In a column written by John Kass in today’s Chicago Tribune, (Dec 17, 2008), Scott and Janet Willis have offered to meet with imprisoned former Illinois Governor George Ryan. You can read the Tribune column here. In explaining what they believe about forgiveness, the Willises quote, Unpacking Forgiveness.
The Willis family lost six children in an accident that involved a driver who obtained his license illegally through fraud in the Ryan administration. You can read more about what happened in an excerpt from Unpacking Forgiveness given at the end of this post.
Governor Ryan recently surprised the Willis family with an apology that they heard about only through the media. (You can read Governor Ryan’s statement here).
Scott and Janet Willis are willing to meet with Governor Ryan. If Ryan is truly sorry, he will take them up on it. And, if he does, he could learn not only about how to be forgiven by people, but also by God. I pray this meeting happens. It could be the best day of Governor Ryan’s life.
Kass quotes the Willises in his column today.
“That news conference put us in a difficult position,” Janet said. “We were kind of caught. Do we say, ‘Yes, we forgive him,’ and they get what they want without any accountability? Or do we say, ‘No,’ and then we’re treated as prideful and angry. The burden was put on us. And because Ryan was vague and unclear, we were left in a no-man’s land.”
“This is not for our sake. The kids aren’t going to come back,” Scott said. “I don’t want to make things emotional here. Really, this is for his benefit. He talked about a clear conscience. But I don’t understand how you can have a clear conscience and live with a lie. So if we meet, it’s for his sake, to clear his conscience. Not for our sake.”
Scott said he and Janet prayed on it, and thought about it some more, and, finally, set down some requirement for their meeting.
“We wanted to talk to your readers and to Mr. Ryan about what forgiveness is about,” Scott said. He told me of a book that has given them comfort, “Unpacking Forgiveness” by Chris Brauns, which includes this definition:
“Forgiveness is the commitment by the offended to pardon graciously the repentant from moral liability and to be reconciled to that person, although not all consequences are necessarily eliminated.”
I asked them to explain.
“It means that there are consequences for our actions,” Scott said. “He’s paying for those actions. But if he’d truly like to be forgiven, then we’d have to sit down with him and go over the specific counts, like when he killed the investigation into the crash that took our children. And we’d have to see if there is true repentance. There can only be true repentance if he does admit he did all these things and that they were wrong.
. . . .
I’m glad there are people like the Willises to teach us, that there are people who believe that politicians like Ryan can change their hearts, that the door to forgiveness is always open, but that those who truly seek it must repent and accept the consequences that flow from what they’ve done.
Read it all here.
Below is an excerpt from Unpacking Forgiveness
On November 8, 1994, Scott and Janet Willis were driving through the Milwaukee area on I94 with their six youngest children in a mini-van. They had left a couple of hours before from Chicago. They had fun singing and laughing together on the first part of the trip. But, after they stopped and got gas, they encouraged the children to get some sleep. Three older children were not there.
When he was able, Scott Willis described what transpired on I-94 that November day.
I was looking at the road and was alert. Our little baby was behind us; Ben was behind us on the other side. In the back were the other four children; they were all buckled in. I saw the object (a metal brace, 6″x30″, 30 lbs.). I thought it was one of those blocks that maybe came off a flatbed truck. The car in front of me swerved, and I knew I couldn’t miss hitting the object. I thought if I took it on the tire I might roll the car. It was a split-second decision.
When we hit the object, the rear gas tank exploded, taking the car out of control. I was able to grip the wheel and take the car out of the slide. When we were sliding and the flames were coming around the seat, it was a shock—a surprise—like, ‘What is this?’ It was just roaring flames coming up on both sides. I was yelling to get out of the car. Janet and I had to consciously put our hands into the flames to unbuckle the seat belts and reach for the door handles.
Janet fell out the door while the car was still moving. [Our son] Benny was in the midst of the burning; his clothes were mostly burned off by the time he got out. The five youngest children, who had been asleep, died instantly. No sound was heard by Janet or me as we struggled to get out of the van. An unknown man took his shirt off his back to soak Benny’s wounds, and another beat out the burning clothes on Janet’s back. Benny died in intensive care around midnight.
If possible, the tragedy got worse for the Scott and Janet Willis. They had found some comfort in knowing that their children had died instantly. But months later, they learned that there were signs that some of the children struggled to get out of the van. Their son Benny lost consciousness at the scene. They assumed that he had not regained it before he died. But, a hospital worker told them he was alive and alert at the hospital. He had asked her to hold his hand but she was unable to do so because of his burns. He had asked her to pray with him.
Then, Scott and Janet Willis learned that the driver of the semi had obtained his license illegally because of corruption under George Ryan, future governor of Illinois, who at that time was Secretary of State. Licensing facilities accepted bribes that allowed unqualified drivers to receive licenses. These bribes became a part of Ryan’s campaign fund. Ironically, Janet Willis had voted for Ryan the very morning of the accident.
On the morning of the accident, the driver ignored repeated warnings from other drivers that there was a large piece of metal that was going to fall of the back of his truck.
It all seemed so senseless, so preventable.
So Scott and Janet Willis had to decide how to relate to a driver who should have heeded warnings, who should not have been on the road in the first place. They had to decide how to treat a politician whose corrupt values had played a part in their children’s deaths.
In the short run, it would have been easiest to gravitate to one of following two extremes. They could have been angry and vindictive; they could have hated the politicians who allowed unqualified drivers to get a license through a bribe. Or, they could have granted automatic forgiveness. This would have meant that there would be no accountability for actions. Instead of either of these extreme choices, the Willis family chose to live out the principles of Romans 12. This is evident from letters that they sent to a U.S. District Judge, including this one written recently by Janet:
My husband and I have prayed and asked God to keep us from bitterness and to help us be faithful to him and he has. We tried to honor God by not complaining.
But there is a time to speak. I am sharing these facts only because I believe if justice rules, wrongdoing will be deterred. I have learned “when [God's] judgments come upon the earth, the people of the world learn righteousness. Though grace is shown to the wicked, they do not learn righteousness; even in a land of uprightness they go on doing evil.” (Isaiah 26:9, 10).
Scott Willis added his thoughts to her letter:
Janet and I are ordinary people. Not powerful, not forceful. Our children brought great joy to us. Benjamin, Joseph, Samuel, Hank, Elizabeth and Peter were like anybody else’s kids: playful, happy, mopey, energetic. The boys loved reading and sports. Elizabeth was her mom’s shadow and her doll’s mom. We love them. We miss them. We do not despair. We live with a God-promised hope in Jesus Christ.
Almost 12 years have passed since Nov. 8, 1994. The heartache remains but has softened. Janet and I have prayed to not have a bitter or revengeful spirit. These feelings have only occasionally flared up but have not consumed or dominated our thoughts and are not the motive for this letter.
Our thoughts are not on punishment. That is for the court to decide. The real tragedy is that no reconciliation has yet been attained between George Ryan and Janet and me. My wife and I have a strong desire to forgive Gov. Ryan but it must be on an honest basis: sorrow and admission. Even a 6-year-old boy knows when he’s done wrong he needs to be truly sorry, and admit it. Then forgiveness and mercy can be graciously offered. That would be our joy.
Notice how the Willis family lived out the principles of Romans 12:9-21.
How the Willises demonstrated this principle
Principle #1: Resolve not to take revenge.
“My husband and I have prayed and asked God to keep us from bitterness and to help us be faithful to him and he has.”
“Janet and I have prayed to not have a bitter or revengeful spirit. These feelings have only occasionally flared up but have not consumed or dominated our thoughts and are not the motive for this letter.”
Principle #2: Lovingly and proactively offer grace.
“The real tragedy is that no reconciliation has yet been attained between George Ryan and Janet and me. My wife and I have a strong desire to forgive Gov. Ryan but it must be on an honest basis: sorrow and admission. Even a 6-year-old boy knows when he’s done wrong he needs to be truly sorry, and admit it. Then forgiveness and mercy can be graciously offered. That would be our joy.”
Principle #3: Don’t forgive the unrepentant, but leave room for the wrath of God.
“But there is a time to speak. I am sharing these facts only because I believe if justice rules, wrongdoing will be deterred. I have learned “when [God's] judgments come upon the earth, the people of the world learn righteousness. Though grace is shown to the wicked, they do not learn righteousness; even in a land of uprightness they go on doing evil (Isaiah 26:9, 10).”
 Through the Flames: The Willis Family Story (Crossway, 2000, accessed March 29 2007); available from http://www.gnpcb.org/product/663575724360.
 Scott Willis and Janet Willis, Corruption and Providence: Letters Scott & Janet Willis Sent to U.S. District Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer (2006, accessed April 6 2007); available from http://www.worldmag.com/webextra/12246.
 Willis and Willis, (accessed).