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From Vengeance to Forgiveness

Written by Brian Halderman

Dear Friends,

It was a cold night in February 1999 when I joined a group of students from the University of Dayton at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility near Lucasville for the execution of Wilford Berry, the first Ohio execution since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976. Wilford was a volunteer, meaning he gave up the appeals process to be executed; some would say he committed suicide with the help of the state. It was fairly clear that he was guilty of the crimes committed and deserved punishment, but I was there outside the prison with hundreds of other protestors to stand in solidarity for what I consider a distinct value – the value of one’s life. There were a handful of protestors across the way also standing for the value of life, the value of the victim’s life. The difference in them and us is that they sought vengeance and we sought forgiveness. We no less valued the life of the victim by standing in defiance to the execution; in fact we sought a respect for ALL of human life no matter guilty or innocent.

That night changed me. It gave me an awareness of the despair one faces in times of death, whether it be the murder of a loved one or the execution of the perpetrator. I met anti-death penalty activists and decided to dedicate time to this movement. I asked myself some difficult questions and prayed about such a decision for myself. I realized that Jesus was killed by state sanctioned death. He was executed. Christ’s response was that of forgiveness, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” It also struck me that there are a lot of people who have been victims of violent crime and lost loved ones to murder who hold vengeance in their hearts and I wondered what I could do to help them overcome such hurt and despair.

In 2000, the Marianist Social Justice Collaborative formed the Death Penalty Issue Team and it was my opportunity to become more intimately involved in this social justice issue. It seems as if doors kept opening up for me after that cold and dark February night outside the execution chamber. As the work of the team evolved we began meeting others involved in the movement, including murder victim family members who sought alternatives to the death penalty. Murder victim family members who have overcome vengeance to a place of healing, and in some cases forgiveness, are among the most incredible people I have ever met. I became involved in one organization for murder victim family members called Journey of Hope – From Violence to Healing and now serve on the board of directors for this organization. The mission is to educate others about the inequalities of the death penalty by sharing personal stories of violence to healing.

You might be asking, so what does all this have to do with hospitality? Well, as a people committed to a way of life centered in hospitality, that is, as Marianists, we are a people rooted in a spirit of welcome and solidarity. The death penalty has much to do with hospitality. Using Mary as my model, I see a mother who stood at the cross; she stood and watched her son be killed by the government. Over 2,000 years later we still have mothers standing to watch their sons be killed. So, I stand at the cross each time the state kills another. I stand at the cross every time I meet a family member who has lost a loved one to murder. At times this “standing” gets tiring and a bit overwhelming, however, the work of hospitality means sacrifice. To truly be hospitable to others, we must sacrifice time and energy. It is a total giving of ourselves. One of my friends often preaches during the Lenten season that we “should throw our bodies at the cross,” meaning we should put our entire selves in solidarity with the sacrifice Christ made for us. Being a people of hospitality is more than welcoming people into our home. It is a movement to solidarity and a deeper understanding of the complexities that develop in life.

When I first met Marietta Jaeger, who lost her six-year-old daughter, Suzie, to murder while on a family camping trip in Montana, all I could think to do was give her a hug. This woman had literally been to hell and back with such an ordeal. Now, over 20 years later, Marietta has dedicated much of her time to speaking about the power of forgiveness. She was able to look the killer of her daughter in the eye and tell him he was forgiven. This action changed her life. Marietta says, “It is difficult for people to understand what it takes to get past that initial response of wanting revenge, so they assume that my lack of feelings of revenge reflects a lack of love for Susie. All I can say to them is that I loved her very much and I hope they never have to go through what I did in order to be able to understand what I am talking about…She (Susie) had a sweet and gentle spirit. I don’t want that spirit dishonored by having her death avenged with more violence.” Marietta practices hospitality every time she steps to a podium and speaks of forgiveness. She creates a place of value and welcome for all. She stands, as Mary stood in solidarity with other victims of violent crime.

As Marianists, we are called to stand. Sometimes standing can be more powerful than the spoken word. But when we are challenged to speak, we speak only out of love.

Mary, be with us at the foot of the cross, teach us to be a people of hospitality and forgiveness. Teach us to follow your son’s path of healing and forgiveness. Renew in us our commitment to work for a just and equitable society.

Brian Halderman
St. Louis, Missouri