Forgiving the Dead Man Walking

  Dead Man Walking's gripping portrayal of a man on death row made it one of the most powerful films to come out of Hollywood in recent memory. But believe it or not, it only told half the story—and it left out the best part. The power of Dead Man Walking was its portrayal of the inherent dignity and value of even a hardened criminal. But the story behind the story—the story of the victim—goes even further, depicting the uniquely Christian message of forgiveness. Sixteen-year-old Debbie Morris was out on a date with her boyfriend, Mark, one Friday evening. After pizza and a movie, they stopped for milkshakes. But when a stranger put a revolver to Mark's head, their pleasant night out turned into several hours of torture, rape, and attempted murder. It ended with Mark shot, but alive, and Debbie deeply wounded. But Debbie would not find true healing until she was able to comprehend and embrace the forgiveness only God can provide. Although the film Dead Man Walking depicted Debbie's kidnappers as one man, there were actually two: Robert Lee Willie and Joe Vaccaro. They kidnapped and robbed them, leaving Mark for dead. Before releasing Debbie, they tormented and raped her repeatedly. When the two men were captured, Vaccaro received five life sentences and, as the film showed, Willie was executed for his crimes—he eventually admitted involvement in several murders, including butchering another girl. But Debbie's anguish did not end when Willie was sentenced to die. Despite those who urged her to "get on with her life," her emotional ordeal continued. As Debbie writes in her book, Forgiving the Dead Man Walking, "Justice doesn't really heal all the wounds." It was when Debbie found the grace to forgive Robert Willie, the day he was to be executed, that she finally knew release from suffering. In prayer—for herself and for Willie—she discovered that only God's grace is sufficient to bind up the wounds of the human heart. Forgiveness, you see, is much more than telling ourselves that an offense just doesn't matter anymore. On the contrary, forgiveness recognizes the debt for what it is. And it doesn't just liberate the debtor from his debt—it transforms the heart of the one who forgives. In fact, forgiveness is an imitation of God's own act of forgiveness on the Cross. By forsaking what we are legitimately owed, we recognize that we, too, have been forgiven a debt we can never repay. And that's why true forgiveness is both a beacon and a scandal to the secular mind. Secular society has nothing that resembles the forgiveness that the Gospel makes possible, what Debbie Morris experienced. And it simply cannot make sense of parents who would forgive the killers of their children, like those murdered at Columbine, so much in the news this week. Remember those scenes, so vivid on television? Of the parents forgiving Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris. Of the crosses on the side of the hill. Their forgiving witness is an unmistakable presentation of the transforming love of the Gospel. We may never be called to forgive an offense as grave as that inflicted on Debbie Morris—or the families of Littleton, Colorado. But we must be prepared to forgive, not only for our own sakes, but for the sake of our Christian witness. And when we do, we give the world something better than a good movie plot—we give them a glimpse of The Greatest Story Ever Told.


Chuck Colson



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