Since forgiveness is the central teaching of A Course in Miracles, I love true stories of forgiveness in extreme situations. I found another recently in a story featured on Oprah. This is the story of Kent Whitaker, who forgave his son for an act so horrifying it is hard to even imagine: arranging the murder of his own family. Though Kent's forgiveness was from a born-again Christian perspective, I find some striking parallels with the Course.
The story begins on December 10, 2003, when the Whitaker family—Kent, his wife Tricia, and their sons Bart and Kevin—came home from a family dinner in honor of Bart's college graduation. When they opened the door to their house, they found themselves face to face with a lone gunman, who quickly shot Tricia and Kevin in the chest. Kent and Bart rushed into the house, and they too were shot. Tricia and Kevin eventually died, but Kent and Bart survived and spent several days in the hospital recovering.
While in the hospital, Kent thought about the horrible thing that had happened, and what his Christian faith called him to do in this situation. On the one hand, it felt like a senseless tragedy—where was God? On the other hand, the Bible says, "In all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose" (Rom. 8:28). Kent had a painful dilemma: Should he give in to his feelings of despair and resentment over the tragedy, or should he, through "a conscious act of will," make a decision to trust God's promise that good could come from this situation in spite of how senseless it seemed?
He finally decided to trust God. He now calls this "one of the most important decisions I've ever made," and the effects of that decision came to him immediately:
When I resolved to trust God, I felt a peace come over me that had nothing to do with the morphine drip. Then the next thought popped unexpectedly into my mind: What about the shooter?
He realized that he was being called by God to forgive the shooter. He felt that God was giving him the opportunity and the ability to do so if he really wanted it, but the question was: Did he really want it? He knew that the Bible called Christians to forgive, and that even non-Christian psychologists extolled the health benefits of forgiveness. But even so, did he really want to forgive the man who had murdered his family, even if he could?
In an instant the answer sprang full-grown into my mind. My heart told me that I wanted whoever was responsible to come to Christ and repent for this awful act. At that moment I felt myself completely forgiving him. This forgiveness astounded me, because earlier I had experienced feelings of incredible sadness and intense anger—even the desire to kill the person responsible with my own hands. Little did I realize just how important my decision to forgive would be in the coming months. It would change everything.
Forgiving the shooter was not the end of the story—not even close. As the police investigation into the murders unfolded, the tragedy that had rocked Kent's life took another horrifying turn: Police began to suspect that Bart, the surviving son, had actually arranged the murders. At first, Kent simply couldn't believe such a thing was even possible. He was disturbed to learn from the police that Bart had not actually graduated from college, and in fact was no longer even enrolled. (The college was in a different city, making it easier for Bart to lie about his attendance.) But surely his son was not capable of something like this.
When Kent came to Bart's room, he found Bart wrapped in a "private hell" that cast a pall over the entire room. He angrily confronted Bart, lamenting the fact that the lies were causing the police to focus on Bart instead of finding the real killer. Bart apologized and insisted that he had nothing to do with the murders. Kent calmed down, and as the conversation ended, he told Bart he loved him and was sure the police would eventually drop him as a suspect.
But the further the investigation proceeded, the more it focused on Bart. Kent began to at least consider the possibility that Bart was guilty. It was disturbing to contemplate, but Kent trusted God, and had come to believe that a larger plan was at work here, even if he didn't have all the answers. After all, it was a miracle that he had even survived, since the shooter shot him from point-blank range. His decision to forgive the shooter, too, seemed to be preparation for something; in his words, God enabled him to forgive the shooter "because he had plans for me, and those plans required that I settle the forgiveness problem once and for all."
As time went on and Kent reflected on the situation, his part in God's plan began to fall more clearly into place:
It occurred to me that perhaps my purpose was to be God's agent of guidance and instruction for Bart. If he was innocent, I would be the anchor he relied on as he weathered the storms of suspicion; I wouldn't let him go through that horror alone. If he was guilty, I would be in a unique position to model God's unconditional forgiveness and love. I might be the person God would use to soften Bart's heart. And since I already had forgiven whoever was responsible, if Bart was guilty, he would be covered in a pure forgiveness, granted before I ever thought it might apply to my son. Either way, until I knew more, I would be nonjudgmental and supportive. While I couldn't gloss over anything or minimize the consequences of any wrongs Bart might have committed, I still needed to show him that God forgives and that there is always hope.
After they got out of the hospital, Kent and Bart lived together for seven months in their family home, despite police warnings that Bart was a prime suspect and therefore Kent was at risk. He still thought at first that there was little chance Bart was involved in the murders, but as the investigation progressed, he sadly realized that Bart's involvement looked more and more likely. When Bart bolted for Mexico, Kent was "probably eighty percent" sure of his guilt. "But I wasn't going to desert him anyway. He's my son."
Sadly, it turned out that Bart did plot the murders; the gunman was a friend of his. Bart had a darkness inside of him that no one knew about, but that Kent had caught a glimpse of when he witnessed Bart's "private hell" in the hospital room. He had come to hate his family because he felt they had set standards for him that he could never live up to. He killed them because, in his words, "I wanted revenge for being alive." He was convicted for the murder of his mother and brother and is now on death row. Bart has shown remorse for the murders, but it is still unclear to Kent whether Bart fully understands what he has done. "I think he's changed, but I don't know that he has. I can't truly read his heart. I thought I'd read his heart for all these years."
But one thing Kent knows for sure is that he loves and forgives his son no matter what. "My love for him and my forgiveness for him isn't based on him changing." And though he still hopes Bart will see the light, he knows at the very least that the decision to forgive has brought healing to himself: "The wonderful thing is, if you do take that choice and you do choose to forgive, changes come in you, and that's when you're really able to start healing. I can tell you, I would never be where I am now if I had not made that choice in the hospital that night." As Kent went through the darkness of grief and pain, forgiveness was the light at the end of the tunnel. It has given him the strength to cast off bitterness and find joy in life again.
What a remarkable story! While Kent Whitaker's language and forgiveness process come from a Christian perspective, there are several elements that remind me of the Course. First, there is his assertion that trusting God is "a conscious act of will," a decision you make regardless of how things appear or what you are feeling at the time. This is so reminiscent of the Course, which is all about setting aside deceiving feelings and appearances and making a conscious decision to trust in God—the first and foremost attribute of God's teachers. Forgiveness too, as Kent realized, is a matter of conscious will; as the Course says, "Forgiveness is a choice" (W-pII.335.1:1). God is the one Who gives us the power to forgive (as Kent also realized), but it requires our willingness for the miracle of forgiveness to happen.
Second, there is Kent's conviction that the process he went through was part of a larger plan arranged by God, which reminds me of the Course idea that we have a special function in God's plan for salvation. Throughout this story, you get the sense that God was leading Kent step by step to fulfill a healing role in this tragic situation. Kent's decision to trust God led to the call to forgive the shooter. His decision to forgive the shooter, in turn, was a preparation for the healing role he would need to play with his son. You see God using the situation to bring about good; indeed, the Course refers to the very Bible verse that was the basis of Kent's decision to trust God: "All things work together for good [and not only for those who love God]. There are no exceptions except in the ego's judgment" (T-4.V.1:1). Kent's forgiveness was not just a personal whim but part of a God-given function: to be an agent in God's plan to bring healing to this family tragedy.
This leads to one more Course-like element I see in this story: Kent's forgiveness was intended not merely to heal himself, but to heal another person. This is a crucial point, I think. Often, forgiveness is seen as simply a way to let go of your resentments so you can feel better. In this view, it doesn't have much to do with the other person; I have even heard it said that it has nothing to do with the other person.
But Kent forgave not simply to relieve himself of his burden of anger, but to relieve another person of the burden of guilt. Initially, he wanted whoever was responsible for the crime to repent, which in Christian terms is the act that enables God to free that person from guilt and give him salvation. Later, he wanted to soften his son's heart, to "model God's unconditional forgiveness and love," to "show him that God forgives and that there is always hope." Kent's forgiveness wasn't just about his own mind; it was relieving the minds of others from the anguish brought about by their mistakes. As a result of doing this, of course, Kent did experience the release of his own anguish. As the Course says so often in so many ways, it is through extending healing to others that we experience healing for ourselves.
To conclude on a personal note: For me, this is not only an amazing story of the power of forgiveness, but one that puts my own forgiveness challenges in perspective. If Kent Whitaker could forgive the son who killed his family, why can't I forgive the much less extreme "crimes" I think others have committed against me? Why can't I model God's unconditional forgiveness and love as he has? All it takes is a conscious decision on my part to trust God and be willing to forgive. God will do the rest. What am I waiting for?