September 5, 2015

As I watched the relatives of those killed at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist church tearfully express forgiveness toward the suspected killer, I was moved by the profound impact of their narrative.

The moment inspired me to use this, my annual column of book recommendations, to commend books that portray mercy and compassion.

The essentials of forgiveness found in Charleston, South Carolina, are much the same as I saw in the incident that stirred my recent book, “Hero’s Highway: A Chaplain’s Journey Toward Forgiveness Inside a Combat Hospital.” (Amazon, 2015)

The book follows my ministry to the combat wounded during my 2009 deployment to Iraq. Its climax is an Easter explosion that wounded three soldiers and killed a fourth. When one of the wounded asked me to pray that God would forgive the insurgents who killed his friend, something changed for me.

The same mercy is everpresent in “A Higher Call: An Incredible True Story of Combat and Chivalry in the War-Torn Skies of World War II” (Berkley, 2014) by Adam Makos and Larry Alexander.

The story is undoubtedly WWII’s most incredible aerial encounter between enemy combatants. It recounts a German fighter ace who spares the crew of a disabled American bomber flown by Captain Charlie Brown. After the war, Brown quickly discovers that gratitude can’t be silent in the face of true grace.

There is no better nonfiction book on forgiveness than Laura Hillenbrand’s “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption” (Random House, 2010). It’s the story of a POW with severe post-traumatic stress disorder whose encounter with faith inspires him to forgive his former captors. If you can put the book down after reading the opening chapter, you have more impulse control than the average person.

“Gilead,” by Marilynne Robinson (Picador, 2004), is among the best fiction I’ve read. This Pulitzer Prize-winning book is a deliberate, poetic storytelling from the viewpoint of Rev. John Ames, a Congregational minister who struggles to forgive his adult son for sins toward the family.

Rev. Ames states his attitude toward his prodigal son in a legacy letter to Ames’ 6-year-old son: “He could knock me down the stairs, and I would have worked out the theology for forgiving him before I reached the bottom. But if he harmed you in the slightest way, I’m afraid theology would fail me.”

The last two books I recommend because, like the expressive relatives of the Charleston victims, I think there is a great deal to learn from people who can communicate forgiveness toward those who do horrific things.

“The Devil in Pew Number Seven” (Tyndale House, 2010) by Rebecca Nichols Alonzo and Robert G. DeMoss seems like it’ll be the typical true-crime story. It’s not. It’s the childhood memoir of a preacher’s daughter who watches a church member gun down her parents. The forgiveness she offers toward the man is nothing short of saintly.

“Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy” (Jossey-Bass, 2007) tells the story of the execution-style killings of five Amish schoolchildren in 2006 in a one-room schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. Authored by three college professors, the book gracefully avoids graphic details while plumbing the depths of true forgiveness.

I recommend these books with one caution: reading them during the Labor Day weekend might remind you just how labor-intensive forgiveness can be. Or, as Mahatma Gandhi said: “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”
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