Thursday night I heard a short piece on the radio that brought me close to tears. Part of NPR’s on-going series of personal essays called This I Believe, the segment illustrated for me the meaning of true forgiveness as perfectly as anything I’ve ever heard. The essay was delivered by two people, Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson-Cannino. Ronald is a man who spent 10 1/2 years in prison for a crime he did not commit based primarily on testimony given by Jennifer, a woman who had mistakenly picked him out of a line-up as the man who had raped her. A DNA test conducted in 1995 exonerated Ronald for the heinous act, leading to his release and a full pardon, but it simultaneously threw Jennifer’s life into disarray. The tragedy, however, unexpectedly forged a close bond and friendship between the two. Struggling to forgive herself for a mistake which cost an innocent man more than a decade of his life and left a guilty man free to attack others, Jennifer found herself able to heal because of Ronald’s forgiveness. And Ronald, rather than lose himself in bitterness over all that was taken from him, found freedom in forgiving Jennifer, herself a victim, as well as the man that had actually committed the crime and left Ronald to take the blame, noting that “letting go of my anger toward him was hard, but staying free in my heart was a choice only I could make.” In a world that revels in retribution, vengeance and hate, absolution like this is almost unheard of. More often than not, people nurture their resentments for solace and let the wrongs committed against them continue to eat at their own souls.
In part, I marvel at Ronald and Jennifer’s shared story of forgiveness, understanding and love because I can’t help but wonder how I would have responded were I Ronald and faced with such a situation. Forgiving others has never really been one of my struggles. I’ve just never been one for holding grudges. I’ve also seen enough people consumed by anger, animosity or hate stemming from some consequential wrong which resulted in serious harm, be it a physical injury, the loss of a loved one, serious abuse of some kind or some other significant affliction, that I truly believe that forgiveness is the only way to move beyond such an offense. But the list of whatever perceived wrongs I may have ever felt were committed against me in my life more than pales in comparison to these sorts of injustices.
I hope I could do what Ronald did. I mean, I hope that I could forgive those, the mistaken and the malicious alike, for their respective parts in taking away my youth, my reputation, my family, and my freedom. For putting me through the trials of Job and the hellfire of nearly 11 years in state prison. In much the same way that I hope I would have been one to shown the courage of Helmuth Hübener during World War II, I hope I would have had the humility and Christ-like ability to forgive of Ronald Cotton in circumstances like these. It’s just impossible to say. I think most of us are this way though. We strive to live the commandments in the small ways we’re asked to each day, and we hope that if we’re ever tested and called to live them in some larger way, that we’re able to heed that call; that we’re able to sell all that we have, that we’re able to offer the other cheek, that we’re able to forgive all men.
In any event, this short radio segment is worth a listen. Ronald and Jennifer were also on 60 Minutes Sunday night, and although I haven’t had a chance to see it yet, it’s probably worth a gander too.