Katja Rosenberg made the news this year when she traveled to a prison in England to have a face-to-face meeting with the man who raped her seven years before. It took her two years of determined effort to arrange this encounter. She didn’t want to confront him; she wasn’t interested in telling him how his attack had ruined her life. In fact, she required nothing from him at all. Katja wanted to give him a gift by letting him know that she had forgiven him.
She found the young man to be nervous about their encounter, but responsive to her words. He took responsibility for what he’d done, she reported, and voiced his desire to live differently when he is eventually released from prison. Katja was touched by his response and hopes for a better future for him than his past would dictate. When she was interviewed about her trip to the prison, she said, “I feel that I have now given him everything I can for him to be able to believe in himself and to believe he has a future.”
Our logical minds say this sort of act makes no sense. How can a woman forgive a man for forcefully and criminally taking from her what should only be shared freely, affectionately, and from conscious choice? How can she let go of all the hurt and hatred that would likely and legitimately accompany such a physical violation? She talks little about that, but emphasizes she does not think her attacker’s actions are unforgiveable. Katja makes it clear that she has not and will not see herself as a “victim.” By making the choice to forgive, her actions bring her words to life. A victim hangs on to her pain and relives the assault; a woman of choice moves on, forgiving the one who attacked her and abandoning an abhorrent night to history.
What a gift this 40-year-old woman has given a young man, now in his 20s. It remains to be seen whether or not he’ll accept her benevolence and make the most of it, but her willingness to extend grace is remarkable.
Katja’s story was told in the London Daily Mirror, but the popular press is not the only place where accounts of grace that make no sense can be found. The Bible also relates such stories. In one of his parables, Jesus spun a tale of illogical grace. A shepherd with a hundred sheep goes off to find a single sheep that has wandered away. It makes no sense to leave ninety-nine sheep who are in the fold to find one that has taken off, but that is the nature of grace. A Good Shepherd can’t rest until the entire flock has been brought home.
The Rabbi from Nazareth also related the story of an employer who hired some workers first thing in the morning, others at mid-morning, more at noon, a few at mid-afternoon, and a final batch an hour before quitting time. When it was time to receive their wages, he paid them all the same amount. Above the grumblings of those hired earlier in the day, this businessman asserted his right to pay whatever he chose. The story makes no business sense at all, and it’s not intended to because it’s a tale of grace.
The truth is grace defies logic because it’s not about owning and earning at all. No one can earn grace, whether given by a fellow human being or by divine decree, because grace is a gift. Gifts aren’t deserved, they are simply received.
Katja Rosenberg doesn’t mention it directly, but there is another benefit of extended grace, and this one is for the grace-giver. When I let go, when I forgive, I let myself out of prison. If I nurture my anger, coddle my sense of being wronged, and incubate my injuries, I remain locked up in a penitentiary of my own making. The legal system doesn’t send me to jail; I put myself there. Grace asks, “Have you had enough? Then let go the hate and let me heal the hurt.” When I answer in the affirmative, I let me off the hook.
In his popular book What’s So Amazing About Grace, Philip Yancey writes, “If the world demands retribution, the church dispenses grace. If the world splinters into factions, the church joins together in unity. If the world destroys its enemies, the church loves them.” Or at least that is God’s intention. Sadly, disciples of Jesus are often little better at actually offering grace than are folks who claim no such higher calling.
In a world filled with “ungrace,” stories of grace give us pause and hope. Perhaps I can release the pointed pain and abundant anger of a heinous wrong committed against me. With divine direction and inspired energy, I might release myself and someone I know from the chains of an appalling past.
Whether I am the giver or receiver of grace, when I’m ready, I can choose to make my life and my world better after all. It’s messy and difficult and costs me nothing, while at the same time costing me more than I might think I can manage. That’s the challenge of grace.