Forgiveness of grave acts of injustice can feel like an abstract concept to those who have not experienced those acts. To put flesh on what is anything but abstract for people who find themselves in the painful position of either victim or offender, we share five of the most powerful stories of reconciliation we could find.
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Mathilde Rathenau and Ernst Werner Techow: The Transformational Power of Forgiveness
establish a new life for himself and continue to atone for his horrendous act, Techow changed his name to Ernest Tessier, joined the French Foreign Legion, and became a highly decorated officer. He served in Morocco, Syria, Indochina, and in the desserts of the Sahara. It was while he was the officer in charge at Fort Flatters, a desert post near the Libya border, that he met another legionnaire named Rathenau. When Tessier heard the name, he leapt from his chair asking: “Rathenau? Are you by any chance a relative of the late German statesman?” The man answered, “I was his nephew, sir.”There was dead silence for a few moments before Tessier spoke. Choosing his words carefully, he said: “Rathenau, I have to tell you something.You stand in front of one of the murderers of your uncle. I was one of the three men who killed your uncle on June 24, 1922, in Berlin. My real name is Ernst Werner Techow.” As the nephew was processing this astonishing information,Techow rummaged through his desk for a document to establish his identity. He finally produced a sheet of paper which had turned yellow with the passing of time. It was the letter from Mathilde Rathenau.The nephew read his aunt’s words: “…in the name and spirit of him he has murdered, I forgive…” Techow explained that the letter had transformed his life, that he spent his time in prison studying Judaism, and said, “I love all Jews. In my opinion they belong to the finest and most gifted people in the world.” For the last 18 years, Techow said he had been rehabilitating himself. “Just as Frau Rathenau conquered herself when she wrote that letter of pardon, I have tried to master myself. I only wished I would get an opportunity to right the wrong I’ve done.” His opportunity came when France surrendered to Nazi Germany in 1940. Leaving the French Foreign Legion,Techow smuggled himself into Marseille, disguising himself as a dock worker.There, he began helping Jews escape Nazi-dominated France. Techow was able to procure forged exit visas and permits allowing Jews to flee France for the safety of Spain. Always on the lookout for Jews he could help, Techow once confided in a friend: “Do you know any Jews I could help to get out of here?”When the friend said he knew many but that they had no money, Techow said: “Don’t let that bother you.To be sure, those who are rich will have to pay a reasonable fee. But for every rich man I sponsor there are three penniless I help to escape for nothing. In all, Techow enabled over 700 Jews to escape to Spain. No Jew who came to him was turned away. Among the Jews who knew of his work, he was regarded as a “one-man relief committee.” He provided the same service to those who were penniless and desperate as he did to those who could cover his expenses.Wherever his name was mentioned in the Jewish
Forgiving Father by Frank Wesley
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A small footnote in history offers a large lesson in the power of forgiveness. In 1922 Walter Rathenau, Germany’s Jewish foreign minister, was assassinated by three German right wing extremists. Rathenau amassed a fortune directing Germany’s leading electrical engineering company. Turning from business endeavors, Rathenau devoted himself to public service, becoming a founder of the German Democratic Party. He was the first and last Jew to serve at a high level in any German government of the 20th century. At his funeral, more than 1 million Germans paid tribute to Rathenau, whom one writer described as a combination of “prophet, philosopher, mystic, writer, statesman, industrial magnate of the highest and greatest order.” The men who committed this murder were motivated by political ideology and anti-Semitism. Leaders of the still-obscure Nazi Party, along with other right wingers, claimed Rathenau was part of a “Jewish-Communist conspiracy.”When the police captured the assassins, two of them ended their lives by suicide. Only one survived to face trial, a man named Ernst Werner Techow. Three days after the assassination, Mathilde Rathenau, the victim’s mother, wrote to the mother of Ernst Werner Techow, saying: “In grief unspeakable, I give you my hand … say to your son that, in the name and spirit of him he has murdered, I forgive, even as God may forgive, if before an earthly judge your son makes a full and frank confession of his guilt … and before a heavenly judge repents. Had he known my son, the noblest man earth bore, he would have rather turned the weapon on himself. May these words give peace to your soul.” Her words were read in open court, and the public wondered if they would have any effect on the young assassin. Two decades later he would tell a Rathenau relative that the letter was his “most precious possession … it opened a new world to me.” In prison he began to study seriously Jewish history, art, literature, religion, and culture. He mastered Hebrew, becoming an erudite scholar of Judaism. In addition, Techow became highly sensitized to issues of Jewish antiSemitism. Sentenced to 15 years, Techow was released from prison for good behavior in 1927 after serving five years.Wanting to
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community, it was in a tone of gratitude. Techow’s dramatic transformation was set in motion by Mathilde Rathenau’s equally dramatic act of forgiveness. She made the conscious choice not to hate her son’s assassin. British poet George Byron wrote, “Hatred is the madness of the heart.” Mathilde Rathenau did not succumb to heart madness, nor did she become a victim of hatred. Instead she brought to an end the downward spiral of violence by reaching out in compassion and forgiveness. In the process the life of a murderous assassin was redeemed, and hundreds of innocent Jewish men, women, and children were saved. The lesson in this remarkable story can be summarized by these words, written long ago, by the apostle Paul: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:21). n
Ronald: I also believe in the healing power of forgiveness. I had gone to prison an angry man and gotten real comfortable with it. But that kind of emotion was keeping me a prisoner in my own private jail. I had to let the hate go and learn to live and forgive.
Victor M. Parachin is an ordained minister and author of a dozen books, including Healing Grief (Chalice Press, 2001). His most recent book Eastern Wisdom for Western Minds (Orbis, 2007), was selected as one of the Best Spiritual Books of 2009.
Ronald: Forgiving Jennifer for picking me out of that lineup as her rapist took less time than people think. I knew she was a victim and was hurting real bad. But I was hurting, too. I missed my family, my girlfriend, and my freedom. But I knew who I was, and I was not that monster. I knew who did this to Jennifer, and he would have gone to his grave leaving me to rot in prison without ever confessing to what he had done. Letting go of my anger toward him was hard, but staying free in my heart was a choice only I could make.
Jennifer: I picked Ronald out as the man who had raped me, only to learn 11 years later that I had made a mistake. That was unbearable. In my mind Ronald had been a monster. For 365 days for 11 years, I prayed for him to die. Discovering the truth filled me with overwhelming guilt and shame for mistakenly putting an innocent man in prison. Meanwhile the guilty person was left to commit further crimes on women. I found it almost impossible to forgive myself.
Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson-Cannino: Finding Freedom in Forgiveness
Jennifer: I asked Ron if he could ever forgive me. And with all the mercy in the world he took my hands and with tears in his eyes, he told me he had forgiven me a long time ago. At that moment I began to heal. Ronald taught me how to let go of all that pain; his forgiveness set me free that night. Without Ronald, I would still be shackled to that moment in time, and it would own me forever. I soon discovered that I could even forgive the man who had raped me — not because he asked me to, nor because he deserved it — but because I did not want to be a prisoner of my own hatred.
In 1984 Jennifer Thompson-Cannino picked Ronald Cotton out of a lineup as the man who raped her. He went to prison for 11 years, based on her testimony, until DNA evidence cleared him of the crime.
Ronald: Jennifer and I are friends. And some people don’t really understand it. But we were the victims of the same injustice by the same man, and this gave us a common ground to stand on. Together we were able to help each other heal through a shared experience. I could choose to be bitter; I could hate the prison guards and the system. But I choose to forgive them all, so that I stay free and not be a prisoner for the rest of my life. n “Finding Freedom in Forgiveness,” written by Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, part of the This I Believe Essay Collection found at ThisIBelieve.org, © 2005-2009 by This I Believe, Inc. Reprinted with permission of This I Believe, Inc.
Jennifer: I believe in forgiveness — the kind that has the power to release a person from a place of anger and hate to a place of peace.
Arna Washington and Ron Flowers: When Forgiveness Forms a New Family
prison choir and was surprised that the men “didn’t look mean and hard,” as she assumed they would. Next, her pastor, Rev. Homer Williams, told his congregation that he was serving as a mentor in a nearby prison’s spiritual transformation program. He hoped some of the members of the congregation would join him in mentoring prisoners. Washington asked her pastor if he could find out about Ron Flowers the next time he went to the prison. As it turned out, not only was Flowers in the mentoring program, but he had also accepted God into his life. The program director, Jack Cowley, wanted to talk with Washington about Flowers. She learned from Cowley that Flowers’ program focused on reconciliation.The participants met with crime victims — not victims of their own crimes — with the goal of understanding the harm they caused and assuming responsibility for the consequences. Meeting those victims made Flowers think about Mrs. Washington. Mr. Cowley told her that “Ron’s a changed man” and that he wanted to get in touch with her. Washington protested, “I don’t want anything to do with him! I don’t care how much he’s changed!” But she couldn’t let her thoughts about Flowers go. Finally, she agreed to accept a letter from him. Letter-writing to one’s victims or to their family members was part of the transformational program at the prison.Writing these letters, the mentors believed, would help the prisoners to acknowledge their crimes and assume responsibility for the consequences to themselves and others. Before the program, Flowers had denied any responsibility for the murder. Like so many others, Flowers arrived in prison as a street kid from a broken home and had “grown up in the prison system” and had not really matured. The program aimed to help the participants mature through overcoming denial and accepting personal responsibility. But his first letter to Washington was a disaster. He did not apologize. He did not show remorse. Washington was furious and refused to respond to his letter. Shortly thereafter Washington visited the prison where Flowers was incarcerated. On a conscious level, she believed the visit had nothing to do with Flowers. As a leader in her church, she went merely because her church’s district office took a growing interest in prison ministry work and had organized the visit. Once there, she “noticed a young man huddled in a corner” and “knew instinctively it was Ron Flowers.” Her response? She had to leave the room. When she got home she wrote to him: “That letter was totally inappropriate. Not only did you murder my daughter, you destroyed my whole family!” She sent him the program from DeDe’s funeral and figured she would never hear from him again.
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In 1984 Arna Washington’s daughter, DeDe, left for a date and promised she would not be out late. At 1:00 a.m., the family received a call saying DeDe had been shot in the head and was in the hospital. She died a few hours later. For the next 14 years, Washington never learned exactly what had happened to her daughter that night. But the one thing she did know was that Ron Flowers was the shooter. She couldn’t wait for the trial, for the opportunity to “‘look that man in the face and let him know exactly what he’s done” and to “ask the judge to put him away forever.” But there was no trial. Flowers plea-bargained a 35-year sentence for the killing, and Washington never did get to look him in the face before he was sent to prison. DeDe was buried on what would have been her 27th birthday. The family’s grief and rage over DeDe’s murder thoroughly devastated them. Washington’s husband recoiled from the job he had loved for so many years, taking early retirement, staying home, and losing himself in grief. Her son, who’d been so close to his sister, broke down and developed serious kidney problems. Washington went back to her job as a school teacher, but her own struggle was ceaseless. “I kept looking at DeDe’s picture and talking to her as if that might keep her with me,” she said, “begging God to let me hear her voice one more time.” Within 10 years of her daughter’s murder, Washington’s son had died of kidney failure and her husband of a heart attack. She blamed both deaths on her daughter’s killer and vowed she would never allow him to be released from prison. Every time Flowers came up for parole she protested his release. “He deserved to rot in prison,” she said. “As long as I had breath left in my body, I’d make sure that was where he stayed.” But one day Washington received a notice from the State of Texas saying that Flowers was about to be released on mandatory parole. She was incensed. “I’ve struggled to accept that nothing is going to bring my baby back,” she prayed. “But accept that the man who killed her is going free? You’re asking too much!’” In the ensuing weeks, Washington heard new and different messages about prisoners that challenged both her and her anger. First, at her annual church conference, she heard a
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But she did. “As soon as I mailed that letter, I knew it was not right,” Flowers wrote in his reply. Further, he took responsibility for her daughter’s death. “I’m truly sorry for what took place on the night of February 9, 1984; I want to let you know everything. I realize all the pain that I caused you and your family because of my bad choice in life, just because of my stupid act.” He said he would like to answer her questions “face-to-face.” In an article in Crossroads magazine,Washington described her reactions to Flowers’ letter: “For years I had wanted to confront this man to make sure he understood the anguish he’d caused. …that night I paced the living room, going over the photos of my daughter, one by one. ‘Baby, I want to do right by you, but I know I need to move on.’ Then to God I pleaded, ‘Isn’t there any way I can do both?’” After consulting her pastor, and with the help of Crowley, Washington “decided the only answer was to see Ron Flowers,” because, “once I heard what he had to say, maybe I would be able to put all the pain and anger behind me.” Here is Mrs. Washington’s account of what happened next:
ute when you get out of here,” I said sharply. “You’re going to have to carry the Lord inside you.” “Forgive him, Mom.” DeDe! I’d know her voice anywhere. Had anyone else heard? I glanced around. My pastor was sitting quietly in one corner, the prison director in another. Ron was silently waiting for me to finish. Those words had been meant for me alone. That was all God had my baby tell me. But it was enough. I pushed back my chair and got up. “Come here, son,” I said. Warily, Ron stood, then came around to my side of the table. I reached out my arms. He took a step forward. Then we were holding each other, weeping together, the tears putting out the last bitter embers inside me, washing away the anger I’d been carrying for too long, and letting the love of the Lord fill its place. When we moved apart, I took a good look at Ron. And I saw the person he’d been 14 years before — a mixed-up young man who didn’t know what he was doing when he shot my daughter, who’d probably caused his mother no end of worry.
I want some closure, I thought, as I headed to the prison with my pastor. But, Lord, I’m going to need your help. In the [prison meeting room] my pastor showed me to a seat at the table, then moved back to give me some privacy. The door opened. A young man in prison whites entered the room. He walked toward me slowly, clutching a Bible, and sat opposite me. I noticed his hands were shaking as badly as mine.
“Ron, this may be hard for you to believe,” I said, “but I want to forgive you. I want to be at peace with you.” Ron’s eyes filled again. He squeezed my hand tightly. “I want that, too,” he murmured. I knew DeDe would have wanted nothing less.
“I’m Arna Washington.” Feeling close to God at that moment, Washington surprised everyone in the room that day when she said to Flowers, “I’ll go one step further, I could even, even be your other mom.” Flowers was overwhelmed, unable to speak. Later, still at a loss, he said, “And you know, that just really, that just really — I can’t describe the words. I can’t describe it.That just — it took ahold to me.” Later Washington reflected on that first meeting with Flowers:“I went out there for just closure on DeDe’s death— I really wanted to know what happened. And instead I found openness that has been beautiful... Ever since I forgave the young man, it just seems like I’ve been blessed.” Rev. Williams said, “Even though we preach forgiveness as a part of our Christian heritage, very seldom do we find this kind of forgiveness taking place. She has found peace, the kind of peace that our Lord says surpasses all understanding. If there was just some type of way we could bottle this and
“I’m Ron,” he replied, so softly I had to lean forward to hear him. There was an awkward silence. Then I asked the question only he could answer: “What happened that night?” “This guy Carlton [DeDe’s date] came into the apartment. He wanted drugs but didn’t have money. My friends started beating on him. He ran downstairs, and I grabbed a gun and went after him. When the car he came in started driving off, I panicked. I shot into the car window.” Ron’s hand clenched his Bible. “I never meant to hurt your daughter, Mrs. Washington. I’m sorry.” I didn’t know what to say, but I couldn’t let out all my emotions in front of this stranger. I went into my teacher mode. “Young man, life on the outside is going to be tough. You can’t hang onto that Bible every min-
Les Miserables (1935) © United Artists/courtesy of Photofest
market it, we would be able to change a whole lot of lives in this world, because I really believe that the forgiving spirit that has been witnessed by this wonderful lady for this young man is something that the whole world needs.” When Flowers was released from prison he quickly went to work, taking not one but two jobs. And his new friend, his mentor his “other mother,” Mrs.Washington, remained a vital and sustaining presence in his life. The two of them stayed in touch almost every other day until her death in 2003. Today Ron Flowers is married and has a family. He has never had another run-in with the law and he says, modestly,
of his life, “It’s just going great.” n Adapted from What Shall We Then Do? A Family Freedom Kit for Creating Healing Communities, produced by the Progressive National Baptist Convention Commission on Social Justice and Prison Ministry with support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation (2008). Reproduced here by kind permission of the author, Linda Mills. For more stories about parents forgiving their child’s killer: Download the interfaith version of Balancing Justice with Mercy atAECF.org;watch A JusticeThat Heals at ReentryMediaOutreach. org/jth.htm; and visit AzimKhamisa.com.
Soon after, there is a knock at the door, and three policemen are revealed, holding Jean Valjean by the collar. “Ah! Here you are!” the bishop exclaims, looking at Valjean. “I am glad to see you. Well, but how is this? I gave you the candlesticks, too, which are of silver like the rest, and for which you can certainly get 200 francs.Why did you not carry them away with your forks and spoons?” The police are dumbfounded, shocked to hear the bishop refer to the silver as a gift. They release Valjean, who recoils, saying, “Is it true that I am to be released?” in an almost inarticulate voice, as if talking in his sleep. The bishop takes the two silver candlesticks from the mantelpiece and hands them to Valjean, who takes them mechanically, bewildered and trembling. As the policemen leave, the bishop says to Valjean, “Now, go in peace. By the way, when you return, my friend, it is not necessary to pass through the garden.You can always enter and depart through the street door. It is never fastened with anything but a latch, either by day or by night.” Jean Valjean looks about to faint, but the bishop draws near to him and says in a low voice, “Do not forget, never forget, that you have promised to use this money in becoming an honest man.” Jean Valjean, who remembers having promised no such thing, remains speechless.The bishop continues, “Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I buy from you; I withdraw it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.”
Bishop Bienvenu and Jean Valjean: Purchasing a Soul for God In Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, a bishop opens his home to lodge and feed a recently released prisoner, Jean Valjean. Having up to this point experienced nothing but hostility and rejection since his release, Valjean is shocked by the bishop’s hospitality. But having lived in survival-of-the-fittest mode for so many years, and having internalized his label of “criminal,” he decides to make off that very night with the bishop’s silver. The next morning the bishop’s house servant, Madame Magloire, discovers the missing goods and is livid at the theft. The bishop attempts to calm her: “Madame Magloire, I have for a long time detained that silver wrongfully. It belonged to the poor. Who was that man? A poor man, evidently.”
Paraphrased from Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. A poet, novelist, essayist, statesman, and human rights activist, Hugo published his epic novel about social misery and injustice in 1862. Its central theme of forgiveness and redemption has helped make it one of the world’s bestselling books.
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Chantale and John: From Terror to Friendship
John: She took the initiative to send a message to me through CARSA, saying, “Tell him to come to me, and I will forgive him.” I was elated. I decided to bring her some porridge for us to share. Many neighbors and members of our families gathered there, and she forgave me in front of them all. I was so happy.
In the documentary As We Forgive (see page 11), we meet Chantale, a genocide victim struggling with how to deal with the requests for forgiveness coming from John, the former neighbor who killed her father. In an epilogue, filmed three years after the initial interviews with Chantale and John, we see them in a very different place along the journey to forgiveness.
Chantale: It took me about a year to finally forgive. I never thought we would talk again. But more than that, it was because of the grace of God. Before I never believed something like this was possible. But through prayer I found that nothing is impossible with God. When we reconciled I felt peace. I started believing that God is still alive.
Chantale: The reason I never remarried after becoming a widow wasn’t because I was too old, but because I had lost my love for people. I was sick of myself. I no longer felt like a human being. I couldn’t even clean myself. I felt like God was finished with me, like he no longer cared. I was filled with so much sorrow that I never wanted to see John again.
John: Today when I see her, I am no longer afraid. I see her often now that she has forgiven me. She is also not afraid of me. She has truly forgiven me. What she has done is a great miracle. I continue to build trust with Chantale, often greeting her children on their way home from school or when I visit their house. I can even ask and she’ll give me a drink of water. If I need something dropped off at my house, she will help me. When she sees my family, they are able to talk to each other.
John: I saw her several times, but each time she refused to forgive me. I wouldn’t give up. I continued to plead with her for forgiveness. John and Chantale decided to attend a reconciliation workshop led by a team from Christian Action for Reconciliation and Social Assistance (CARSA.org.rw). It was their first time to meet other perpetrators and survivors who were reconciling after the genocide. Chantale: What happened is that I continued to pray down on my knees, because I had no peace in my heart. Because he wholeheartedly asked me for forgiveness, I felt I should forgive him.
John: Many of our neighbors are joining us in the journey of asking for forgiveness. I encourage them to not cover up their crime and instead ask for forgiveness from those they harmed. And also not to be afraid of each other. Chantale: They have said to us, “We also should forgive. There is no other way.” We cannot change what happened in the past. We must talk to each other and work to rebuild the country. For us here in the countryside, that is a miracle. John: And that gives us great joy. n Dialogue reproduced here by kind permission of Image Bearer Pictures. To obtain a copy of the documentary As We Forgive and to host a screening for your church or community (movie event kits contain a copy of the epilogue from which the above comments were excerpted), go to AsWeForgiveMovie.com.
Photo by Zoe Sandvig • Courtesy of Image Bearer Pictures
Chantale: Even our neighbors are amazed to see us. They all know the sorrow I was in. It’s something that I still hold in my heart. It would be a lie to say that the fact that John killed my family is no longer in my heart. I haven’t forgotten it. However, there has been a major change inside of me.