in such a way offer true forgiveness was incredible.

It’s too bad that CBS News didn’t think to ask the same highly relevant question.

 


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