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Dr. James C. Denison
President, Center for Informed Faith, Dallas, TX
July 20, 2011

Forgiving a death row killer

Mark Stroman has watched 208 people walk past him to be executed. Today it’s his turn. Unless the Texas governor issues a stay, he will be put to death by lethal injection at 6:00 tonight. What makes his case unique is the fact that a man he tried to kill is working to stop his death.

Stroman’s sister died on September 11, 2001 in the World Trade Center, and Stroman was angry at all Muslims. In the days after 9/11 he shot dead an Indian immigrant and a man from Pakistan. He also shot Rais Bhuyian in the face as the Muslim worked behind a gas station cash register. The Bangladeshi-born naturalized U.S. citizen played dead until Stroman left his store. Several operations saved his life, but he lost the use of his right eye and still carries shotgun pellets in his face.

Stroman is repentant: “I was an uneducated idiot back then and now I’m a more understanding human being,” he told the BBC. Bhuyian agrees, but insists that “we should not stay in the past, we must move forward.” He has been in touch with Stroman, extending his forgiveness and offering the opportunity to work together against hate crimes.

Bhuyian sees his attempted killer as “a spokesperson, an educator, teaching a lot of people as ignorant as him what is wrong.” Stroman responds: “Here it is, the attacker and the attackee, you know, pulling together. The hate has to stop—one second of hate will cause a lifetime of misery. I’ve done that—it’s wrong, and if me and Rais can reach one person, mission accomplished.”

The two have learned what so many never do: Forgiveness is not only best for the one forgiven, it’s also best for the one who forgives. Coretta Scott King was right: “Hate is too great a burden to bear. It injures the hater more than it injures the hated.” That’s why Jesus told Peter to forgive the brother who sins against him “not seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:22), a number symbolic of eternity.

To forgive is to pardon. It’s not to excuse the behavior or pretend it didn’t hurt, but to choose not to punish. If the governor pardons Mark Stroman today he will not excuse his crime, but will choose not to punish him for it. So it is with our forgiveness of others.

Who needs your forgiveness this morning? What is keeping you from offering such grace? As you make your difficult decision, you might consider Frederick Buechner’s definition of “anger”: “Of the Seven Deadly sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back—in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.”

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