Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Governor Ryan, the Willis Family, and the Pursuit of Biblical Forgiveness

While everybody is talking about Illinois's current scandal-ridden governor, many may not know (or may have forgotten) that our previous governor, Republican George Ryan, went to federal prison last year to serve a six year sentence.

In the Chicago Tribune this morning John Kass summarizes what happened:
A federal jury convicted him on 18 corruption counts, including allowing the deadly licenses-for-bribes scheme to continue under him when he was Illinois secretary of state and cynically quashing an investigation into whether a truck driver paid a bribe for his license before being involved in the horrific, fiery explosion that claimed the lives of six of Scott and Janet's children.
Ryan has never apologized or expressed remorse--until last week. Hoping to receive clemency from President Bush, the former governor, wrote a letter offering a "heartfelt apology" for his "mistakes." (You can read the letter here.)

Scott Willis, the father, is a pastor. Janet, the mother, is the author of a wonderful children's book on forgiveness. Together they have offered consistent, Christian witness in the light of sin and tragedy. (You can read online a Crossway tract in which they give their testimony: Through the Flames: The Willis Family Story.)

The Chicago Tribune's Kass tracked down the Willises to get their reaction to Ryan's news conference:
"That news conference put us in a difficult position," Janet said. "We were kind of caught. Do we say, 'Yes, we forgive him,' and they get what they want without any accountability? Or do we say, 'No,' and then we're treated as prideful and angry. The burden was put on us. And because Ryan was vague and unclear, we were left in a no-man's land."

"This is not for our sake. The kids aren't going to come back," Scott said. "I don't want to make things emotional here. Really, this is for his benefit. He talked about a clear conscience. But I don't understand how you can have a clear conscience and live with a lie. So if we meet, it's for his sake, to clear his conscience. Not for our sake."

Scott said he and Janet prayed on it, and thought about it some more, and, finally, set down some requirement for their meeting.

"We wanted to talk to your readers and to Mr. Ryan about what forgiveness is about," Scott said. He told me of a book that has given them comfort, "Unpacking Forgiveness" by Chris Brauns, which includes this definition:

"Forgiveness is the commitment by the offended to pardon graciously the repentant from moral liability and to be reconciled to that person, although not all consequences are necessarily eliminated."

I asked them to explain.

"It means that there are consequences for our actions," Scott said. "He's paying for those actions. But if he'd truly like to be forgiven, then we'd have to sit down with him and go over the specific counts, like when he killed the investigation into the crash that took our children. And we'd have to see if there is true repentance. There can only be true repentance if he does admit he did all these things and that they were wrong.

"If he wouldn't respond positively, it wouldn't be maddening as it would be pitiable. I'm not going to get into saying, 'I forgive you,' if he doesn't want to admit it. If we meet, I will ask very specific questions. I would like to know he knows he's done wrong. If he doesn't take responsibility, then there is no reason to continue."

Janet and Scott believe, from a lifetime of reading the Bible and practicing their Christian faith, that many of us have it all wrong when it comes to forgiveness. Someone does something wrong, they admit sorrow for some vague offense and we feel pressure to forgive them. It's all wrapped up in a neat package. That's too easy.

"It doesn't work that way," Janet said. "Mistakes are mistakes. Children make mistakes. We all make mistakes. But if a person were truly repentant, then it's not a mistake, it's not an accident, it was deliberate. God doesn't forgive us unless we repent. But how can we humans know? That's the tricky part. You have to be willing to accept the consequences."

The consequence is that Ryan must accept the idea that he serve out his prison sentence, they said, not for any offense against the Willises alone but for breaking his oath to the people of Illinois.

"He should do his time. He did criminal acts," Scott said. "And still we're concerned with him, with his well-being. God does work in people's hearts to change them. This could be a dramatic instance of that."

"If there is a change of heart," Janet said. "If his heart has truly changed."

I'm glad there are people like the Willises to teach us, that there are people who believe that politicians like Ryan can change their hearts, that the door to forgiveness is always open, but that those who truly seek it must repent and accept the consequences that flow from what they've done.
Read the whole thing.

I again commend Chris Brauns's excellent treatment of these issues in Unpacking Forgiveness: Biblical Answers for Complex Questions and Deep Wounds. Here is the endorsement that the Willises wrote for the book:
“Grieving the loss of our six children in a van accident and then being reminded of that loss throughout thirteen years of subsequent battles forced us to search the Scriptures concerning the issue of forgiveness. Chris Brauns not only has confirmed answers that we had found but has thoroughly sorted out what it takes to be right with God and man. This is a diligent work with heart.”