Forgiving the unforgettable

February 24, 2017

This month marks the 20th anniversary of the murder of Christina Tyson’s* younger brother John. Here, she explains how it’s possible to live in the same community as his killer.

 

It’s been 20 years since my younger, then 28-year-old, brother, John Matthews, was killed when Stephen Anderson, a paranoid schizophrenic, shot and killed six people, including his own father, in the tiny New Zealand settlement of Raurimu. 


My husband and I were serving as Salvation Army officers in Western Australia at the time. My father phoned with the news on a Sunday morning just as I was about to get ready to head to church where I was planning to preach a sermon titled ‘God’s Perfect Timing’. 


Needless to say, it’s a phrase I don’t think I’ve used since.


I left New Zealand to work in Australia when I was 19 and had failed my final school geography exam, so I didn’t even know where Raurimu was. In fact, the first I’d heard of it was on the news the night before when the shooting rampage was headline news. I remember thinking I’d have to be paranoid to think such a thing could ever have anything to do with our family. 


Thankfully, the senior Salvation Army leaders in Western Australia at the time were also Kiwis. They were on our doorstep within hours, helping me understand a little more about where John had died. 


A wonderful family from a nearby Salvation Army church offered to pay for my flight home. The first few days were a blur. I remember sitting up that first night in shock, unable to sleep. I listened to music from home and planned John’s funeral, trying to do what I could to make the next few days easier for my family.


All the victims’ families grieved in their own ways. Dad and I leaned into our grief in that first week by talking to a psychiatrist from the hospital where the gunman had once been a patient. We also spent time with the police and read through their evidence.


It was clear to us almost from the start that Stephen was severely mentally ill and his parents had struggled to get help to care for their son as his condition deteriorated. Their fears were not taken seriously. The mental health system failed them. It failed the families of five other people as well.


Our family sat through the subsequent court trial, accepting the verdict that Stephen was not guilty because of insanity. We also made a submission to the coronial court, raising concerns about the mismanagement of Stephen’s case by health professionals. I’d like to say that lessons were learnt from the deaths at Raurimu, but I still read newspaper headlines that tell me otherwise. 


In the aftermath of John’s death I felt far away from my parents and my younger sister. Even though it meant saying goodbye to some wonderful friends and a supportive Salvation Army community in Australia, I needed to come home. And so we packed up and resettled in New Zealand. It was a big change for my husband (who still misses those Aussie essentials of sunshine, barbecues and AFL), but sometimes love and family compel people to make sacrifices.

 

 

Almost from the start, our family chose not to go down the path of anger (which we feared would consume us) and to instead forgive Stephen. At his murder trial, I was allowed to speak to his mother and tell her this. 


Many people assume I ‘had to’ forgive Stephen and his family because of my faith. Sometimes they seem to imply I’m simply ‘toeing the party line’. 


“You have to forgive because you’re a Christian,” they’d say. Of course, it’s not the exclusive territory of Christians to forgive. We’re not the only people in the world who express kindness and mercy, and sometimes we fail spectacularly. And even when Christians are inclined towards forgiveness, that doesn’t mean it’s always easy.


But, in this case, I don’t think my forgiveness was ‘blind’ forgiveness. It’s given freely after consideration of the facts. I don’t find it hard.

 

For many years Stephen was in a secure forensic hospital just five minutes from my parents’ home. Ironically, this is right alongside the hospital where John was born. That was something my parents sometimes struggled with—his presence a constant reminder of John’s absence from their lives. My father suffered a major stroke on one of the anniversaries of John’s death and passed away last year. I don’t think he ever recovered from the loss of his best mate.


Stephen has been living in the community for several years now, an outcome our family also supported. After all, if someone is mentally unwell, surely we must hope they can be restored to health, and work towards that end? Naturally, we want Stephen to keep receiving ongoing mental health support. Forgiveness doesn’t mean ‘forgive and forget’.  It isn’t naive.


At the heart of the Christian faith tradition is the concept of redemption. One aspect of that is the sense that we are ‘redeemed’ (or ‘bought back’) from the self-centred tunnel vision of sin through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ. But redemption also conveys the belief that even the worst situation can be ‘redeemed’ (or ‘compensated for’) by good.


As bad as the loss of John 20 years ago was for our family, God has helped redeem his death by deepening our appreciation of the importance of family and increasing our empathy for others who suffer losses of all kinds. God has used this tragedy to make us more understanding of the challenges faced by those experiencing mental illness and their caregivers.


Unexpectedly, it has also helped me understand that some of the strange things people do—our over-reactions to life’s irritations—are often the overflow of grief and loss working itself out in our lives. Hurt people, hurt people. We need to build a world where people do not hurt so much.

 

Major Christina Tyson is territorial communications secretary and editor of War Cry, The Salvation Army New Zealand, Fiji & Tonga Territory

 

 

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