During the Keryx ministry three-day weekends, at two points the issue of forgiveness is addressed. One is during a lengthy talk mid-morning on Saturday and then later that day at a service which focuses exclusively on the issue of forgiveness. This account involves related incidents from two of those weekends, one in 2000 and the other from 2003.
In April of 2000, I encountered a prisoner who was rather unique. He is serving a life sentence and he is Jewish. He attended the Keryx weekend at Chippewa Correctional and for some reason took a liking to me. For the subsequent couple years he was at that facility, he sat with my wife and I regularly at Keryx gatherings.
On Friday and Saturday during the weekend, we eat our afternoon meal in the prison cafeteria, although no one calls it a “cafeteria.” It’s either “the kitchen” or “the chow hall.” This meal is the regular meal prepared for the prisoners – we eat what the prisoners eat at this meal.
On our walk across the yard to the kitchen, I was walking with this Jewish prisoner. About 50 yards away, a line of prisoners was walking toward a housing unit. All of a sudden, my friend yells, “______________!!” to one of the prisoners in that line 50 yards away. The prisoner turns, raises his hand to acknowledge the call, but does not respond verbally. My friend turns to me and says, “That man I just yelled at? He’s the angriest man I know (and my friend had been in prison for 15 years at that point). He really needs to attend this weekend.” Keep in mind my friend is Jewish and the Keryx weekend is intentionally evangelistic and explicitly Christian, proclaiming a message of salvation in Christ alone and his friend to whom he has yelled is Jewish as well, as my friend tells me.
A few years pass. I have pretty much forgotten the encounter in the yard. It’s now the Fall of 2003. The prisoners show up for the weekend and among them is…guess who? The “angriest man I know.” To be sure, he was still angry. He spent Thursday night and all day Friday at a distance from the other men at his table. He sat there most of the time leaning back with his arms folded, scowling.
Saturday morning rolls around and I present the talk that includes the topic of forgiveness and I talk about Jon’s death and having forgiven Jon’s best friend. About 15 minutes after I finish, there’s time for a break and I am just standing in the hall, leaning against the wall. All of sudden there’s someone one in front of me – who is it? It’s “the angriest man I know.” Before I can say anything, he says, “I need to talk to you.” I say, “OK,” and tell him I’ll get us somewhere private. He says, “I don’t need that. I want to talk to you here. NOW.” I explain that if we do it there, now, he won’t have the setting of privacy and our communication will not be privileged. He says he doesn’t care and wants to talk NOW. I said, “OK” and moved down the hall a few yards to get out of the main traffic.
What does he want to talk about? ”How could you forgive the guy who did that to your son?” I told him it was only by the grace of God and that I was commanded to do so by the God who grants grace. Why does he want to know? He wants to know because of the source of his anger. That source? A man who had sexually assaulted his young son and who was now incarcerated for that crime. I asked him, “You’re Jewish, right?” Hes aid he was. I asked him if he had talked to his rabbi about this. he said he had and in fact had talked to two rabbis about it. I asked him what they said. He said one rabbi told him he was to forgive and the other had said he didn’t have to forgive. I asked, “Which one is right?” ”I don’t know.” ”Let me ask you this: do you really want to forgive the guy who did that to your son?” ”I don’t know.” ”Can you sleep at night?” ”No.” Well, I can. That’s what happens when you forgive.” ”I can’t.” ”Yes, you can, but you won’t. You’ve decided it’s more important for you to hate that guy than to do what you know is right and forgive him and let God deal with him.” ”I just can’t.”
We eventually sat down and talked for about an hour. What pained him much as well was the fact that this hatred for this other man (expressed by the fact he told me had fellow Jewish prisoners within the system giving that man “messages” [prison 'messages' being some form of violence] reminding him that the father of his victim was still out there, waiting his turn to exact vengeance) had caused him to lose his faith. He loved his Jewishness and he had lost fellowship and intimacy in worship because of the hatred he held for this other man. What I told him was that I could only express the Christian view on the matter and that if he desired to remain a Jew he’d have to find a Jewish solution to his problem.
By the time our discussion ended, he was smiling. He did something interesting later in the day.
On another break there’s a tap on my shoulder. It’s the Jewish prisoner. He says, “I want you to come with me.” I respond, “Where?” Volunteers can’t just go anywhere – we are limited on where we can and with whom we can go. He points down to the end of the hallway where a prisoner is standing and says, I need to talk to _________ and I want you to come with me.” ”OK.” We go down to the end of the hall and I have no idea what’s coming.
He walks up to the other prisoner and tells him that he knows he’s given him a “hard time” (which can mean anything, including violence) but that he knows he’s been wrong in doing so and he asks the prisoner if he will forgive him. The prisoner (a Christian) is just dumbfounded from the look on his face, but he says, “Well, sure. Apology accepted and I forgive you.”
The Jewish prisoner and I walk back down the hall. He says, “That felt good.” I said, “You ready to forgive ____________ yet?” He smiles. ”No, not yet.”
Sunday arrives. It’s mid-morning. He wants to talk again. The topic? He says he’s regaining his Jewish faith. I said what was happening was the Spirit of God was enlightening him and what was happening to him was the Christian message working in him. He says he doesn’t want to leave Judaism. I told him becoming a Christian isn’t leaving Judaism, it’s embracing the fulfillment of everything Judaism has been waiting for in the person of Christ. He says he doesn’t want any of that – he just wants to be a good Jew. ”Are you ready to forgive ______________?” Another smile. ”No, not yet.”
Our last service begins and at its end there is a time where the prisoners form a line and we have one last chance to say goodbye before we leave. This is the last time we will see many of these prisoners. I get to the point in the line where my Jewish friend is and we greet each other and he embraces me and as I start moving on to the next man I stop and ask him, “You ready to forgive that guy?” This big grin curls up the corners of his mouth. ”No. Not yet.”
Shortly thereafter that prisoner was transferred to a higher security prison, most likely because he had encountered some trouble with th staff or another prisoner, which may well have been another manifestation of his anger at the man who assaulted his son.
If only that prisoner knew true forgiveness. If only he knew the One who not only forgives us upon faith in His Son, but also empowers those who have bowed the knee to Him so that we can – and must – forgive others. Where is this man now? I have no idea, but think of him often. I pray he has since seen the Light.