by Jeanne Bishop
The day after Christmas was improbably warm for Chicago: 50 degrees and gloriously sunny. I took my dog, Lily, out for a long morning walk and brought my phone with me.
As I stopped along the way to drink in the sunshine, I scrolled through the phone for emails. One leaped out at me; it was from a stranger who had seen a television piece the night before.
The piece was about the murders in my family and my forgiveness of the killer. In 1990, my younger sister Nancy Bishop Langert and her husband Richard and their unborn baby were murdered in their home in a Chicago suburb, shot to death. Nancy was 25 years old and three months pregnant with a child she and Richard longed to have and hold in their arms.
When their killer was arrested six months later, his identity shocked the community where the murders occurred: He was a 16-year-old boy named David Biro. He was a high school junior who lived only a few blocks away from Nancy and Richard.
David Biro showed no remorse, made no apology, took no responsibility. He went to trial and was convicted, then sentenced to the mandatory sentence in Illinois for multiple homicide by a juvenile: life in prison without the possibility of parole. That sentence means that you go to prison, and you die there. No one ever takes a second look at you, no matter how remorseful or rehabilitated you may become.
I supported that sentence when he first received it. Over time, though, God changed my heart, a story I told in my book, “Change of Heart: Justice, Mercy and Making Peace with My Sister’s Killer.” I no longer believe in the merciless sentence of life without parole for juveniles. I wrote to David Biro telling him I had forgiven him and offering to visit him. He wrote me back a 15-page letter, confessing to the murders and making a heartfelt apology.
I went to visit David in prison. I am visiting him still. The story of our reconciliation was broadcast on television.
The writer of the email had watched the story, and wasted no time telling me what he thought. “You are a seriously screwed up woman. Your arguments ring hollow. Biro needs to be f—-d in the ass every day of his worthless life, before he burns in hell.”
This is a variation on a message I get a lot. People never change. He is evil and irredeemable. He got what he deserved. He made his bed, let him lie in it.
In other words, throw him away. Don’t ever, ever even consider bringing him back. In fact, don’t bring back anyone who has committed a serious crime. Let them be punished for the rest of their lives, and into eternity.
I’ve gotten messages like this from people who call themselves Christians — that is, followers of Jesus Christ.
After I read the vengeful email from the angry man, Lily tugged on her leash. I walked on in the bright morning sun, thinking about that man, and the story Jesus told that we know as the parable of the prodigal son.
I read once that we should always try to find ourselves in Jesus’ parables. In that past, I’d always figured I was the older brother in the prodigal son story. I was the hard worker, the rule-follower, the one who felt I deserved to have good come to me because I had earned it. The father in the story almost baffled me. Why didn’t he demand that the younger son first pay back every penny he had squandered? Why didn’t the wrongdoer have to work his way back into the family? I could understand the older brother’s frustration.
Then, I learned. When I reached out to David Biro to express forgiveness before he had ever made an apology, I understood why the father runs to his wayward younger son before he ever has a chance to open his mouth.
Love goes first; it doesn’t wait. It doesn’t tally up what one person owes to another, then wait for payment in full before there can be healing of the breach. It reaches out and embraces; it urges redemption and reconciliation; it celebrates restoration and return.
The way of the older brother is division, exclusion, rejection. The way of the father is wholeness.
What if, instead, that older brother had gone out looking for his little brother? Had reached out to him, offering help for the addictions he may have suffered, or food for his empty belly, or clothes for his emaciated body? What if he had walked with him, actively accompanying him home? What if, when the grieving father spotted them, he ran to them and enfolded them in an embrace that included them all, in a circle of joy?
I never responded to that angry email. I tend not to. If the author is reading this, though, here is my credo. The life of David Biro, my sister’s killer, is not “worthless.” It is so precious and beloved of God that Jesus died for him. Jesus came to save him. God does not want David Biro to “burn in hell.” God wants him to come home.
JEANNE BISHOP is an assistant public defender with the Office of the Cook County Public Defender and an adjunct professor at Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago. She is a third-generation elder in the Presbyterian church and a member of Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago.