Gary Wright’s secretary had noticed a man in the parking lot. He’d been wearing a hood and sunglasses, she later recalled, and his face was ruddy and chapped as though he lived outdoors. She’d seen him place something on the ground outside the Wrights’ family computer business office, though at the time she had no reason to think it important.
When he came to work that day in February of 1987, Gary noticed in his parking lot what looked like a piece of timber with nails in it—something that he feared might flatten a customer’s tyre. As he kicked it aside, he remembers hearing a soft click.
He doesn’t remember the explosion. He does remember coming to consciousness seven metres away, fragments of the package still raining down on him. His trousers were torn off, shrapnel had severed nerves and arteries, and a nail had ripped through his chin and lips, barely missing his eye. Over the following months, Gary underwent multiple surgeries to reconnect nerves and tendons and reconstruct his face.
Gary was the victim of an unidentified serial terrorist whom the FBI had nicknamed the Unabomber. It wasn’t until about nine years later that Dave Kaczynski recognised, in the Unabomber’s published “Manifesto”, the rantings of his brilliant but unstable brother, Ted Kaczynski. Dave informed the FBI.
Shortly after the Unabomber’s arrest in 1996, Dave Kaczynski phoned his brother’s victims to apologise on behalf of the Kaczynski family. “But you didn’t do this,” Gary protested when Dave called him. “It’s not your fault.” At Ted’s trial in Sacramento, Gary publicly thanked Dave for his courage in reporting his brother and thus ending the violence.
Later, during a break in the proceedings, Gary was touring Sacramento’s Old Town when his mobile phone rang. It was Dave Kaczynski. He wanted to talk. The two men met at a hotel and talked for hours about families, about loss and disappointment. It was the beginning of a solid friendship that lasts to this day. In the 10 years since, the two have travelled thousands of kilometres together, telling their story of forgiveness and lobbying against the death penalty.
It would have been quite understandable had Gary Wright spurned the brother of the man who’d tried to kill him, but he chose to forgive rather than live with his anger and resentment.
I occasionally meet people who carry in their hearts wrongs done to them years ago. Sometimes those who injured them are long dead—but they speak of the injury as though it were happening at that moment! It colours their entire lives. They rehearse the story to anyone who will listen. It keeps them looking back at a hurtful past instead of anticipating a better future.
Clean out dead wood
A tree surgeon once explained to me why it’s important to remove the dead branches from trees: not only might they fall on people and animals below, but when storms come, the living parts of the trees are more likely to be damaged because of the drag of the dead branches.
It’s a powerful image. Life is hard, and we too are buffeted by its storms. Why carry about dead wood from the past that doesn’t contribute to our growth and tears at our spirits? When we hold hatred and resentment in our hearts, we may have little effect on the other person—but we do great harm to ourselves.
But what if the person who hurt you never apologises? Surprisingly, that’s not a key point in your willingness or ability to forgive. The poet John Dryden wrote, “Forgiveness to the injured doth belong.” Forgiveness is a gift to the offended, not to the offender. Whether or not the other person is sorry, when you understand the effect on yourself of cherishing hurtful feelings, you’ll want to eliminate them before they destroy you.
When He spoke of forgiveness, Jesus never made the perpetrator’s apology a requirement. “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you,” He said. “But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:14, 15). You can forgive even if the other person isn’t sorry for his or her actions!
Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, wasn’t sorry—he refused to cooperate with an insanity plea and wanted to reiterate his violent political views. But, at his trial, Gary Wright spoke directly to him. “I do not hate you,” he said. “I learned to forgive and heal a long time ago. Without this ability, I would have become kindling for your cause.” What a depth of understanding! If I hate you, I become like you. The hatred had to stop somewhere. It stopped with him.
Jesus was treated as badly as any man who ever lived. Though He could have called 12 legions of angels—72,000—to assist Him (Matthew 26:53), He never sought retaliation against His persecutors. Nor did He wait for them to express remorse. As He hung on the cross, His bodyweight suspended on two nails through His outstretched hands, struggling to breathe, He managed to gasp, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
On the evening of April 25, 1958, In Ho Oh, a young Korean exchange student in Philadelphia, walked to the corner to post a letter to his family in Pusan. Turning from the mailbox, he stepped into the path of eleven leather-jacketed teens. The boys attacked him with a lead pipe, a soft drink bottle and their fists. They wanted, they later said, 65 cents each to get into a dance. In Ho Oh had no money. When the police found him in the gutter, he was dead.
Philadelphia cried out for vengeance. The district attorney secured legal authority to try the boys as adults so they’d qualify for the death penalty.
Then a letter arrived from Korea that changed everything. It was signed by the parents and 20 other relatives of the murdered boy. It read in part, “Our family has met together and we have decided to petition that the most generous treatment possible within the laws of your government be given to those who have committed this criminal action. . . . In order to give evidence of our sincere hope contained in this petition, we have decided to save money to start a fund to be used for the religious, educational, vocational and social guidance of the boys when they are released. . . . We have dared to express our hope with a spirit received from the gospel of our Saviour Jesus Christ who died for our sins.”
The epitaph on In Ho Oh’s tombstone in a Philadelphia cemetery, reads, “To turn sorrow into Christian purpose.” What tremendous power there is in forgiveness!
Jesus is infinitely gracious toward us. “If we confess our sins,” wrote His apostle, John, “he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). God’s forgiveness is so readily available to us, so graciously granted, why wouldn’t we be as forgiving to others as He has been to us? Says the apostle Paul, “Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Colossians 3:13; italics added).
There is, says the preacher of Ecclesiastes, “A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away” (Ecclesiastes 3:6, KJV).
Now is the time to cast away whatever resentments you hold close to you, whatever anger that weighs you down—to forgive even those who haven’t asked for it. That’s what God does for you and me!