The Common Good
March-April 2001

Revenge or Mercy?

by Nancy Hastings Sehested | March-April 2001

The last time Jake saw his mother, he spit on her.

My best, and worst, feeling is regret. I can slide over slippery rocks of "should-have-done." I can scream into echoing canyons of "if only." I can bury myself with heaps of regret at day's end with all that is undone on my to-do list: walk the dog, kiss the husband, visit the sick, release the prisoners, write the article, recycle the plastic, pray for peace. Shoulds can pile up like unpaid bills. But the deeper regrets, the ones that won't go away, are the choices missed and the relationships broken.

As a prison chaplain, I work behind razor wire fences and concrete walls. Prisons are designed to transform a regretted crime into contrite behavior through penalties and punishment. It rarely works. That kind of transformation requires more than sitting behind bars. Recently a long-time prisoner reminded me of the miracle that resides in a change of heart.

Jake is a 16-year veteran of prison life-and looks every bit the part of the angry, ex-wrestler that he was. He came to the chaplain's office wanting to see if arrangements could be made to see his dying mother. This isn't unheard of-according to state policy, an inmate can visit a dying family member in the hospital, or upon death. They can go to the funeral home to visit with the family. What was unusual was that Jake wanted to see his mother, a woman who had abused him and made his young life nothing but misery. He wanted to see her, and he was determined to see her before she died.

Jake's determination turned into frantic demands-the method of asking he had employed all his life. In the eye of this storm, a little truth slipped out: The last time Jake saw his mother, he had spit on her.

I WANT TO tell her I'm sorry that I spit on her," Jake said. "I don't know all of her story, but I know she had a tough life. I never really thought about it before. Now, I just want to make my peace with her." Big Jake started crying. "You know, Chap, all my life I've been mad when I should have been sad. I don't want to carry around any more mad in my life. I'm tired of it. I don't want my momma to die before I can tell her I regret that our life didn't turn out different. I gotta make my peace with my momma."

Jake was taken to see his mother. According to regulation, he went fully shackled, wrists and ankles, accompanied by two armed guards. That day, a dying mother received a visit from a contrite son. At his mother's last, Jake found a first. Peace discovered a place to dwell within him. Is it mercy that has the power to transform the aching heart of regret?

Regret begets regret, or callousness, unless mercy intervenes. We cannot begin again as persons, much less in our relationships or institutions, unless the action of forgiveness stops the cycle of madness and retaliation. The Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn observed this from the vantage point of years of suffering in labor camps. "In this way we differ from all animals," he said. "It is not our capacity to think that makes us different, but our capacity to repent, and to forgive. Only humans can perform that most unnatural act, and by doing so only they can develop relationships that transcend the relentless law of nature."

Now, as Christ has taught us, we are bold to say, "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us."

Nancy Hastings Sehested is a Baptist preacher and state prison chaplain living in the mountains of North Carolina.

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