It was back in the summer of 1986 that NYPD Officer Steven McDonald, then only twenty-nine years old and with only two years of service behind him, was shot three times by Shavod Jones, a boy of fifteen. Jones had been hanging around the Harlem Lake Boathouse near the northern end of Central Park with two friends when Officer McDonald, thinking the boys looked suspicious, approached them and initiated a conversation. Jones responded by pulling out a .22-caliber revolver and opening fire, squeezing off four shots. One shot missed entirely. Of the other three, though, one hit McDonald in the head just over his eye, one hit his throat (and later made it impossible for him to speak normally), and one shattered his spine, paralyzing him from the neck down. The stricken officer was immediately rushed to Bellevue Hospital, where he underwent hours of complicated surgery. He survived, but was left to live out his days as a quadriplegic able to breathe solely with the assistance of a ventilator. All three boys were arrested on the spot by other policemen patrolling the park.
New York was a dangerous place back then. There were, for example, 1907 murders in the city that year, as opposed to a mere 609 in 2015. I was already gone—we were away for nineteen years beginning in 1983, living in Israel, Germany, Canada, and southern California—but I recall all too well just how inured we had all become to the level of mayhem that seemed almost natural to the urban environment by the mid-80s. But even given the level of violence to which New Yorkers had become used—you may recall the line from Rent: “I’m a New Yorker—fear’s my life!”—Officer McDonald’s story was still horrific. But his story was not only not over as evening fell on that awful day. It was actually just beginning.
The world kept spinning. The story faded from the headlines. The McDonald family found a way to cope, to move forward. Patricia McDonald, today the mayor of Malverne but then a pregnant newlywed facing a future that even a few months earlier would have been unimaginable, gave birth to a boy whom they named Conor Patrick. Cardinal John Joseph O’Connor, the then archbishop of New York, presided at the boy’s baptism in the Catholic Chapel at Bellevue. That the archbishop of New York would personally preside over the baptism of a child born to a police officer grievously wounded in the line of duty was not that surprising, nor was his willingness to conduct the ceremony in a hospital. But what was extraordinary was Officer McDonald’s statement, which he read aloud following the ceremony and in which he publicly forgave the boy who shot him. “I’m sometimes angry at the teenage boy who shot me,” he said, “but more often I feel sorry for him...I forgive him and hope that he can find peace and purpose in his life.”
I remember reading those words back then. (To see the article about the baptism that appeared in the Daily News the following day, click here.) And I remember wondering what kind of man would have it in his heart to forgive someone who had brazenly and unhesitatingly attempted to murder him. It is certainly not without importance that Shavod Jones was just fifteen in 1986, but I didn’t have the sense that Officer McDonald forgave Shavod Jones specifically because of his age….
Steven McDonald died at North Shore University Hospital just last week after suffering a fatal heart attack. Strangely, his death came just a few days after Dylann Roof was sentenced to death after being found guilty of charges stemming from the cold-blooded murder of nine people in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in federal court in Charleston. And there too the specter of forgiveness loomed over the proceedings, at least as I myself watched them unfold.
Not all, but some of the relatives of the Charleston victims followed Officer McDonald’s lead and publicly forgave their loved one’s murderer. Nadine Collier, a daughter of victim Ethel Lance, spoke in court early on in the proceedings and publicly forgave her mother’s murderer using the same unambiguous language Officer McDonald did. So did the Reverend Sharon Risher, another of Ethel Lance’s daughters. Felicia Sanders, whose son Tywanza also died that day in Charleston, went on record formally forgiving Roof and publicly praying that God judge him mercifully. The sister of another victim, DePayne Middleton-Doctor, said simply, referring to her family, that “We have no room for hating, so we have to forgive. I pray to God for your soul.”
Shelter Rockers all know how important Simon Wiesenthal’s The Sunflower has been for me personally, both as a remarkable work of post-Shoah philosophy and as a moral guide, and I’d like to bring that story to bear in my effort to understand Officer McDonald’s behavior and the behavior of the relatives of the Charleston Nine mentioned just above.
For readers new to Wiesenthal’s book, its backstory will be very unexpected and challenging. In 1943, Wiesenthal, then thirty-five, was a prisoner of the Nazis assigned to a work detail near Lviv, once called Lvov, today the largest city in Western Ukraine but then the third largest city in Poland. The plot is a bit complicated, but the essential detail is that Wiesenthal ended up working in a hospital, where he agreed to a nurse’s request that he visit with a twenty-one-year-old S.S. officer named Karl who was dying of his wounds. Karl’s story tells is beyond horrific, even by Shoah standards, and involved his participation in the brutal murder of Jews in a Russian village in a way that resists description in normal language: to use words like bestial or barbaric to describe the Germans’ actions would be to say almost nothing at all. And then Karl, having confessed to his role in the slaughter, gets to the point: “The pains in my body are terrible, but worse still is my conscience . . . I cannot die . . . without coming clean . . . In the last hours of my life you are with me. I do not know who you are. I only know that you are a Jew and that is enough . . . In the long nights while I have been waiting for death, time and time again I have longed to talk about it to a Jew and beg forgiveness from him. Only I didn't know whether there were any Jews left . . . I know that what I am asking is almost too much for you, but without your answer I cannot die in peace.” Wiesenthal listened, then stood up and left the room without saying a word. When he returned the next day, Karl had already died.
The Sunflower is a collection of essays long and short by all sorts of interesting people—including Primo Levi, the Dalai Lama, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Desmond Tutu, Albert Speer, and forty-eight others—answering Wiesenthal’s question, “Ought I have forgiven him?” The contributors are a varied lot, and their answers vary accordingly. No one, as I recall, dares castigate Wiesenthal for his silence, but some nonetheless write passionately in favor of forgiving. Others feel he did exactly the right thing, that only silence could possibly have constituted a rational response to Karl’s request. The Christian responses are mixed, as are the other non-Jewish ones. (One of the most interesting is the one by Dith Pran, author of The Killing Fields and himself a survivor of mass murder on the level of genocide in Cambodia, and he thinks that Wiesenthal should have provided the forgiveness Karl needed to die in peace.) The Jewish responses are also mixed, but not in the same way: some express a reluctance to decide at all, but the overwhelming majority write that it would have been morally wrong, even reprehensible, to forgive…and precisely because Wiesenthal himself wasn’t one of Karl’s victims and so lacked the standing—or the moral right—to forgive a murderer on his victims’ behalf.
Applying that line of reasoning to the relatives of the Charleston Nine who spoke publicly of forgiving their loved ones’ murderer works if what they meant was that they personally felt aggressed against and were thus prepared to forgive the perpetrator for what he had done to them, not what he had done to his victims. I can accept that. But Officer McDonald’s gesture was of a different nature entirely. Here was a man who himself was the victim of the pent-up rage and unbridled violence of his assailant. Unlike Wiesenthal and also unlike the relatives of the dead in Charleston, then, he truly was entitled to forgive. And his act, therefore, was all the more remarkable.
Was it real? If the judge at Shavod Jones’ trial had turned to Officer McDonald and said, “Well, if you forgive him, then so do I. The defendant is guilty as charged, but free to go,” would McDonald have been dismayed or pleased? (This is a fantasy question—judges cannot “just” let people convicted of attempted murder go free because their would-be victims agree to it.) Asking it that way is perhaps unfair…but, even more so, it’s to miss the point. Officer McDonald understood that greater than the burden of quadriplegia would be the burden of spending a lifetime weighed down by anger and the thirst for revenge, and so he looked at his boy-assailant and, instead of wishing him dead, wished him peace. It’s that willingness to forgive that I found and still find so remarkable and, to speak personally, so mysterious.
Shavod Jones was released from jail in 1995 at age twenty-five after eight years of incarceration. Four days later, he was dead from head injuries sustained when he and a friend lost control of the motorcycle they were riding recklessly down a street in East Harlem. So that was the end of Jones’ story, but Steven McDonald, who was promoted after being shot to the rank of first-grade detective, spent the rest of his life promoting the cause of reconciliation. He spoke often about the way his Catholic faith sustained him, and how he felt proud to be symbol to others of the ability to forgive. He even traveled to Northern Ireland at the height of the unrest there to promote the cause of reconciliation between Catholics and Protestants, making that trip in the company the Reverend Mychal Judge, the chaplain of the New York City Fire Department who was killed while ministering to others on 9/11.
The Torah forbids the faithful from holding grudges or refusing to reconcile when someone who has wronged us comes to ask for forgiveness. Rambam uses the very harsh term akhzari (“cruel”) to describe someone who refuses to forgive the sincere penitent who comes to seek forgiveness, and that surely is the model we should seek to emulate. But Officer Steven McDonald went far beyond the requirement of the law and offered his assailant forgiveness not as a response to the latter’s wish to atone, but as a spur to encourage him to seek atonement for a terrible crime. In my mind, that was the act of a truly noble man possessed of the ability not merely to allow reconciliation but actively to seek it out. That is beyond the letter of the law, to be sure. But embracing the moral basis for a law even if doing so requires going far beyond what the law actually requires is the mark, I think, of a truly noble spirit. And so I take note of Officer McDonald’s passing with great sadness and invite you all to join in the prayer that he rest in peace, and that his memory, and the fine example he set, be a source of blessing to his family and to his friends, and also to us all.