It’s Shark Week on the Discovery Channel!
Once again, the Tigers and Hammerheads and Bullheads and Great Whites will thrill, moving ominously through peaceful waters—dorsal fins gleaming, jaws taut, teeth menacing as they glide toward their unsuspecting prey.
We’ll watch “Jaws” again, both the first one and the sequel; and we’ll worry again whether everyone will emerge safely from the water off Amity Island.
But the shark story that really caught my attention recently was a report coming from Ocracoke Island, North Carolina, where little Lucy Magnum, age 6, was attacked and seriously injured by a five-foot-long shark while swimming in just a foot and a half of water.
Lucy’s screams alerted her mother Jordan, just ten feet away in the shallows. Jordan saw a gush of blood from her daughter’s leg and foot and immediately applied pressure to stop the bleeding. Her husband, an emergency room physician, rushed to their aid. “We both knew right away that it was pretty severe,” Jordan recounted in an interview on the Today Show.
What is truly remarkable about the story is that little Lucy, bandaged and recovering from extensive reconstructive surgery, said of the shark that caused a 90% tear of her muscle and tendon: “I forgive him.” At first angry and expressing hatred of sharks, by the next week Lucy had come to realize that it was the shark’s nature to attack other creatures—that the shark hadn’t meant to eat her and it was really a case of “mistaken identity.” The shark, after sampling Lucy’s leg, had turned away in search of tastier prey.
Lucy is a fortunate little girl. Fortunate in that the shark bite tore no major nerves, so she won’t lose her leg; but fortunate, too, because her parents had helped her to achieve the understanding and the forbearance to be able to forgive her aggressor.
We, as Christians, are asked to do the same. In the Lord’s Prayer we say “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
But do we? Forgive others’ trespasses, that is? Or is that a kind of throw-away line that we recite mindlessly in the Our Father, with nary a thought as to the natural consequences of asking God to follow our lead, to forgive just as much (or as little) as we do?
Author and philosopher Donald DeMarco wrote that “The exalted nature of forgiveness is attested to by the fact that it presupposes a number of other virtues.” Among the virtues which precede forgiveness, DeMarco cited three big ones: justice, clemency, and mercy.
These virtues have a sort of hierarchical relationship to one another:
- Justice has the nature of an equation, requiring a tit-for-tat repayment for an offense. Borrowing 10 dollars, DeMarco notes, requires returning 10 dollars. When justice is violated, punishment or restitution is appropriate.
- Clemency goes beyond justice and reduces the payment. A court may have sentenced a lawbreaker to ten years behind bars; but a later decision may reduce that to only five, taking into consideration the defendant’s declining health or good behavior behind bars.
- Mercy goes beyond both justice and clemency, to wipe away the need for punishment. God is merciful and permits us to enter eternal life, despite our sinful unworthiness. He does not turn a blind eye to the offense, but he pardons the offender.
- Forgiveness goes beyond these three virtues, without negating any of them. Justice, clemency, and mercy are the foundation upon which forgiveness can be freely offered.
Little Lucy Magnum inspires us, elicits a smile, because we recognize the nobility she musters in order to forgive her attacker, the shark. It is heartwarming to see such grace in one so young.
The Today Show interview told us nothing about her family’s personal faith life, but I’d wager that Lucy’s parents’ rock-solid values sprang from a deep and abiding faith. That self-same faith, taught at her mother’s knee, has already taken root in Lucy’s six-year-old heart, becoming the impetus for her benevolent forgiveness.
Lord, give me the grace to forgive as Lucy has forgiven the shark—even more, to forgive as You have forgiven me. Amen.