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Why the miraculous mystery of the Atlanta hostage drama haunts us

 

(RNS) Sometimes a story that seems a straightforward mystery solved, such as the brutal murders by a dangerous prisoner in Atlanta last week, contains within it an unanticipated mystery that turns it into two stories difficult for us to comprehend fully.

This tragedy haunts us because we cannot easily grasp either mystery or see how they are connected with each other or with all of us. That means that we are dealing with a mythic story whose point is not violence, as it first seems, but spirituality.

This narrative begins with the public murder of a just man and others in daylight by a man who quickly turns into a prince of darkness. At midnight, after killing again, he encounters a widow from whom he hears words so transforming that he can emerge from the darkness and enter the light again.

 

Themes of faith and forgiveness

What happened between Ashley Smith, so like every biblical widow left with a child to raise, and Brian Nichols, who entered her apartment as the dangerous Barabbas freed from prison, has captivated the nation.

In this story, we experience the spiritual and mythical themes of faith and forgiveness, death and resurrection, darkness and light that fill the feasts of Passover and Easter that are set by the first full moon of the spring.

At spring's beginning, day and night are equal as the sun and the moon stare across the sky at each other. The moon that rises and dies and rises again is the symbol of time because all its light comes from the great sun that is the symbol of eternity.

The moon and the sun stare at each other across this story that so matches the season and matches all our stories as well. Within it, time and eternity, death and new life, intermingle with each other as they do within all of us. We feel a deep longing and mark it down as "spring fever" when it is really the great human song of the season sounding within us, the pull of the eternal against the boundaries of time.

Meetings with wo-men fill the Scriptures and these stories, whe-ther at the side of wells or in the midst of weddings, often lead us to confront ourselves more truthfully. The escapee Nichols does so after meeting Smith, who, for him and for us, is not only the New Testament widow left with a child but the Old Testament valiant woman of considerable household skills. She is also, as it turns out, not without problems for she has been accused of minor crimes over the years, making her even more like some of the women into whose eyes Jesus looked with understanding and forgiveness.

Would those who scoff at religious people be as self-possessed - as whole, we might say - as Smith as she speaks to Nichols of her conviction that all things have a purpose and that there is a purpose in his coming to her house during the long hours of that night?

She does not condemn him or even preach to him but rather reads and speaks the word from the Scripture and from Rick Warren's The Purpose-Driven Life. Speak but the word, we recall, and my soul shall be healed. He confesses to her, saying that he deserves a bullet in the back for what he has done.

 

Taking a risk that faith demands

She accepts and does not soften his admission but joins herself in the risk that faith demands and accompanies him as he gets rid of the pickup truck he has stolen after murdering another innocent man a few hours before. But first he put his guns safely away much as, during another long night, Peter lowered his weapon at Jesus' command.

Some commentators have made low jokes about Nichol's taking a shower in Smith's apartment during that night as Smith covers her head with a towel, taking her, in a way, out of present time and place. This renders the night a timeless setting for washing himself clean in the waters, as a thousand seekers of wholeness have in biblical pools and torrents before him. He enters the waters a dead man and emerges with new life so that he surrenders in the day without the Bonnie and Clyde shootout many expected but with a peacefulness that many cannot understand.

It will be easy to report that Ashley Smith deserves the rewards she may receive for getting this killer to surrender. Perhaps we see how a man can be born again of water and the spirit. And perhaps she has worked a small Easter miracle that we did not expect when we first heard of this rampaging and monstrous killer - by bringing him out of the night and into the day so that we could see him as a human being.