by John Gordon Hill
The Burden of Forgiveness
When the call came that he had been arrested, time stood still. The charges were indeed heinous, and utterly inconsistent with the man I thought I knew. So much so, that I was indignant on his behalf, and searched for alternate explanations. But the news that unspooled in the ensuing days was all bad. An undisclosed criminal history. Damning evidence. Slippery explanations instead of protestations of innocence.
It seemed clear that he had inflicted great psychological damage on his victims. But he had also inflicted grievous damage on himself. His life, as he knew it, was over. He lost his job and the custody of his daughter. He lost all respect and standing in the community. He may well lose his freedom. What could I say to a man I counted as a friend, but whose apparent actions represented such a massive betrayal of his family, his friends, his co-workers, and yes, of me?
As this was unfolding, the Federal Public Defender asked the production class I teach to make a video presenting mitigating evidence at the sentencing hearing of a crack dealer. The crack dealer was a gentle giant, beloved by his family and friends, but who had an enormous rap sheet stretching back 25 years. He was the product of every hyperbolic dysfunctional cliché you could imagine, but he refused to blame his background or community for his crimes. He clung to a few facts. He had steered his siblings and children away from drugs. He had not been violent. He had cooperated with the police.
The judge noted that while the drug dealer didn’t blame the terrible environment he came from for his actions, his drug selling contributed to that terrible environment every day. The defendant acknowledged that was true. Then he systematically took responsibility for his actions and all the people he had hurt. Admittedly, he was talking to a judge who held his fate in his hands, but there was a true contrition and humility in his demeanor. He seemed genuinely moved by the friends and family who had spoken from the heart on his behalf in the video.
I think about the difference between “inexcusable” and“unforgivable”. Actions may be inexcusable, but no one is beyond God’s forgiveness, no matter how difficult or unpalatable it may be for us mere humans. In the case of my friend, it will take me some time. And if forgiveness is hard to give, it is hard to receive. Being forgiven takes a radical repentance, true contrition, a sincere desire to make restitution, and acknowledgment of the burden of the sin.
The crack dealer seemed to exhibit all these. The judge showed mercy. He sentenced him to “only” ten years.
Stumbling toward Lent, I ponder the burden of forgiveness.
The heft of it.
Pray we find the grace to bestow it.
John Gordon Hill is a longtime member of St. Paul's. He is a director/cinematographer and currently teaches at Seattle Central Community College.