Reflections Archive

Reflections on the Anniversary of Charlottesville

Turning Tragedy into Opportunity: The Forgiveness of a Grieving Parent

By Jonathan Golden

In this edition of Reflections published in 2018, CRCC Director Jonathan Golden drew parallels among the responses of parents around the globe to tragedy and loss, and discussed the power of forgiveness.

On August 14, 2017 Mark Heyer gave an interview regarding the murder of his daughter, Heather, just a few nights earlier in Charlottesville, Virginia. On August 11, as many as 1000 marchers – a collection of white supremacist, white nationalist and other hate groups – came together for the so-called Unite the Right march. Their stated purpose was to protest the removal of a statue memorializing the Confederate General, Robert E. Lee. Swaztikas, confederate banners, and symbols representing hate groups from around the country were on full display as the marchers chanted variations of Nazi slogans. The following day, hundreds of people, including the 32-year-old Heather Heyer, a paralegal who lived in Charlottesville, took part in a counter-demonstration. That is when 20-year-old James Alex Fields, a U.S. Army reject who had traveled all the way from Ohio to attend the white supremacist gathering, rammed his Dodge Challenger into the crowd at roughly 50 miles per hour, killing Heyer and wounding 35. Heyer’s father gave an emotional, presumably impromptu interview in front of his home. He spoke about his daughter’s record of always standing up for equality, justice and the causes she believed in. He spoke about her courage, “…my daughter’s life, I’m proud of her… she had more courage than I did.”

But Heyer made a further point as he spoke about his own steps to forgive the young man who had killed his daughter. “People need to stop hating and they need to forgive each other,” he said, “and I include myself in that, in forgiving the guy that did this, okay? He don’t know no better, you know. I just think of the what the Lord said on the cross, ‘Lord, forgive them they don’t know what they’re doing’.”

I wonder if Mark Heyer had any idea that almost 30 years earlier in a small town in Northern Ireland another bereaved father named Gordon Wilson had given a similarly haunting interview. It was November 8, 1987, at the height of the conflict known as the Troubles, when the Provisional IRA detonated a bomb near a war memorial in Enniskillen. The bomb went off at 10:43am in a building immediately adjacent to the memorial known as the Cenotaph just prior to the scheduled Remembrance Sunday ceremony held each year to commemorate those lost in World Wars I and II. Eleven people were killed – one more would die from his injuries years later – and 63 were injured. Among the dead was a 20-year-old nurse named Marie Wilson.

Gordon Wilson, Marie’s father, was also injured in the attack. In an impassioned television interview given to the BBC just hours after the incident, he described his parting conversation with his daughter as she lay dying in the wreckage. He spoke about the love expressed between him and his “wee lass,” then added the immortal words, “But I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge. Dirty sort of talk is not going to bring her back to life…I will pray for these men tonight and every night.” This statement would become one of the most memorable moments of the conflict, gaining international attention while earning Wilson both the adulation of many and ire of others throughout Northern Ireland. The Troubles, a bloody, decades-long conflict that destroyed thousands of lives, had been characterized by a cycle of reprisal and revenge; violence invariably begat more violence. Wilson’s bold offering of forgiveness and call for peace and reconciliation was different: it offered a chance to break the cycle of violence and changed the conversation in Northern Ireland.

The deaths of Marie Wilson and Heather Heyer were no accidents: both young women were killed through the intentional acts of hateful terrorists. Nor were these acts personal: neither was singled out as a target. But these events were not random, and it would be misguided to call these women “random victims,” people who had the misfortune of being in the “wrong place at the wrong time.” Both were exactly where they were chose to be, standing for causes they believed in: Marie to honor fallen soldiers of the World Wars, Heather to protest the very type of bigotry that took her life. There is little solace that comes to families who have suffered the greatest of all losses: laying a child to rest. But perhaps it helps them – and us – just a little to know that their daughters’ deaths were not in vain.

Everyone familiar with the Troubles of Northern Ireland knows the name Marie Wilson. Her death and the words of her father became a rallying cry for the peace movement and marked a turning point in the conflict. Heather Heyer was killed one year ago and already her name has become synonymous with the courage to stand up to hate. In the days and weeks following her murder, hundreds gathered for vigils, chanting Heather Heyer’s name. In my own research on the responses of victims and survivors to conflict, I have spoken with fathers, mothers, children, and siblings from around the world who have lost close family members to hatred and sectarian violence. One shining example of a transformative reaction is seen in the works of Robi Damelin, an Israeli woman who lost her son to the conflict there. Today she is an international ambassador for the Parents Circle Family Forum, an organization for bereaved families. She has dedicated her life’s work to bringing Israelis and Palestinians together. Across the globe, there are courageous individuals like Robi who continue to work tirelessly to turn tragedy into a force for peace and reconciliation.

Which way will American society turn? This remains to be seen. The sad truth is that many members of the white hate movement are emboldened by Heyer’s murder and the events in Charlottesville. But the response of people on the side of love and peace has been encouraging, as Americans and people around the world have shown that they will not stand for hate. Last year, roughly one week after Charlottesville white supremacists planned another march in Boston, but that time the demonstrators against hate and bigotry outnumbered their opponents by at least 100 to 1 – and by some counts, much more.

At Heather Heyer’s funeral her mother, Susan Bro, spoke of the complexity that forgiveness posed for her personally. But she was unequivocal when it came to her understanding of what her daughter’s murder stood for. “They tried to kill my child to shut her up. Well guess what? You just magnified her.” She closed her eulogy with an even stronger message: “I’d rather have my child. But by golly, if I’ve got to give her up, we’re going to make it count.” One year later, have we all made it count? Have we made it count enough? That is still up to all of us.

Jonathan Golden, (@jgoldenCRCC), Director of Drew University’s Center on Religion, Culture and Conflict, is working on a book titled Turning Point, based on interviews with victims/survivors and ex-combatants of ethno-religious conflict.