Forgiveness opens heart’s door to welcome the stranger

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, March 6, 2013

“Something beyond justice took place.”
Elaine Phillips

Two of our past columns figured prominently in an interchurch gathering in Cochrane last week.

Speaking at the World Day of Prayer, Elaine Phillips highlighted forgiveness as essential for living out Jesus’ words, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Gospel of Matthew 25:35).

But what if “the stranger” is the family of our children’s murderer, or the man himself who murdered our spouse and son?

Such questions challenged those attending our community’s annual ecumenical prayer service, hosted this year by the Canadian Southern Baptist Seminary.

Elaine, an instructor at the seminary, based her remarks on the Lord’s Prayer (the “Our Father”).

Always a gripping speaker, Elaine really caught my attention this time when she turned her attention to that part of the prayer that goes, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

But what possible connection could there be between that petition and welcoming strangers?

Elaine illustrated the link by referring to two of our columns from seven years ago!

The first was about how an Amish community in Pennsylvania responded to the murder of five of their school girls (my column of Oct. 18, 2006).

While I was researching that column, several of our coffee companions had directed me to an essay by writer/scholar Diana Butler Bass which appeared on the Jim Wallis blog, God’s Politics. Her words spoke of four public acts through which a grieving community reached out to “the stranger.”

“First, some elders visited Marie Roberts, the wife of the murderer, to offer forgiveness,” Bass wrote. “Then, the families of the slain girls invited the widow to their own children’s funerals. Next, they requested that all relief monies intended for Amish families be shared with Roberts and her children. And, finally, in an astonishing act of reconciliation, more than 30 members of the Amish community attended the funeral of the killer.”

Indeed, because the future matters, and because “the stranger” is very much part of that future, those acts of forgiveness have helped make it possible for the hopes and dreams of tomorrow not to be contaminated by the bitter legacy of yesterday.

As Marie Roberts said in a letter to the Amish community:

“Your love for our family has helped to provide the healing we so desperately need. Gifts you’ve given have touched our hearts in a way no words can describe . . . . Your compassion has reached beyond our family, beyond our community, and is changing our world, and for this we sincerely thank you.”

Then there was the amazing story of forgiveness which Elaine had shared once before when she’d spoken at Cochrane’s 2006 World Day of Prayer, hosted that year by St. Andrew’s United Church (my column of March 8, 2006).

That story originates from her own country of birth, South Africa, when Nelson Mandela, after 27 years as a political prisoner, became president and established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, with Archbishop Desmond Tutu as its head.

At the hearings, if an abusive police or army officer owned up to their crimes in the presence of those they’d wronged, they would not be tried or punished for their crimes.

“At one hearing,” Elaine said, “a policeman recounted an incident when he and other officers shot a young man, and then destroyed the evidence of their crime. Eight years later they murdered the boy’s father.”

To the disbelief of the courtroom that day, the widow and mother of the victims, when the judge called upon her to tell the court what she’d like done to the murderer, said (and here, Elaine was quoting from author Philip Yancey’s account):

“[He] took all my family away from me, and I still have a lot of love to give. Twice a month, I would like . . . him to come . . . and spend a day with me so I can be a mother to him. And I would like [him] to know that he is forgiven by God, and that I forgive him too. I would like to embrace him so he can know my forgiveness is real.”

“Justice was not done in South Africa that day,” Elaine concluded. “Something beyond justice took place,” as (in Yancey’s words) “the elderly woman made her way to the witness stand, but . . . [the policeman] had fainted, overwhelmed.”

Yes, Elaine rightly concluded, “Something beyond justice took place” that day – forgiveness!

And so hearts’ doors were opened to “the stranger,” a fitting lesson for all of us from this year’s World Day of Prayer.


© 2013 Warren Harbeck

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