When Hope Feels Like a Fool's Errand
Katherine Ann Olson packed her car's backseat with children's books before she drove to her babysitting job on October 27, 2007. The 24-year-old Minneapolis woman was answering a post at Craigslist.org. This wasn't the first time she had answered an online ad. But this time, 19-year-old Michael Anderson was waiting for her. One day later, authorities found Olson's dead body in her car's trunk. Last week, Minnesota District Judge Mary Theisen sentenced Anderson to life in prison without parole.
Olson's mother, Nancy, told Theisen in court that she had endured the same nightmare several times since Katherine died 17 months ago.
"She appeared to me as a 24-year-old, naked, with a bullet hole in her back and crawled into my lap," Nancy Olson said. "I cradled her for a long time, trying to protect her from the cruel world."
Nancy said after sentencing that Anderson is a "pathetic human being." She does not want a relationship with him. Nor will she pray for him. She clings to a friend's counsel. "There is in life a suffering so unspeakable, a vulnerability so extreme that it goes far beyond words, beyond explanations and even beyond healing. In the face of such suffering all we can do is bear witness so no one need suffer alone."
Rolf Olson, Nancy's husband and Katherine's father, is the lead pastor of Richfield Lutheran Church in Minneapolis. He acknowledged that his daughter's death has tested his faith. "I do that pastor thing … evil, forgiveness, God's grace, sin." He said the New Testament defines forgiveness as "to cut free, to let go." Slowly, he and his family are trying to cut Anderson free. "Forgiveness is a process. There is no rush."
Like the Olson family, Cindy Winters lost a loved one to a deranged killer. But she has responded with astonishing kindness to Terry Sedlach, who shot her husband, Fred, as he preached at First Baptist Church in Maryville, Illinois, on March 8. Little more than a week after the shooting, Cindy shared her "remarkable story of forgiveness" on CBS's The Early Show.
"I do not have any hatred or even hard feelings towards [Sedlach]," Winters said. "We have been praying for him. One of the first things that my daughter said to me after this happened was, 'You know, I hope that he comes to learn to love Jesus through all of this.' We are not angry at all, and we really firmly believe that he can find hope and forgiveness and peace through this, by coming to know Jesus. And we hope that that happens for him."
Winters even expressed interest in reaching out to Sedlach's parents, saying tragedy had united them. She wants to comfort them by explaining that she loves them and shares their pain.
"I know that the same way God got me through last Sunday, he's gonna get me through next week, and he's gonna get me through the next 10 years," Winters told CBS. "He has been my rock, and I know that when I get to those really dark, painful days, he's gonna be there for me and for my daughters. I'm counting on that."
Though these responses differ, each can claim some biblical warrant. Winters is walking the same difficult road the Amish community of Nickel Mines traveled after a gunman killed five of its young girls in a one-room schoolhouse. The community's example of love following tragedy inspired even many unbelievers. Its offer of unconditional forgiveness pointed toward Jesus' example on the Cross, when he said, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."
The Olsons may not be prepared to forgive their daughter's killer, but their grief also reflects biblical truth. Christians should not allow hatred to consume them, of course. But anger toward evil reminds the world that God is just. Drawing upon biblical study and pastoral experience, author Chris Brauns advocates conditional forgiveness.