By Robert Mann
I love redemption stories because they show, as someone once observed, “Nothing is exempt from resurrection.” And few are more inspiring than one who renounces violence or hate and becomes an exemplar of tolerance or love.
Last week, I came across what first appeared to be a powerful redemption story about a Virginia Catholic priest who revealed his Ku Klux Klan past. Father William Aitcheson wrote about his white supremacist college days, which included burning a cross in the yard of a Maryland black family in 1977.
Besides the cross burnings, he mailed threatening letters to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s widow, Coretta Scott King. After publishing his confession, Aitcheson stepped down from his Fairfax City church. My first thought was that I hope, for his parishioners’ sake, he returns to his pulpit because we need all the inspiring examples of redemption we can get.
Aitcheson’s story summoned images of other haters who buried their former selves and embraced a new life. I recalled the zealot Saul persecuting early Christians. An accessory to murder, he held the cloaks of those who stoned a man. After his dramatic conversion, St. Paul wrote most of what Christians call “the New Testament.”
Unlike Aitcheson, Paul didn’t hide his past. The same goes for my favorite redeemed sinner, the Englishman John Newton. Of his debauched early adulthood, Newton recalled, “I don’t believe that I have ever since met so daring a blasphemer as myself.”
Newton’s depravity got him sold into virtual slavery in West Africa. He almost starved and was left for dead. His dramatic escape — part of what he called “many dangers, toils and snares” — later persuaded Newton that God preserved him for a higher purpose.
Newton’s spiritual awakening occurred during an Atlantic storm that nearly sank his ship. Despite his renewed faith, Newton entered the slave trade, making three voyages to transport human chattel. “I hope it will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders,” Newton wrote in his 1788 pamphlet, “Thoughts on the African Slave Trade.”
Newton’s conviction about the wickedness of slavery happened gradually. When he renounced slaving, it was not out of disgust with his wicked work but because he desired more time with his wife. Only as he studied to become a Church of England priest, did he reflect on his wretchedness.
During his 16 years as a priest in the village of Olney — about 60 miles north of London — attendance exploded as the charismatic, self-educated man shared his life story.
On New Year’s Day, 1773, Newton delivered a meditation to his congregation about God’s use of flawed individuals. He also recited the simple poem he wrote about his redemption: “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound! That saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found. Was blind, but now I see.”
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