In the early 1980s literary icon Norman Mailer took an interest in Jack Abbott, in prison for robbery, forgery, murder. Abbott had corresponded with Mailer, who recognized the man’s writing talent and, with others, helped get him paroled. In 1981 Jack Abbott was freed, the same year his first book, In the Belly of the Beast, was published to a rave review in the New York Times.
Jack Abbott was, on one day, another number in America’s vast prison labyrinth; on another he was not only free but the darling of New York literati. Quite a story of redemption!
Not exactly. Six weeks after he left jail, and the day before the New York Times review appeared, Jack Abbott stabbed a 22-year-old waiter to death outside a café in Manhattan. Abbott fled, was apprehended in Louisiana, and returned to prison, where he hanged himself in 2002.
When asked about the tragedy, and if he felt complicit in the young waiter’s death, Mailer deadpanned one of the most iconic lines of the 1980s: “Culture is worth a little risk.”
We all love stories of redemption; each of us, ideally, is a 98.6 degree Fahrenheit example of one. But we mess up, even after we have been redeemed, right? When Peter asked how often we should forgive someone who sinned against us, Jesus said famously, “seventy times seven” (Matt. 18:22, KJV). The point, of course, wasn’t that 490 was the final, magic number. Maybe today we could get an app called FoolTracker, or the like, to keep count of those who sin against us and how often. Let’s see, Sue is at 132, John 284, but Max is 486. Great, just four more times and I’m done with the fool.
Jesus’ point, instead, was revealed in the story about the servant who, though forgiven his debt, refused to forgive the debt owed him (verses 23-35). We mess up, even big-time, and the Lord forgives us. We need, then, to do the same for others.
And we mess up, not only before we accepted Christ (that’s to be expected) but afterward, too—which is worse, because not only do we know better, but we have been given wonderful promises of victory: “For everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith” (1 John 5:4; see also 1 Cor. 10:13). Yet despite the promises, we mess up, not once, not twice, but, it seems, all our lives.
Fortunately, the gospel is for mess-ups like us. Maybe it’s especially for mess-ups like us. Seventy times seven? Are you kidding? I passed that number—even as a believer—during the first term of the Reagan administration.
The promises of victory are there; the problem is with mess-ups like us, those of us who don’t avail ourselves of the promises as we should. God, though, obviously knows whom He’s dealing with; hence we can, amid our sorrowful repentance, cling to the hope: “Where sin increased, grace increased all the more” (Rom. 5:20).
No question, Jack Abbott’s story of “redemption” ended badly, even if it has echoes in our own stories as well.
Clifford Goldstein is editor of the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide. His next book is tentatively titled: Baptizing the Devil: Evolution and the Seduction of Christianity.