A masked man dressed all in black grabbed a colleague’s girlfriend at the doorway of their apartment and held a gun on her. My peaceful friend acted, forcefully, stopping the thug, and got stabbed repeatedly in his lungs. Fortunately, he and his girlfriend both survived. And finally, the attacker was caught by the police; it turned out he had murdered another victim in a separate crime.
Sounds like the daily news does it not? Both horrific and usual, a troubling combination.
All across the world, millions of humans are being imperiled, attacked, and slaughtered, and understandably, many leaders are calling for revenge, for an “eye for an eye” against such killers. It’s payback time.
And can anyone blame the compatriots who yell out for vengeance and justice against such evil-doers?
But here’s where a few humans take a different road. These life-changers strike with a very different choice, a very different ethical response. For in the end, Phill Courtney got up in court and spoke personally to the murderous criminal who had stabbed him. He faced his attacker in the dock and said,
“So Mr. Scott does this mean that I think you are evil? Do I think you’re an animal? Scum? Human garbage?”
“It does not. Your acts were evil, but you remain a human being. I may find your behavior unfathomable, but I am reminded of the words of the ancient theologian Tertullian who said, ‘Nothing human is foreign to me.’"
“Human beings are capable of an immense spectrum of behavior ranging from the most heinous acts of cruelty and mass murder to almost miraculous feats of self-sacrifice that leave us gasping in astonishment. The great mystery is what causes one person to head one direction and someone else in another. I cannot begin to solve that mystery, but I know that you and I headed in opposite directions before we met that night…”
“I know that I grew up in a stable home with two parents who loved and nurtured me. I know that you grew up in foster homes and I know about the instability of your mother. I know that when we begin to talk of such circumstances many people begin to think that we are talking about an excuse for your behavior, instead of an explanation. It doesn’t matter that some people raised as I was become criminals and some people raised in your condition become pillars of the community. In the final analysis, the human race does a poor job of protecting its children from hate, dysfunction, and cruelty. We are told that we have control over our lives and we are responsible for our actions, but children have no control over their lives…”
“What does this mean for those wounded children who grow up and then seek to wound those around them? What is to be their punishment? Plato wrote that “punishment brings wisdom; it is the healing art of wickedness.” Would capital punishment bring healing?”
“Before I was attacked, I believed that the execution of human beings was a violent and primitive act. I still believe that. Yes, I would have done whatever it would have taken to stop you that night, Mr. Scott, but now that you are confined, I believe that despite what you have done, you remain a human being and must be treated as one. A wise man…said that a society should be judged not by how it treats its best, but by how it treats its worst.”
“…You must remain separated from others as long as there’s a shadow of doubt you are capable of violence against them. If that essentially means the rest of your life, then so be it.”
“Finally, Mr. Scott, I forgive you for trying to murder me."
"I know that’s just a word. But to forgive you does not mean to forget what you did and what you could do in the future, for besides tragically destroying and damaging the lives of others, you have ultimately destroyed your own. I hope that by reaching, at long last, the end of this agonizingly long trial, we may move on and find whatever peace and comfort can be had in this less than perfect world.”
Wow. Reflect on Phill Courtney’s unusual, brave, and compassionate action--speaking personally to the vicious attacker who had tried to murder him and his girlfriend, telling that dangerous thug that he “forgives” him.
It still takes my breath away.
Would you be deeply committed enough to wisdom, compassion, and forgiveness to do that? Would I?
They say talk is cheap…but in this case, verbally forgiving a violent criminal who had stabbed you, was very powerful and ethically the opposite of cheap. That action must have been very difficult for Phill Courtney to do.
Phill isn’t your average human…but an ethical thinker and doer. He has spent his life standing up for the environment, justice, peace, and forgiveness. A passionate peacemaker, he was one of only two teachers who stood up against the attack on Iraq, and is a former Green Party Candidate, active socially concerned citizen, a person who seeks to live the ethic of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. and other world-changers.
What are your thoughts on his views of capital punishment, criminal justice, and ethics in general?
*Phill Courtney has written several books including one on this harrowing experience.
He is also a columnist for the Redlands Daily Facts, and a published playwright and poet.
Please check with him for more information.