Sometimes you read the newspaper and are stunned by something other than violence, disaster and conflict. It is something quiet and gentle and powerful – forgiveness.
That neglected and underappreciated virtue glowed in two stories last week, both describing courtroom scenes.
In one, the relatives of two men killed in Raleigh by a hit-and-run driver expressed compassion and forgiveness toward the driver at a sentencing hearing on Monday.
“I have to thank you for pleading guilty to save us from a trial, to save us from that heartache, because we’ve had enough,” Debra Williams, the mother of one of the victims, Nathaniel Williams, told 23-year-old Marshall Doran, who has received a life sentence for unrelated fatal arson crimes. “I forgive you from the bottom of my heart. I forgive you.”
Jennifer Kepley, the widow of the other victim, Larry Kepley, told Doran, “It’s been two and a half years of sorrow, waiting and concern. Through God’s eyes of grace I am able to forgive you for what you have done. ... I hope you know my prayers are with you from here on out.”
In a Durham courtroom the next day, there was another extraordinary event. Relatives of four men killed execution-style in a Durham home 10 years ago confronted the man who admitted to the crime, Roderick Duncan, 36. Duncan knew the victims and had grown up with some of them.
Duncan avoided a possible death sentence by pleading guilty to four counts of second-degree murder. The crime was unimaginable, but not, we saw, unforgivable. At a hearing in which Duncan was sentenced to at least 36 years in prison, relatives of the victims addressed him.
Marsha Harris, the mother of one victim, 27-year-old Lennis Harris Jr., and the aunt of another victim, Jonathan Skinner, 26, told Duncan, “I don’t think the purpose in your life is to be a murderer. It’s not too late. You can turn it around. Let them see God has given you another chance.”
Gloria Washington, the mother of victim Jamel Holloway, spoke about Duncan on what would have been her son’s 38th birthday. “I’m going to forgive this young man because the Lord knows my heart,” Washington said. “I’m going to love him because I want to do what’s right, but I’m praying for him because he has a mother.”
Duncan did not respond. His attorney, Amos Tyndall, said the circumstances were so wrenching that Duncan thought his words would be inadequate. “He didn’t feel he could say anything. Saying ‘I’m sorry’ is not enough,” Tyndall said.
Tyndall said he was moved by how the relatives addressed his client. “Just how they viewed him as a human being,” he said. “They saw something in him that was greater than the worst act of his life.”
The scene was extraordinary, but not as rare as one might think, Tyndall said. In his 24 years of practicing law, he has witnessed deeply wounded people offer the balm of forgiveness to the ones who have hurt them.
“I wouldn’t say I’ve seen it often, but I’ve seen it before and it’s really amazing and compelling when you do,” he said. “It takes a lot for a person to do that. They’ve been through things that most of us will never have to endure.”
L. Gregory Jones, a former dean and professor of theology at Duke University Divinity School, explored the elusive but potent nature of forgiving those who hurt you in his book “Embodying Forgiveness.”
Jones, now the executive vice president and provost at Baylor University, said that the act of forgiving may appear to simply well up in a wounded person, but it reflects “practices and habits we have shaped over time.”
Forgiveness “isn’t just a spontaneous thought. It emerges out of years and years of rehearsal in the way of life of a community.”
People who have disciplined their reactions to reflect what they believe would be God’s actions can offer profound lessons in forgiveness, Jones said. He noted how Pope John Paul II entered a prison cell to forgive his would-be assassin, how the Amish community in Lancaster, Pa., forgave the man who fatally shot five girls in a one-room schoolhouse and how relatives of the nine people killed at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church offered forgiveness to killer Dylann Roof.
Nadine Collier, the daughter of victim Ethel Lance, tearfully told Roof as he appeared via video link in a Charleston courtroom: “You took something really precious from me. I will never talk to her ever again, I will never be able to hold her ever again, but I forgive you! You hurt me, you hurt a lot of people, but God forgives you. And I forgive you.”
To forgive a grievous offense takes tremendous will, but it can benefit the giver even more than the receiver, Jones said. Referring to a quote from the writer Annie Dillard, he said, “Refusing to forgive is like taking a poison pill yourself and waiting for the other person to die.”
And giving up that poison lets another live anew, he said. “For the forgiven, if they are genuinely remorseful, it makes possible a new life. So (forgiveness) is an incredible gift, an extraordinary gift to receive.”
And an extraordinary thing to see given.
Barnett: 919-829-4512, nbarnett@newsobserver. com