TITLE: Change of Heart: Justice, Mercy, and Making Peace with My Sister's Killer
AUTHOR: Jeanne Bishop
PUBLISHER: Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015, (208 pages).
If one does not know what is evil, think about a man pulling a trigger on a husband pleading for his life. Think of a pregnant woman receiving not just one but two bullets to her body: One for her and one for her unborn baby. Think of a young family who had so much future for them only to be senselessly taken away by a deranged killer. Why didn't God prevent the murders?
The first part of the book describes the gruesome details of the murders; how the killer was arrested; the trial events; the conviction of the murderer; and the slight relief of some kind of justice. The author is an advocate for abolishing the death penalty, rubbing shoulders with activists like Sister Helen Prejean, the Catholic nun famous for the movie Dead Man Walking. In fighting for the cause, her own family tragedy puts her face to face with stark reality of evil and injustice. For all the good that she has been doing, why is she suffering all the bad that evil can possibly throw at her? How can prosecutors plead for mercy when it is their job to ensure justice first be served to the full? At a Kairos Conference back in 2010, Bishop learns about other evils that are happening around the world. Stories like a New Hampshire man been shot dead by an off-duty policeman due to a grudge; a former seminary student being raped and her male companion killed, and the murderer freed on the basis of a lack of evidence; a seven year old girl killed on a camping trip by a stranger; and others. Frankly, the stories alone are like giant pills that are horribly difficult to swallow. I thought to myself. If it is already so gut-wrenching for readers, what about people like Jeanne who had to live through the whole cycle of horror and utter grief. It is senseless. Even the thought of Jeanne being able to forgive the killer is beyond comprehension. How is it possible ever to have a change of heart, especially after the terrible evil done to us?
Jeanne lets us in on the amazing turn from hatred to numbness; from paralysis to action; and from action to intentional love, grounded in Christ. Somewhere in the middle of the book is a turning point from hatred to love. What is most needed for a hurting heart is the gift of love. Gifts like Mark Osler's book, Jesus on Death Row, which helps Jeanne deal with the demons of revenge and hatred. It directs her toward seeing Jesus as the one being tried, being unfairly accused, being brutally killed on the cross. Jeanne learns about forgiveness through reading articles from Forgiveness: Christian Reflection published by Baylor University. The second gift is the friendship of Dr Randall O'Brien who had earlier advocated that people are "obligated to work for that reconciliation." The strong disagreement with O'Brien's writing leads to a series of conversations, that leads to praying for the convicted killer, David Biro. The third gift is the gift of strength to use the opportunity to forgive. Why is that a gift? It is the opportunity to practice Christlikeness that we forgive because Christ first forgave us. After public confession and declaration of forgiveness, Jeanne's U-turn was set.
She then began the slow, daunting process of getting to know David Biro, his counselor, and his background. It was hard. Often she would go back to the Bible to look at how murderers in the Bible were described. She looked at Moses who had become a fugitive after killing an Egyptian. She read about David scheme to kill Uriah. She learned about Paul's persecution of Christians. All of them were restored by the grace of God. She struggled with what David Biro's life meant in Christ's perspective. She supported life imprisonment instead of death row. The word constantly before her was "mercy." Theory could only be realized when put into practice. On the last day of September 2012, Jeanne put her theory into practice by writing a letter to introduce herself and an invitation for Biro to chat with her. When she received a reply, she was too afraid that she needed to ask a friend to open it and read it to her. It led to a prison visit and the first conversation. Guess what was Jeanne's request to Biro?
Yes. It's to relate from Biro's perspective of what happened that night. Jeanne wanted to know not only what happened by what was Biro thinking in the first place. If relating the gruesome details were hard, think of how Jeanne felt when the story was told first hand. Reconciliation soon followed but not without exacting a huge cost to Jeanne. The cost of having family members feeling a sense of betrayal on the part of Jeanne. Public opinion was also fast and furious. People called her names.
This is a book about restorative justice. We cannot forgive too quickly as it may be a premature step that is dishonest to self. Neither can we procrastinate as it may lead to hatred and allow bitterness to fester. However, to get to that very place of genuine forgiveness takes a lot of honesty, a lot of courage, and a lot of faith. Many people tend to practice a one-sided honesty, that of mere human honesty. In human honesty, we tend to forgive only when we feel like it, or when we want to. It is driven from human effort and mortal strength. The typical outcome is to simply let the law take its course. Many are open to capital punishment and in the case of Biro, the death penalty. Not to execute the killer would seem to be a greater injustice. Unfortunately, such honesty fail to incorporate what it means from God's perspective. We can become so myopic about our own feelings that we shut God out. We also need courage. The step by step progression from hatred and shock to reconciliation was never easy but Jeanne was courageous to even begin the whole process. This came with help from relevant resources.
Courage is necessary in order to overcome a multitude of hatred and tough emotions. Even admitting to oneself the pains and sorrows is an act of courage. Likewise, it took courage for Biro to acknowledge his wrong and to accept the invitation of Jeanne to talk. Without courage, theory remains in the books. With courage comes action. With action comes God's grace and mercy being manifested.
Each step of restorative justice is a step of faith. I find it heartwarming and encouraging that Jeanne's journey was aided by the Word of God and her Christian faith. No one says that it is easy. Neither is it impossible, especially when followers of Christ are willing to let God empower them.
Be warned. This book is tough reading. There are several heart-pounding moments as readers are taken through the ups and downs of what forgiveness entails. The change of heart is not just for Jeanne. It applies also to her family members, David Biro, and readers like you and I.
Rating: 4.75 stars of 5.
This book is provided to me courtesy of Westminster John Knox Press and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.