Posted by: Botolff | March 10, 2009

Hope.

Jennifer Thompson-Cannino was a 22 year old college student at Elon College in North Carolina in 1984.  One night an assailant entered her home and raped her in her own bedroom.  Thank God she survived the horrific ordeal.  As she was being assaulted, Jennifer had the wherewithal to intricately study her attacker’s facial features.  A few days later, after developing a composite sketch of her attacker, the police tracked down and captured Ronald Cotton; a man who had some run-ins with the law earlier in his teen years, and whose face resembled the composite sketch Jennifer had created with the police.  After picking Ronald out in a line-up, it took a very short time to convict Ronald of the crime that he actually said he didn’t commit.  He was quickly sentenced to a life in prison.

While serving his sentence in jail, Ronald Cotton came in contact with Bobby Poole.  Bobby’s facial features looked strikingly like Ronald’s.  They were so similar that Ronald thought to ask him if he had committed the crime.  Bobby denied it; but one of Bobby’s friends later told Ronald that Bobby had confessed to him that Ronald was serving a sentence for Bobby’s crime.  Ronald took a picture of Bobby and sent it to his lawyer, telling him of Bobby’s confession.  There was enough evidence that there was a retrial three years after the original one.  Jennifer again was required to pick out her attacker in a courtroom.  She was adamant that Ronald was her assailant.  He returned to jail for another 8 years.  It wasn’t until Ronald was watching the O.J. Simpson trial on television that he found out about DNA testing.  He asked his lawyer if it was possible to gain any DNA evidence in his case.  His lawyer did some research, got a hold of the rape kit used on Jennifer that night, and found a small bit of evidence still admissible that proved that…Bobby Poole was the rapist.  Overnight, after an 11 year prison sentence, Ronald was free…but Jennifer was not.

Jennifer admitted to people that, ironically, she never felt shame for being a rape victim.  But she did feel a debilitating amount of shame and guilt when she came to grips with the FACT that she had wrongly accused an innocent man, and took a significant portion of 11 years of his life away from him by sending him to prison…twice.  She was beside herself for two years after his release.  Then one day she decided to do something about all of her guilt and shame.  She went looking for Ronald Cotton.  It didn’t take long to find him and offer him what she had owed him for two years after his release…her apologies.  Ronald quickly accepted, claiming he couldn’t have lived out his prison sentence carrying a grudge towards someone who made an honest mistake.  He said he had already forgiven her by the second year of his term.  He just hoped for the truth to be known in order to experience his own exoneration.

Well that did indeed happen.  Now, together, they have written a book called “Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption.” When Jennifer was asked why she didn’t pursue Cotton sooner, she said she was scared that he would do something to her or her children to exact revenge.  But she couldn’t live with the guilt of what she had done.  She knew Ronald deserved at least her apology, and really 11 years of life back that she would never be able to repay.  Ronald wasn’t interested in revenge, he was interested in redemption.  Now they are friends and travel around talking about what had happened.  I guess he found some.

Redemption comes when people apologize (repent) for wrongs done; and those who have been wronged accept the perpetrator’s heartfelt acknowledgment of the injustices done, and offer direction on the necessary actions to support their assailant’s repentant claims.  That’s what I want as a wounded minister…because that is redemption.  I speak for myself because each story is different and some men and women are not where I am at.  Although some days I would just like people to pay for what they did to me, most days I just wish people would own their failures and commit to change.  A professor of mine in my master’s program said to us that if he was good at revenge, he might try to get some; but he’s not.  He leaves it up to God, because God is the only one who can exact on evil, not people, what evil truly deserves.  Some days I just don’t feel like that’s good enough.  Most days, I see what he means, and ask God to help me to address the problem, not try to get my own revenge.

Sometimes it takes time.  It takes time for people to realize what they’ve done.  It takes even longer for us to admit it.  I’m working on a letter right now.  When I get done with it, I will probably have more I should be working on.  But I’ll start with the first one.  It’s going to be written to a man who I helped terminate from a ministry position almost 10 years ago.  In this situation, he was a man who had made some really poor choices in his ministry, and probably even needed to step down from his ministry position.  However, he never deserved the kind of treatment that he got from a number of us who surrounded him; those who were in many regards entrusted with his care and should have helped him on the road to restoration, if he would have been willing.  Instead, in many regards we cut him loose and told him good luck.  Even worse, I sent a letter to a number of people in our office building letting them know he made some poor choices, and that he was being let go from our ministry as a result.  I thought it was an opportunity to appropriately warn people of his “sinfulness.”  The problem is, that they didn’t need warning.  His sinfulness had very little to do with them, and they weren’t in jeopardy of being taken advantage of by him.  I now believe my actions were in part an attempt to make him pay for what he had done, and to try and protect myself from being hurt worse.  The truth is he was wrong, and I’m not sure that he could have been trusted.  What’s also the truth is that my actions didn’t help to address that.  They really helped to exacerbate his pain and inflame the situation.  Oh what we will do when we’re scared.

I hope he accepts my apology.  I believe that if I were to get an honest apology, one backed by action, that I would be likely to forgive my perpetrators.  But even if I didn’t/don’t, just like if this man doesn’t forgive me, repentance can’t be contingent on the outcome.  It must be driven by the need to do so, because it’s our actions that we are responsible for, not the other person’s.  Because it’s the appropriate and loving thing to do.  Because we owe people at least that, and it may be the only thing that we have to offer that can help repay our debt to them.

Who do you owe an apology to?  Will you risk offering it for the sake of hope and redemption?

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