My sermon yesterday was about making amends to those we have harmed. One of the best examples I know of someone who did this is George Wallace. Yes, there is more to the story of George Wallace than the Alabama governor whose inauguration speech included the line, “Segregation today, segregation, tomorrow, segregation forever.”
While campaigning for the presidency in 1972, he was shot five times. He survived but he would never walk again. He lived the rest of his life in a wheelchair. Pain was his constant companion.
For the rest of the 70’s, he was searching and seeking. At the end of the decade he announced that he had become a born-again Christian. Given his past, this announcement was met with some skepticism. But for those who knew him best there was no doubt. He was a changed man.
Like Zacchaeus in the story we read yesterday, having met Christ, he knew he had some work to do to make things right with those he had wronged. He met with civil rights leaders in Alabama and told them how sorry he was. He asked for their forgiveness.
Congressman John Lewis was very much involved in the Civil Rights struggles of the 60’s with George Wallace as his antagonist. The two met for the first time in 1979. Here’s what John Lewis wrote about that meeting:
I could tell he was a changed man. He acknowledged his bigotry and assumed responsibility for the harm he’d caused. He wanted to be forgiven. When I met George Wallace I had to forgive him. George Wallace should be remembered for his capacity to change. Our ability to forgive serves a higher moral purpose in our society. Through genuine repentance and forgiveness, the soul of our nation is changed.
Governor Wallace was elected to a fourth term as governor of Alabama in 1982. He received 90% of the vote. That means he got an overwhelming majority of the African-American vote. They remembered what he had done, but they also believed God had forgiven him and that he deserved a second chance. If God could forgive him, they could too.
When God forgives us, it’s more than just pardon. It’s also power. Power to do the right thing. Power to assume responsibility for the harm we have caused and to do all in our power to make things right. George Wallace did that. Will we?