April 13, 2011

Redeeming the Past

The request, addressed to me and tucked in an envelope post-marked “London,” was most unusual.
“We found this information on your Web page,” the letter said, providing a link to an old newspaper article about the arrest of the letter’s writers. “Please be advised that as of 2007 our names must not be in the public domain in this respect as protected by the law. . . . We must not be punished indefinitely, and our privacy must be respected.”
A quick Google search turned up additional information on the case. The writers, a married Russian couple, had been arrested in Britain more than a decade earlier for scamming 1,450 Russians out of $2 million in fees for a fictitious business seminar. The husband, Dmitry,* served three years in prison, while his wife got two.
2011 1510 page25Several hours after reading their letter, I wrote to the enclosed e-mail address. “Your request is most unusual, and I am not familiar with any media outlet in the world that redacts its archives after a person has served time for wrongdoing,” I said. “While I sympathize with the problem you raised in your letter, and offer you encouragement as you rebuild your life, I fail to see a compelling reason to delete factual information from our archives.”
Dmitry promptly wrote back that he saw two compelling reasons. He argued that British law allowed for wrongdoings to be blotted out of news archives. He appealed for compassion. “Please note that all we are asking is to remove our names, not the information about the case,” he said. “We did something wrong 13 years ago. We repented there and then. We paid a very high price, and so did our 9-month-old daughter.
“We now have grown-up children who use the Internet every day. We have employees whose lives are affected by this information. . . . We cannot be punished indefinitely.”
I understood Dmitry’s desire to put the past behind him. We have all done foolish things we would like to delete. But was Dmitry’s request justified? I prayed for wisdom. The next day I typed this reply:
“Thank you for explaining your perspective on this matter. As I see it, you are asking me to play God.
“Let me explain. What we are dealing with is justification versus sanctification. The court has dealt with your case, and you have paid your debt to society. You have been justified. No one should hold this incident against you any longer. In short, you have been forgiven.
“But what you are seeking now is to be sanctified—for the world to believe that the incident never happened in the first place. And you are asking for my help to achieve that.
“We humans can and must forgive one another. For example, let’s say I forgive a thief for stealing my wallet. Does that change him from being a thief? No. He just becomes a forgiven thief.
“But when God forgives, He says, ‘What thief?’ When God forgives, He scrubs the history books clean; the crime never occurred. That’s a miracle I have experienced in my life.
“But humans do not have this ability to sanctify. For this reason, I am, unfortunately, unable to delete information from our archive. The facts took place and are irreversibly set in earth’s history.
“That said, I do sympathize with you. And I encourage you to look ahead, not behind. Don’t waste your time trying to delete the past. Don’t try to scrub the factual record. Neither you nor I can change history. But here’s wonderful news: We can change today. We can make a difference by what we do today, and our activities and achievements will one day outweigh our past. Even if they don’t, we can become perfect in God’s eyes!
“I wish you all the best as you embark on what promises to be a remarkable journey.”
Dmitry never told me whether he put the past behind him. But that’s all right. I pray that he does—with the only God who can answer this most unusual request: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions” (Ps. 51:1).
* Name has been changed.
Andrew Mc Chesney is a journalist in Russia. This article was published April 14, 2011.