Forgiving a murderer

Mark Stroman watched 208 people walk past him to be executed. On July 20 his turn came when he was put to death by lethal injection. What makes his case unique is the fact that a man he tried to kill worked to stop his death.

By Jim Denison

 Mark Stroman watched 208 people walk past him to be executed. On July 20 his turn came when he was put to death by lethal injection. What makes his case unique is the fact that a man he tried to kill worked to stop his death.

It was the week after Sept. 11, 2001. Stroman's sister died in the World Trade Center and he was angry at all Muslims. He was an avowed white supremacist who dubbed himself the "Arab slayer" and wanted to kill Muslims as "patriotic" retribution for 9/11.

He shot dead an Indian immigrant and a man from Pakistan. He also shot Rais Bhuiyan in the face as the Muslim worked behind a gas station cash register. The Bangladeshi-born naturalized U.S. citizen played dead until Stroman left his store. Several operations saved his life, but he lost the use of his right eye and still carries shotgun pellets in his face.

Stroman was repentant: "I was an uneducated idiot back then and now I'm a more understanding human being," he told reporters. Bhuiyan agrees and insists that "we should not stay in the past, we must move forward." He was in touch with Stroman, extending his forgiveness and offering the opportunity to work together against hate crimes.

Bhuiyan saw his attempted killer as "a spokesperson, an educator, teaching a lot of people as ignorant as him what is wrong." Stroman responded: "Here it is, the attacker and the attackee, you know, pulling together. The hate has to stop -- one second of hate will cause a lifetime of misery. I've done that -- it's wrong, and if me and Rais can reach one person, mission accomplished."

Shortly before his death, Stroman said, "In the free world, I was free but I was locked in a prison inside myself because of the hate I carried in my heart. It is due to Rais' message of forgiveness that I am more content now than I have ever been." In his final words before death, he bid goodbye to his family and the world: "I love you, all of you. Goodnight."

Here we see true forgiveness in action. Forgiveness is not excusing behavior as though it did not happen. It is not pretending that the behavior did not occur or that it did not hurt. And it is not forgetting that it happened.

To forgive is to pardon. It is to choose not to punish, as when a governor chooses not to punish a criminal. This is what Stephen asked God to do for his executioners: "Lord, do not hold this sin against them" (Acts 7:60). It is what Jesus prayed for us from the cross (Luke 23:34).

Why pardon those who have hurt you? Consider three facts.

First, pardon is biblical. In Matthew 18, "Peter came to Jesus and asked, 'Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?'" (v. 21). The rabbis required that people forgive three times. Peter doubled their number and added one, thinking that he was being extremely charitable. But "Jesus answered, 'I tell you, not seven times, but 77 times'" (v. 22). As "seven" is the perfect number in the Bible, Jesus' response was indicative of perfection and eternity. So long as there is sin there must be forgiveness.

Second, pardon breaks the cycle of vengeance. It has been well noted that "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth is a rapid way to a sightless, toothless world."

Third, pardoning others is best for us. Lewis Smedes was right: "To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you."

Frederick Buechner defined anger this way: "Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back—in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you."

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Jim Denison is president of the Center for Informed Faith and theologian-in-residence for the Baptist General Convention of Texas.

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