Illinois Governor, Presidential Pardons, and Biblical Forgiveness

If you have come to The Crossing for a while, you may have heard Shay or Lynn share the tragic story of their friends Scott and Janet Willis. In yesterday’s Chicago Tribune well-known columnist, John Kass, interviewed the Willis’ in light of the presidential pardon being sought by former Illinois Governor George Ryan. Rarely would I post an entire article but in this case I think that it’s well worth it.

Scott and Janet Willis want to visit former Gov. George Ryan in federal prison.

And if they are given the chance to meet with the imprisoned Republican, they told me what they hope to do. They want to forgive him.

“There would be a great joy to say, ‘I forgive you,’ to be face to face with Mr. Ryan so, ultimately, he can gain a clean heart,” Scott said. “Of course, we’d be nervous about it. We’d feel pressure there, but we’d truly love to do it. But there is a burden on him.”

“The Bible talks about when we hide our sin, it eats away at us,” Janet said. “If he knows he’s done wrong, then this would be a tremendous release to him and to us, to personally forgive him, if he’s sincere. I can’t say he’s being sincere. I’d hope he’d be.”

The Willis family spoke to me by phone Tuesday in their first interview since Ryan’s legal team—as part of a clemency petition to President George W. Bush seeking an early prison release—made a news splash last week by issuing a carefully crafted letter Ryan reportedly co-wrote.

It caught the Willises by surprise. Ryan didn’t communicate with them. Neither did his lawyers.

So Scott and Janet want to set the record straight about the requirements and consequences of forgiveness, and the obligations they feel Ryan still owes to the people of Illinois and elsewhere put at risk by his licenses-for-bribes scandal.

They’d love to forgive Ryan, if he’s ready to admit to specifics and truly accept the consequences of his crimes. Part of accepting the consequences, they said, is for Ryan to accept his prison sentence and serve his time.

In the Ryan letter, read and promoted in a news conference by Ryan pal and legal adviser James Thompson, Ryan wrote that he was apologizing for “mistakes” he made. There was no mention of guilt for specific crimes. And, for the first time, Ryan acknowledged the Willis family’s “unimaginable pain and loss.”

“My heart has and always will go out to the Willis family,” read the Ryan letter. “They, like all the people of Illinois, deserved far better than I gave them.”

But Ryan didn’t make any mistakes. He was methodical and willful. A federal jury convicted him on 18 corruption counts, including allowing the deadly licenses-for-bribes scheme to continue under him when he was Illinois secretary of state and cynically quashing an investigation into whether a truck driver paid a bribe for his license before being involved in the horrific, fiery explosion that claimed the lives of six of Scott and Janet’s children.

“Look, you’re free to read this with all the cynicism you want,” Thompson said last week. “If people do that, I hope they’re not the same people who’ve been for the last year demanding an apology and then, upon receiving it, are cynical about it. That’s a trap from which no one could escape.”

When it comes to cynicism, I suppose we all must defer to Thompson. Yet rather than be angry with him, I felt pity. What came out of his mouth wasn’t impulsive, but rather the result of decades of practice. I wondered if the words burned his tongue on the way out of his mouth.

So I called the Willises, and we agreed to talk Tuesday.

“That news conference put us in a difficult position,” Janet said. “We were kind of caught. Do we say, ‘Yes, we forgive him,’ and they get what they want without any accountability? Or do we say, ‘No,’ and then we’re treated as prideful and angry. The burden was put on us. And because Ryan was vague and unclear, we were left in a no-man’s land.”

“This is not for our sake. The kids aren’t going to come back,” Scott said. “I don’t want to make things emotional here. Really, this is for his benefit. He talked about a clear conscience. But I don’t understand how you can have a clear conscience and live with a lie. So if we meet, it’s for his sake, to clear his conscience. Not for our sake.”

Scott said he and Janet prayed on it, and thought about it some more, and, finally, set down some requirement for their meeting.

“We wanted to talk to your readers and to Mr. Ryan about what forgiveness is about,” Scott said. He told me of a book that has given them comfort, “Unpacking Forgiveness” by Chris Brauns, which includes this definition:

“Forgiveness is the commitment by the offended to pardon graciously the repentant from moral liability and to be reconciled to that person, although not all consequences are necessarily eliminated.”

I asked them to explain.

“It means that there are consequences for our actions,” Scott said. “He’s paying for those actions. But if he’d truly like to be forgiven, then we’d have to sit down with him and go over the specific counts, like when he killed the investigation into the crash that took our children. And we’d have to see if there is true repentance. There can only be true repentance if he does admit he did all these things and that they were wrong.

“If he wouldn’t respond positively, it wouldn’t be maddening as it would be pitiable. I’m not going to get into saying, ‘I forgive you,’ if he doesn’t want to admit it. If we meet, I will ask very specific questions. I would like to know he knows he’s done wrong. If he doesn’t take responsibility, then there is no reason to continue.”

Janet and Scott believe, from a lifetime of reading the Bible and practicing their Christian faith, that many of us have it all wrong when it comes to forgiveness. Someone does something wrong, they admit sorrow for some vague offense and we feel pressure to forgive them. It’s all wrapped up in a neat package. That’s too easy.

“It doesn’t work that way,” Janet said. “Mistakes are mistakes. Children make mistakes. We all make mistakes. But if a person were truly repentant, then it’s not a mistake, it’s not an accident, it was deliberate. God doesn’t forgive us unless we repent. But how can we humans know? That’s the tricky part. You have to be willing to accept the consequences.”

The consequence is that Ryan must accept the idea that he serve out his prison sentence, they said, not for any offense against the Willises alone but for breaking his oath to the people of Illinois.

“He should do his time. He did criminal acts,” Scott said. “And still we’re concerned with him, with his well-being. God does work in people’s hearts to change them. This could be a dramatic instance of that.”

“If there is a change of heart,” Janet said. “If his heart has truly changed.”

I’m glad there are people like the Willises to teach us, that there are people who believe that politicians like Ryan can change their hearts, that the door to forgiveness is always open, but that those who truly seek it must repent and accept the consequences that flow from what they’ve done.

I have read many great reviews of Chris Brauns’s book Unpacking Forgiveness: Biblical Answers for Complex Questions and Deep Wounds. Here is the endorsement that the Willises wrote for the book:

“Grieving the loss of our six children in a van accident and then being reminded of that loss throughout thirteen years of subsequent battles forced us to search the Scriptures concerning the issue of forgiveness. Chris Brauns not only has confirmed answers that we had but has thoroughly sorted out what it takes to be right with God and man. This is a diligent work with heart.”

You might want to pick up a copy of the book. We are ordering some for The Crossing bookstore.

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