My hometown newspaper got a full-page ad every Christmas from a cotton gin. It was the only ad they ran, all year, and it was always the same: a winter scene, a cottage in the woods, everything covered in snow, and perched in one of the trees – a bright red cardinal.
It always amazed me how beautiful that splash of red was, in the midst of all that black-and-white.
Forgiveness is like that.
In a world filled with hate, violence and vengeance, it’s striking when someone who has been grievously wronged just lets it go, smiles and moves on.
Just this week I got a glimpse of two very different men, on opposite sides of the world, who did exactly that.
Nelson Mandela and Michael Morton were both wrongly imprisoned and spent a major part of their lives suffering behind bars. They missed out on milestones, lost moments they can never replace. Their families and their world moved on without them as the wheels of justice turned with agonizing slowness.
But both came out of prison not bitter, not vengeful, not angry – but forgiving.
“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison,” Mandela said when he was released in February 1990 after nearly 26 years of captivity.
He was accused of sabotage for opposing the apartheid government of South Africa and its brutal, institutional discrimination against the black majority. Facing death, he received a life sentence.
After his release, in 1993 he and former South African President F.W. de Klerk shared a Nobel Peace Price for ending apartheid. In May 1994 he was inaugurated as South Africa’s first democratically-elected president.
He was certainly in a position to punish his enemies. Instead, he forgave them – and that spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation allowed his country to move forward.
“Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies,” he said. “Courageous people do not fear forgiving, for the sake of peace.”
Mandela died last week at the age of 96.
Michael Morton wasn’t leading a people or fighting for a noble cause – he was a grocery store manager in Georgetown, Texas, with a wife and a 3-year-old boy. On Aug. 13, 1987, his wife was murdered. He was accused – and eventually convicted – of the crime.
It took years to get all the evidence released, DNA testing done, the real killer found. Meanwhile, Morton spent his young life behind bars for something he did not do, while his son grew up without him. He was finally freed on Oct. 4, 2011, after 24 years and seven months in prison.
Ken Anderson, the prosecutor who helped put Morton away, had since become a state district judge. He was disbarred, charged with concealing evidence, convicted and sentenced to jail.
At his trial, Morton asked the judge to show mercy.
“At the same time that I blame him, I also forgive him,” Morton said in a later interview. “If you want to be forgiven, you have to forgive. I am not going to spend the rest of my life pointing my finger at him and wanting his head on a stick and going after him.
“The difference between just saying forgiveness and giving forgiveness … is all the difference in the world,” he added. “It’s like the difference between saying ‘I can fly’ and actually flying.”
In a CNN documentary, Morton quoted Mandela without even knowing it.
“My lawyer told me something,” he said. “I had heard it before, and I don’t know who the first guy to say it was. But he said, ‘To have revenge and hate in your heart is like drinking poison and hoping the other guy dies.’
“That may be kind of flowery, symbolic, hyperbole, but it’s perfectly accurate. When you do get there – and it’s a conscious choice but then it takes a little bit of time – you feel lighter. You drop 40 pounds. It’s an improvement in every aspect of your life.”
Morton, who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology and literature while in prison, has a peace about him now when he speaks – the knowing smile of a man who has lost everything, then had it given back to him.
It is strikingly similar to the tranquil smile Mandela was known for, now cast in bronze.
“I always knew that deep down in every human heart, there is mercy and generosity,” Mandela said. “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than the opposite.”
If we’re looking for a New Year’s wish for 2014, let’s make it this – that we might see less of angry mobs shouting for blood, and instead see that calm, peaceful smile reproduced on billions of faces.
Like a cardinal in the snow, that would truly be a beautiful sight.
Bob Buckel is editorial director of the Messenger.