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John Sumwalt mug Agri-View

John Sumwalt

When I was a young student pastor in Blue River in the early 1970s a neighboring pastor was assigned as my counseling elder. Donna was one of the few ordained women in our denomination at that time. I remember the afternoon we drove to a regional meeting together and something I said there that mortifies me to this day. As we were being introduced along with other student pastors and their mentors – all men – I made a clever sexist remark, something to the effect that I was fortunate to be working with an attractive woman. It got a cheap laugh, which is what I was going for.

On the way back Donna kindly told me that what I had said was inappropriate. She didn’t react with anger, which I likely would have done had the situation been reversed. Donna could have reported my behavior and slowed my path to ordination. Instead she gently explained why what I said was hurtful to her and others. I apologized for being a jerk. It was never mentioned again and we remained friends.

I learned something from Donna that I believe has made me a better person than I might otherwise have become. It was a moment of mercy that was transforming then and remains so all these years later. I learned that holding someone accountable for bad behavior is essential – but that it can be done in a way that’s merciful. The essence of mercy is that it’s undeserved.

Have you known mercy in your life? A recent Barna study showed that only 17 percent of American church-goers believe they have a responsibility to show mercy. That’s shocking, given the emphasis on God’s mercy throughout the scriptures.

Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”

The blessing of mercy is rare in these days of red state-blue state culture wars. Showing mercy is not easy in an atmosphere that some days seems totally devoid of grace and kindness. And it’s more complicated than simply overlooking wrongdoing.

In his review of Philip Yancey's book, “Rumors of Another World,” Keith Parkins cites an extraordinary story about the spirit of mercy that pervaded South Africa after Nelson Mandela was released from prison.

“As apartheid drew to an end and Nelson Mandela was released from Robben Island, Mandela could have called upon the blacks to rise up and seek vengeance on the whites,” he said. “He did not; he showed grace, and appointed Desmond Tutu to head the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. There was an understandable desire for justice, retribution; instead the path of forgiveness and reconciliation was chosen. The rules were simple: the perpetrators had to tell the truth, the whole truth, and their victims were given the opportunity to forgive.

“Many of the atrocities were truly horrific. A policeman called van de Broek told of how he and his fellow officers shot an 18-year-old youth, then burnt the body. Eight years later they went back, took the father, and forced his wife to watch as he was incinerated. She was in court to hear this confession and was asked by the judge what she wanted. She said she wanted van de Broek to go to the place where they burned her husband's body and gather up the dust so she could give him a decent burial; van de Broek agreed.

“She then added a further request: ‘Mr. van de Broek took all my family away from me, and I still have a lot of love to give. Twice a month, I would like for him to come to the ghetto and spend a day with me so I can be a mother to him. And I would like Mr. van de Broek to know that he is forgiven by God, and that I forgive him too. I would like to embrace him so he can know my forgiveness is real.’ Spontaneously, some in the courtroom began singing ‘Amazing Grace’ as the elderly woman made her way to the witness stand, but van de Broek did not hear the hymn. He had fainted, overwhelmed.”

John Sumwalt is a retired pastor and the son of dairy farmers. He is the author of “Shining Moments: Visions of the Holy in Ordinary Lives.” Email to reach him.

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