The Power of Forgiveness Where Grace Abounds

by Chuck Colson

When Brooks Douglas was 16 years old, his parents were murdered before his eyes. Today, Douglas is an Oklahoma state senator, and his story underscores the importance of programs that foster reconciliation between criminals and their victims.

Douglas’s grisly story began two decades ago when a pair of drifters broke into his family home. The men tied up his parents, stole their wedding rings, and raped his 12-year-old sister. The men then calmly sat down to eat the family meal before they shot all four victims, leaving them to die.

Douglas’s mother and father died almost at once. But he and his sister managed to untie themselves and get help. The killers were caught, but Douglas’s nightmare was far from over. The killers appealed their sentences, and, over the next decade, Douglas had to go to court and testify again and again. Every time, he was forced to relive that terrible night.

Douglas attended law school to learn how the system works. In 1991 he became the youngest senator in the Oklahoma Senate. He sponsored legislation designed to speed up the appeals process and promote victims’ rights. But his anger over what had happened to his parents never went away.

Then in 1995, something unexpected happened. On an official visit to the state penitentiary, Douglas saw Glen Ake, one of the men who had killed his parents. Douglas felt compelled to walk over and speak to him. What Ake had to say astounded him.

"I want you to know," Ake said, "that I am so, so sorry about what I did to you and your family." Ake began to weep, and then he told Douglas that he had accepted Christ eight years earlier. Senator Douglas, who is also a Christian, did what seemed impossible to him just a short time before. He forgave the man who had murdered his parents.

"It was the most dramatic physical experience that’s happened to me since the night we were shot," he later told Prison Fellowship employees in our weekly chapel. "It was like poison draining out."

In our criminal justice system, most criminals never talk with the person they have harmed. At best, criminals and their victims might catch a glimpse of each other across the courtroom. That’s why Prison Fellowship actively supports programs designed to bring criminals and their victims together. When well-managed, this kind of program gives victims a chance to express their deep pain and anger over the trauma they’ve suffered. And it gives offenders a chance to face the consequences of their actions and to set things right as much as possible.

Reconciliation is good criminal justice policy. A 1992 study found that juvenile offenders who participated in reconciliation programs were less likely to commit crimes after their release from prison. Why not find out whether your local court system uses reconciliation programs? Biblical teachings on justice aim not only at punishing crime, but also at restoring the community.

As Senator Brooks Douglas found out, doctors can mend bullet wounds, but the invisible wounds of the hearts of crime victims are far tougher to mend. There’s only one way to heal them—through reconciliation. And no power on earth can match the power of the Gospel to heal.