A Post Easter Message

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution had an excellent piece last weekend on Billy Neal Moore.  Moore has a prison ministry where he preaches the gospel of forgiveness.  But he doesn’t do this as a well-intentioned pastor who has led a perfect life.  He is, rather, a man who spent 16 years on death row for a murder he readily admits he committed.

Reporter Sheila M. Poole chronicled Moore’s journey through life.  Moore’s father was sent to prison when he was four years old.  Moore took on a lot of responsibility for his family through his teen years, but left home at age 17 when his father returned.  He married, and joined the Army.

About 5 years later with his marriage in trouble and behind on his rent, he broke into the home of a 77 year old man, robbed him of $5,000 cash and killed him.  He was both drunk and high at the time.  But he also knew it was wrong.  He confessed to the murder the next day, and sentenced to death at trial shortly thereafter, with an execution set for September 13, 1974.

Continuing to be consumed by guilt, he found the names and addresses of his victim’s relatives in his court documents.  He wrote to them saying “I want you to know that I am truly sorry for all the pain and suffering that I have caused each one of you and if you can find it in your hearts to forgive me, I really would truly appreciate it. But if you don’t, I understand because I don’t forgive myself for the terrible suffering I have brought you all.”

A week later he received a response from the victim’s niece, Sara Stapleton Farmer, saying “Dear Billy, we are Christians and we forgive you and pray to God for your soul and hope for the best in your life.”

Thus began a relationship through letter writing that lasted for years, with the Stapleton family becoming advocates for Moore to receive clemency.  Moore noted that it took six years of them doing “what real Christian people do” before he was able to forgive himself for the crime.

In 1990, Moore had his sentence commuted by the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles, noting the unusual nature of the Stapleton family arguing for his clemency.  He was released from prison on parole in 1991, a free and forgiven man.

Moore is the primary focus of the story and his is an impressive one.  Few that see death row will ever become a positive role model and a model example of rehabilitation.  He continues to provide this story to those who remain behind bars, serving as an inspiration to those that they still have value.  That they too are worthy of redemption and forgiveness should they ask for it.

The message is an appropriate one of Easter week – one of personal redemption and forgiveness granted even when the recipient does not feel worthy of it.  Yet despite the fact that most of us will at times in our life be in a position of needing forgiveness, most will also not likely relate to Moore – a person who knew right from wrong but still managed to commit robbery and murder while using drugs and alcohol.

Yet, on some level, each of us will likely find us in the role of the Stapleton family.  There will be those looking to us for personal forgiveness as we will look to others.  Forgiveness is often difficult to ask for.  It is even more difficult at times to grant.

Whether Christian or not, there is a message in here for each of us.  No one ever got ahead by trying to get even.  Sometimes you just need to let the past be the past and move on.

We cannot change past events, but each of us can change the future for ourselves and for others.  Whether on the asking or receiving end, forgiveness is a tool that we need to use more often.

20 comments

  1. jiminga says:

    There has only ever been one Man on earth with the power to forgive sin. The post suggests a sincere act of contrition should replace our criminal justice system, much like our politicians who screw up, apologize, and all is forgiven.

    I, for one, could forgive a guy who stole my TV, but only God can forgive a confessed murderer who knew he was doing wrong. “An eye for an eye” comes to mind.

    • Dave Bearse says:

      Forgiveness, personal and divine, given and recieved, is to me Christianity’s single most important tenet.

      • sockpuppet says:

        @James:

        An eye for an eye is from the Jewish law and Jesus Christ is a Jew who came to fulfill the law, not destroy it. Also, look at Matthew 5:38-39. Jesus Christ was not rejecting “an eye for an eye” in the legal sense but in a personal moral and ethical sense as part of one’s religious and spiritual life. Capital punishment for murder – and other crimes – according to Jewish law were still very much in effect and Jesus Christ never at any times stated that they shouldn’t be.

        • James says:

          But he never stated that they should be, either. This is the problem with relying on a magical myth-book to justify social policies — you can read into it whatever you want. Jesus didn’t specifically say no capital punishment = Jesus supports capital punishment. Sounds crazy to me.

  2. Dave Bearse says:

    I had not much followed the series in the AJC of which the story you mention is a part, but I found it a worthy read of forgiveness and second chances.

  3. sockpuppet says:

    Oh for crying out loud. You have folks on here misinterpreting Charlie’s post on purpose. You know very well that Charlie isn’t talking about blanket withholding of punishment, including the death penalty, on the basis of forgiveness or anything else. If that was his position, he would advocate that this criminal be released from jail. (Keep in mind: in some European nations the toughest sentence that anyone can get is 20-25 years, including even mass murders like Anders Breivik, and that certainly isn’t what Charlie is advocating.)

    Instead, Charlie states that in some cases it is appropriate to show some degree of mercy to some prisoners, with those who show sincere contrition for their crimes and make an effort to better themselves and make a positive contribution to society (this person is still in jail but is working to aid in the moral reform and rehabilitation of other prisoners, including those who will indeed be released one day) are good candidates for occasional acts of mercy by the state. Not letting them off scot free, mind you, but merely commuting their sentence from the death penalty to life without parole. Keep in mind: life without parole is considered according to our legal system – which IS NOT based on the Old Testament and really hasn’t been since the Constitution was adopted – is considered to be a valid punishment for capital murder, and people who commit worse crimes (i.e. multiple murders or murders in addition to rape/child molestation) receive life without parole all the time. Life without parole (or something short of that) is the norm, and the death penalty is the exception. Now I would prefer if it were the other way around … that the death penalty would be the norm for murderers and life without parole the exception. But that is another story for another day.

    But all Charlie is saying is that this is a good example of a case where commuting one’s sentence from death to life without parole accomplishes some good for a civil society. If you object, then argue against what Charlie is actually saying instead of simply taking an opportunity to advocate for the death penalty, which Charlie also supports. If Charlie opposed the death penalty, the Troy Davis controversy would have given him ample opportunity to press that agenda, remember?

    • Baker says:

      Awesome story, thanks for the heads up Charlie.

      In other news, I don’t want to take away from the above story, but y’all went with it, so: I’m a Christian, I’m a pro-Life conservative, and I am vehemently against the death penalty. Seems pretty consistent to me.

      • sockpuppet says:

        @Baker:

        If you are unconditionally pro-life then you are against warfare and you are also against a police officer taking the life of a criminal that is attempting to kill or violate someone else. Now there are pacifists who have that view incidentally.

        Pro-life refers to opposing abortion because you believe that life begins at some point before birth, or at the very least the potential of a life that begins at birth should be legally protected. It has nothing to do with punishing criminals who have been convicted of heinous crimes. People who claim otherwise do so in order to attempt to prove that the anti-abortion side “really” doesn’t care about saving lives but is only motivated by a desire to oppress women.

        It has little to do with conservatism, honestly. A very good limited government conservative or libertarian argument can be made for the idea that the state should not have the right to take a life … that it gives the state too much power over the individual with regards to the death penalty. But abortion is all about where you honestly believe life begins and/or should be protected. If you believe that life doesn’t begin until birth, then there is no grounds for opposing the termination of a pregnancy. But if you believe that life begins before birth, or that the potential of life deserves protection, then there are no grounds for supporting the termination of a pregnancy beyond those that make the ending of the life of any other human being justifiable.

        Someone committing premeditated murder or a brutal violation of another human being via sexual assault are instances where taking that person’s life as punishment for the crime is justifiable. Only when an unborn child is capable of committing such a heinous premeditated act should abortion be viewed in the same context as capital punishment.

        And I should point out that plenty of liberals support the death penalty and oppose abortion.

        • Baker says:

          “If you are unconditionally pro-life then you are against warfare and you are also against a police officer taking the life of a criminal that is attempting to kill or violate someone else. Now there are pacifists who have that view incidentally.”

          No: I am against the death penalty and against abortion, not against fighting against evil people who would otherwise kill us.

          “Pro-life refers to opposing abortion because you believe that life begins at some point before birth, or at the very least the potential of a life that begins at birth should be legally protected.”

          Yes.

          “A very good limited government conservative or libertarian argument can be made for the idea that the state should not have the right to take a life … that it gives the state too much power over the individual with regards to the death penalty.”

          Exactly. Conservatives have a natural distrust of government but then for some reason have full faith in the police and judicial system to rule on someone…and then execute them? (Plus, this is not an argument that would work in court, but as a Christian, I believe that no matter what said criminal may have done, he/she can ask for forgiveness and be Forgiven.)

          I’ve got no problem with life without parole.

          “And I should point out that plenty of liberals support the death penalty and oppose abortion.”

          No. That’s just wrong. There are plenty who support the death penalty but oppose abortion? Try doing that on the DNC stage and see what happens to you. Yes, you’re right there are some congressmen, Barrow perhaps but I’m not sure. There may be some senators. Clearly though these pro-Life Dems will never get more than a whiff of influence on the national level.

    • MattMD says:

      It’s hard to take you seriously when you seem to lack the reading comprehension to notice that the sentence was commuted from death to life with parole and the prisoner was released.

      Your Bronze Age solutions are inconsistent with a modern legal system and are completely impractical from a financial standpoint.

  4. saltycracker says:

    “But all Charlie is saying is that this is a good example of a case where commuting one’s sentence from death to life without parole accomplishes some good for a civil society.”

    Billy Moore broke into a 77 yr. old man’s home, shot him, was to be executed in 1974, spent 16 years on death row enduring 13 scheduled executions, felt really bad about it and was released from prison in 1991. “The new Billy Moore travels the world telling his story to churches, colleges, prisons and high schools. ”

    We forgive you from the factual disconnect to get on your pulpit – I had the urge to use it as an example to, in our society, just get away from the death penalty as overkill on the public treasury and time consumingly inhumane.

    Forgiveness, in my opinion, would have been allowing him to preach to prisoners from a lifetime in prison. We do have to balance forgiveness with maintaining a society that lives by laws and some worry that we too often use forgiveness to avoid consequences……

  5. Greg S says:

    The Apostle Paul (formerly known as Saul) persecuted and murdered Christians but was forgiven by God and used to write most ot the “New Testament.” And….he’s not alone among murderers, adulters, theives and lairs who repented and were redeemed. As a matter of fact, if God didn’t use these types of people, there wouldn’t be any people to use.

    • saltycracker says:

      God is omnipotent and all knowing and can do what he wants….mere fallible mortals read the religious books and come up with laws and rules to live by….it’s the best they can do…..

      • Greg S says:

        Of course you’re right. I took a peek at the blogs from the day after Paul’s conversion and the comments read alot like Peach Pundit.

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