The hard, often unforgiving streets of Kensington felt a little softer underfoot this week. A Stranger was overheard making an amazing pronouncement. “I came to Philadelphia to commit a crime,” he said to no one in particular. “My daughter was raped, and I was going to kill the man who did it.” Most of those in close proximity to him didn’t register the magnitude of this statement: perhaps they did not hear him. But Mary Beth did; she leaned in to hear the rest. “I came for revenge,” he said, but I couldn’t do it.” Why? “Because when I went to his house, he was coming out the door with his four daughters. And I thought that if I killed him, his daughters would have no one to protect them from a rapist.” He called his own daughter on the phone. “You just have to forgive him,” she said.
The Stranger’s impulse for murder is horrifying, if understandable; his movement toward Mercy is miraculous , which is to say, what can happen every day if we pay attention. I don’t know what the mystery called Grace is, but this man who turned away from mayhem was surely a recipient of its instantaneous in-breaking of clarity, compassion, empathy. He embraced what was offered from the deep inner wisdom that is available to us all: a flash recognition of our common humanity, the vulnerability of all our children, the utter futility of the cycle of pain and sorrow that violence perpetuates.
In our violence-plagued and habituated world, here is a moment of hope, a template for our responses to all of the terrible wrongs that are inflicted on our bodies and souls. Here is a man who listened to his better angels and recognized his unity with others, their shared humanity. Such insight may be an indispensable factor in the forgiveness equation, but we don’t know if the Stranger has or will forgive his daughter’s attacker. We know only that this aggrieved and raging father chose life, not death.
I wish a news team, or Oprah would find and interview this man, spotlight both his struggle and his triumph. This is the mercy that is twice blessed, that incrementally heals the world and inches us closer to the day when all of us will live in peace and unafraid.
I offer for your reflection the following magnificent poem by Taha Muhammad Ali[i] Bless the Stranger and the poet; they are kindred spirits who have something profound, essential, and crucial to teach us.
At times…I wish I could meet in a duel the man who killed my father and razed our home, expelling me into a narrow country. And if he killed me, I’d rest at last, and if I were ready—-I would take my revenge!
But if it came to light. when my rival appeared, that he had a mother waiting for him, or a father who’d put his right hand over his heart’s place in his chest whenever his son was late even by just a quarter-hour for a meeting they’d set—then I would not kill him, even if I could.
Likewise, I would not murder him if he had a brother or sisters who loved him and constantly longed to see him. Or if he had a wife to greet him, and children who couldn’t bear his absence and whom his presence thrilled. Or if he had friends or companions, neighbors he knew or allies from prison or a hospital room, or classmates from his school asking about him and sending him regards.
But if he turned out to be on his own…cut off like a branch from a tree without a mother or father, with neither a brother nor a sister, wifeless, without a child, and without kin or neighbors or friends, colleagues or companions…then I’d add not a thing to his pain within that aloneness….not the torment of death, and not the sorrow of passing away.
Instead, I’d be content to ignore him when I passed him by on the street, as I convinced myself that paying no attention in itself was a kind of revenge.