What the Green River Killer Has to Do With My Unexpected Lesson in Forgiveness
Gary Ridgway and Jesus. Photo credit: 2010 liquidnight/flickr. Use does not represent endorsement by the photographer.
Since I was a little girl, I have always known uttering the words “I forgive you” meant something special. It was something that had to be asked for after an apology, it was something that had to be meant in your heart when you said it, and it was something that wiped your slate clean when you heard it. But I didn’t know how much power that phrase packed until I watched a documentary on Gary Ridgway, AKA The Green River Killer.
Those of you who are unfamiliar with Gary Ridgway, let me give you some background. Ridgway is currently serving life in prison without the possibility of parole after being convicted of 49 murders. He slaughtered women. Prostitutes. In his trial he admitted that he thought he could get away with the crimes; that no one would miss those women.
He gets his name “The Green River Killer” because of his dump site along the Green River in Washington State.
Now, I’m not a morbid person. But when I see these killers I have a really rough time showing grace. I wrote about this awhile back. In an effort to extend grace I occasionally watch these kinds of documentaries in hopes to learn the “why,” to understand some sort of background that can help me wrap my head around this atrocity. I have to believe that people who can think like this are created – not born. So, I watch in hopes of receiving answers.
In this particular documentary, not only did I learn that Ridgway suffered extreme abuse at the hands of his mother, and that his life was excruciatingly troubled through his adolescent years. At Ridgway’s trial, every victim’s family member was allowed to get up and speak their peace. Let me tell you, they spoke. They ripped him up one side and down the other. They yelled, called names, screamed and cried. During this whole thing, Ridgway sat there stone-faced. He occasionally nodded, but there was nothing behind his eyes. These victims were telling him what he believed. It was almost as if he was enjoying hearing their scathing comments.
However, at one point, an older gentleman, who slightly resembled Santa Clause, slowly walked up to the stand. Ridgway had murdered his daughter, Linda Rule. He took a deep breath and began his speech:
Mr. Ridgway, there are people here who hate you. I’m not one of them. I forgive you for what you’ve done. You’ve made it difficult to live up to what I believe, and that is what God says to do, and that is forgive, and he doesn’t say to forgive just certain people, he says forgive all. So you are forgiven. My daughter was 16 at the time you killed her. My wife and I were separated, and she had to live on the street. She did things I may not have been proud of, but she was still a little girl. She was still my daughter.”
While listening to that speech, Gary Ridgway, the hardened and angry killer, broke down and wept. Forgiveness, it appeared, was not something he was prepared for. Calling him a monster, that was what he was anticipating. Forgiveness? Probably not in a million years.
I sat there in awe. This man’s forgiveness had such an impact on me. As I thought of how I might react, what words I might say to Ridgway if he had murdered my little girl. “I forgive you” would probably have not been on the top of the list.
Yet this man, this amazing example of God’s love, was able to stand up there and speak such powerful words, more powerful than the wishes of terminal cancer that others wished upon him; more powerful than informing Ridgway he would spend eternity in hell.
Apparently offering forgiveness can drive even the most emotionless to tears.
I guess, in the end, it gave me a lot to think about. God does call us all to forgive everyone. Not just the people who make it easy to forgive them, like the people who take our parking place, or make snotty comments to us. Nope, he calls us to forgive those who cut us right to our core. Those who harm our children, who murder our families, who rip our hearts out.
It is a hefty job that God has given us, however, in the end I think it is the biggest example of His love, and the biggest witness of his unconditional grace.
I believe it is a job we can not take lightly. I also believe it is a job that, right now, I’d receive a very poor review on.
I learned that forgiveness is not something we get to hand out like presents at Christmas to people we like. It is our duty, our calling, passed to us by someone who died on a cross so we could be forgiven. For this lesson, I’m so thankful for the grainy trial video, the morbid documentary of a serial killer and a humble father who took God’s commandments seriously.
So, now, I’d love to know, have you been taught an important lesson lately from a very unlikely source?