By Rev. Alexander E. Sharp
When writer and move director Nora Ephron offered advice to aspiring authors, she would often say, “Voice, voice, more voice.” What she meant was that good writers must be authentic. They must be honest. They must eliminate the distance between head and heart. In her recently published book, Change of Heart, Jeanne Bishop is so authentic it takes your breath away.
Jeanne tells of her journey to forgiveness over more than 20 years following the murder of her pregnant sister and brother-in-law in their Winnetka townhouse. No robbery, no sexual assault, no other known motive, just a senseless and brutal slaying.
It took six months to apprehend the killer, a 16-year-old student at Winnetka’s New Trier High School. But almost at the moment of the murder, Jeanne knew that she must somehow “forgive.” She did not want to be a prisoner of hate. She also knew that this is what Christians are supposed to do. That’s what she had learned as a child at Kenilworth Union Church on Chicago’s North Shore.
For the next two decades this meant that she must “let go,” by building a “wall of separation” between her and the killer – never thinking about him, certainly not mentioning his name. Out of sight, out of mind. Except that – and here’s the catch – for Christians, Jeanne tells us, it’s not so simple. Forgiving is not the same thing as trying to forget. Forgiveness includes the imperative to reach out to the offender. We must bring our forgiveness to them. We must offer reconciliation.
How did Jeanne reach this point? Along the way, she read in a book a friend gave her: “No Christian is ever in the position of privilege, wronged one or wrongdoer, where he or she is excused from the responsibility of working for reconciliation.”
Indignant, she called the author:
“‘Tell me what trying to reconcile with someone who isn’t sorry would even look like!’” Jeanne asked. He paused, and said simply, ‘It would look like Jesus on the cross.’ He did not need to say the words. I knew what they were: ‘Father, forgive them.’” (p. 72)
Now that’s a difficult, even radical, message. I’m the son and grandson of Presbyterian ministers, but until this book that I had never seen forgiveness this way. I doubt that many of my friends do. Most Christians rationalize away Jesus’ words about mercy and forgiveness.
But if we are really one with our neighbor, must we not continually seek to reconcile and restore? What other message is there?
We bring you Jeanne’s book here because Clergy for a New Drug Policy asks us all to recognize the culture of punishment in our country. It has been present since our earliest days. The War on Drugs is only the most recent manifestation. This war divides us and destroys many of those at the margins. It is the antithesis of the central message of Change of Heart, namely, that justice is most profoundly about redemption.
The best in our faith traditions tells us that we must end this war and change our culture. This is why Jeanne Bishop is not only an authentic voice. She is a prophet.
Visit our page on Clemency to learn about how you can take action to encourage public officials to lower the harshness of punishment imposed upon people incarcerated under extreme mandatory sentences.