God Squad Rabbi Marc Gellman

Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.

One sentence.

Just one sentence.

I was appropriately amazed and inappropriately angered that one sentence is all it took for the New York Times to condense the massive public, courageous, forgiving, pious and loving life of one of the greatest men I have ever known. Here is the New York Times’ one-sentence lead in the obituary for Det. Steven McDonald:

“Steven McDonald, a New York City police officer who was shot by a 15-year-old boy in Central Park in July 1986 and paralyzed from the neck down, but who forgave his assailant, hoped for the youth’s redemption and remained in the public eye for his spirit in the face of adversity, died on Tuesday in Manhasset, N.Y.”

The obituary went on, but perhaps his lead sentence really was enough, because Steven McDonald’s life was not just changed on that July day back in 1986, it was defined. If it had not been for that fateful day, Steven, who passed away at 59, would have remained an anonymous cop. He would most likely have melted into the forgotten litany of those who are broken while trying to keep our country from breaking. What distinguished his life, lifted his life and made his life an inspiration was how he dealt with the attack and the attacker. In his acceptance of his suffering as a quadriplegic and in his decision to forgive his assailant completely and without conditions of repentance, Steven McDonald revealed a remote human achievement. He showed the power of forgiveness to overcome evil.

I know that there have been others who have forgiven those who have killed, maimed, burned, beaten and raped. The amazing congregants of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., forgave Dylann Roof for killing nine members of their parish. I know that some parents of slain children have also found a way to forgive their children’s killers, but I did not know any of them. I knew Steven. He was a frequent guest on the “God Squad,” the cable TV show I did with The Rev. Tom Hartman. I kissed him and blessed him and cried my eyes out when I saw his young son Conor nuzzle him in his wheelchair because his father could not hold him or hug him.

Steven was the living embodiment of the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: “But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44)

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What still puzzles me in my deepest places is how this can be done. I asked Steven how he was able to forgive Shavod Jones and he said to me what he said to others: “The only thing worse than receiving a bullet in my spine would have been nurturing revenge in my heart.” Revenge and anger are like trying to swim while carrying a heavy stone. The only way for you to float is to let the stone sink. So his forgiveness was a way to let go of the spiritually corrosive emotions that indeed would have killed him.

Steven McDonald died just before Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The connection between the two men is striking and eerie. When King was in jail in 1962, he used the time to rewrite a sermon on loving one’s enemies. After quoting Matthew, it begins,

“Probably no admonition of Jesus has been more difficult to follow than the command to ‘love your enemies.’ Some men have sincerely felt that its actual practice is not possible. It is easy, they say, to love those who love you, but how can one love those who openly and insidiously seek to defeat you? Others, like the philosopher Nietzsche, contend that Jesus’ exhortation to love one’s enemies is testimony to the fact that the Christian ethic is designed for the weak and cowardly, and not for the strong and courageous. Jesus, they say, was an impractical idealist. In spite of these insistent questions and persistent objections, this command of Jesus challenges us with new urgency. Upheaval after upheaval has reminded us that modern man is traveling along a road called hate, in a journey that will bring us to destruction and damnation. Far from being the pious injunction of a Utopian dreamer, the command to love one’s enemy is an absolute necessity for our survival. Love even for enemies is the key to the solution of the problems of our world. Jesus is not an impractical idealist: he is the practical realist.”

What Jesus, King and Steven did, almost none of us can do, but what Jesus, King, and Steven knew almost all of us can know.

Rest in peace, Steven. Rest among the holy and the righteous, and may God comfort Patty and Conor and your family and all who stood in your light.