Memory and Forgiveness

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by Denise Marie Siino on November 19, 2014

A number of years ago a young man was murdered.

If this were the slug of a news story, or perhaps the first line of a novel, it leaves a lot of unanswered questions.  Why was he murdered?  Was the murderer caught?  Was he convicted, sent to prison?  What became of the victim’s family?

Let me fill in these details, because the story was on the news last night (part of a segment about a nonprofit that allows people to record their stories for posterity) so they are fresh in my mind.

In 1993, Mary Johnson’s 20-year-old son was shot to death by then 16-year-old Oshea Israel after an argument at a party.  Like all mothers, Mary Johnson wanted justice for her son, and her personal appeal to the judge at Oshea’s trial the following year (Oshea was convicted of murder as an adult at age 17) may have in part led to the sentence handed down to Oshea: 25 years to life in prison.  End of story?  No, there is no end-of-story when someone is murdered.

The last question above, about what became of the victim’s family, is an extraordinary tale.  Early on in Oshea Israel’s prison term, Mary Johnson began to wonder why Oshea killed her son.  The question ate at her until one day she went to the prison to meet with Oshea and ask.  What began that day was a friendship that has endured the chambers of emotional hell for both prisoner and Mary, as together – in many subsequent visits – they worked through their memories of the event and a bond was borne from the unlikeliest of places: forgiveness.

After serving 17 years of his sentence, Oshea was released from prison.  Many family members of murder victims (even those who manage to forgive) would feel angst over the early release of their loved one’s killer, but not Mary.  Instead of filing petitions to have Oshea placed as far from her as possible, Mary did the opposite.  She spoke to the landlord of her apartment building in Minneapolis, MN, about having Oshea placed right next door to her.  That was 2011, and Oshea and Mary have been neighbors ever since.

In a recorded interview, Mary and Oshea spoke of the forgiveness that made their relationship possible:

Mary: "Unforgiveness is like cancer!  It will eat you from the inside out.  It's not about the 
other person.  Me forgiving him does not diminish what he's done.  Yes, he murdered my son, 
but the forgiveness is for me. It's for me."
Oshea: "I haven't totally forgiven myself yet.  I'm learning how to forgive myself, and I'm still 
growing towards trying to forgive myself and what I've done."

As a journalist I’ve come across quite a few stories of forgiveness.  As a Christ follower I have tried to grasp the fullness of the concept, which carries even more weight when I remember that Jesus Christ forgave me when He chose to die on the cross for my personal failures.  Not only that, but when we chose to forgive others for hurting us or those we love, I believe we are driving a nail (let’s make that a honkin’ railroad spike) into the heart of the very thing that created the situation to begin with—when forgiveness happens, Evil goes into full retreat and Love prevails and gains a tremendous victory.

My head gets all this, but unfortunately, sometimes at least, my heart has been slow on the uptake.  There were no “handles” to bring full forgiveness within my reach.  This past week I read something that, I hope, changes this forever for me.  While reading “Telling Secrets—A Memoir” by Frederick Buechner, I came across a lengthy discourse on the role memory plays both in literature and in life.  Through memory, Buechner says, we can go back in time to those moments when we have been injured and relive them…changing the way in which those memories affect us and dealing with the situation and outcome (my response) differently.   In this way, we can relive the memory “with the difference that this time, I [am] able to live it right. … The unalterable past [is] in some extraordinary way altered.  Maybe the most sacred function of memory is just that—to render the distinction between past, present and future ultimately meaningless.”

This was an “aha” moment for me.  In Buechner’s terms, perhaps even sacred.  Humans don’t go through life unscathed, and sometimes those searing, painful, hurtful moments leave us scarred, crippled even.  The last thing I ever want to do is relive these moments, but if I can relive them and change the outcome in the sense of the way I deal with these situations now and into the future, it’s worth doing to gain freedom from the cancer of unforgiveness.  And it’s worth doing for the satisfaction of seeing Evil run with his tail between his legs.

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