I had the privilege to meet the great John Lewis a few weeks ago at a house reception in Hartford. The Georgia congressman is an American hero, a man who literally put his life on the line — withstanding physical beatings, arrests and threats — as he persevered withMartin Luther King Jr., fighting for equal rights.
Humble and unassuming, Lewis is man who epitomizes the power and meaning of forgiveness.
In his new book, "Across That Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change," Lewis recalls a brutal beating he and a young white male colleague took in 1961 for having the nerve to enter a "whites only" waiting room.
"These guys jumped us, beat us and left us lying in a pool of blood,'' Lewis wrote.
Two years ago, one of the assailants, now contrite, visited Lewis in his D.C. office, saying simply: "Mr. Lewis, I beat you, I attacked you, I want to apologize, will you forgive me?''
"And his son, who had been encouraging him to do this for some time, his son gave me a hug, the father gave me a hug, they both started crying,'' Lewis wrote. "And I hugged them back and I said: 'Yes, I forgive you.' And all three of us cried."
I don't know if I've heard a more powerful story of forgiveness. Unless, of course, you want to count the story of the great Nelson Mandela, who I had the honor of meeting more than a decade ago in South Africa. Imprisoned for 27 years because of his insurgent efforts to tear down a government-sanctioned, racist apartheid system, Mandela was eventually elected president of his country. He actually invited his jailers to his inauguration. At a time when he was in a power position to insist on retaliation, Mandela instead preached forgiveness and "reconciliation."
This week, I reconnected briefly with James Tillman, a Connecticut man who served 18 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit. What is still striking about Tillman is that he never showed any bitterness for his wrongful imprisonment; comparing his story to that of Joseph in the Bible — a man who forgave (and was redeemed) after he too was wrongfully accused of rape.
Ernest E. Newton II's improbable bid to reclaim his Bridgeport senate seat two years after serving a four-year bid for taking a $5,000 bribe is testing my resolve (and interpretation) about forgiveness.
I believe strongly in second chances, particularly for ex-offenders. If we want to stop the cycle of recidivism then there has to be a culture of wiping the slate clean and moving forward once time has been served.
But, as I wrote in February, I've got a problem with Newton's candidacy. He did the one thing you simply cannot do as an elected official. He put his office up for sale. So, while I'm rootin' for Newton to get his life in order and reconcile his bad acts, putting him back in the state Senate doesn't make a lot of sense. The people of Bridgeport should absolutely forgive Ernie Newton. The question they have to answer when casting their votes is can they trust him again not to succumb to greed and avarice.
Pastor Rick Warren puts it best in his definition of forgiveness: "Forgiveness must be immediate, whether or not a person asks for it,'' he preaches. "Trust must be rebuilt over time. Trust requires a track record."
Newton has more time to complete in that regard.
PastorT.D. Jakesreminds us that "forgiveness does not exonerate the perpetrator. Forgiveness liberates the victim. … When you make a decision to forgive it's a decision that you have to make intellectually. It's not an emotional decision.''
Emotionally, it's heartening to see a 56-year-old former street kid endure and rebound from a life that included drug addiction, 17 years as a legislator, rising to the rank of deputy speaker — and prison.
People make mistakes, Newton counters, that's why they have erasers on pencils. "Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future,'' is his campaign mantra.
Emotionally, I get it.
Intellectually, when it comes to giving a corrupt politician another bite of the same apple, I'm just not there yet.
Stan Simpson is host of "The Stan Simpson Show'' (www.ctnow.com/stan and Saturdays, 6:30 a.m., on FoxCT) and senior executive adviser at the Hartford Journalism & Media Academy.