Seventy Times Seven

A Story of Murder and Mercy

Bryan J. / 5.24.23

The most central tenet of the Christian faith often proves to be its most unpopular. Despite the repeated emphasis of forgiveness in Jesus’s ministry (not just divine forgiveness, but also his command to forgive others), reconciliation and mercy aren’t exactly the church’s reputation. It’s understandable: the nitty gritty of forgiveness can involve hurt and trauma, vulnerability and remorse, grief and all its stages. The expected refrains of “yeah but” and “what if” when the topic is discussed come from an honest place.

Still, if forgiveness is rarely experienced in the Christian world, it is nearly non-existent outside of it. Whether it’s the endless hand-wringing over cancel culture, student loan debt relief, Twitter mobs, addiction and incarceration, the return of a ruined celebrity, or illegal immigration amnesty, forgiveness is having a cultural moment because of how unpopular it has become. It’s not that forgiveness is totally absent from secular ethics, but as Elizabeth Bruenig tweeted back in 2021: “as a society we have absolutely no coherent story — none whatsoever — about how a person who’s done wrong can atone, make amends, and retain some continuity between their life/identity before and after the mistake.”

It’s no coincidence that Bruenig’s reflections on forgiveness are paired with her season of journalistic investigation into the death penalty in America. Fewer public policy matters highlight the stakes of forgiveness. Those who value forgiveness, secular or sacred, find their greatest challenges in the worst offenders. The death penalty is also the ubiquitous reductio ad absurdum for those who insist on trading eyes for eyes. For a select group of sinners, forgiveness isn’t just a matter of therapeutic relief or the release of resentment, but a matter of life and death.

This question of forgiveness to the worst offenders is at the heart of Seventy Times Seven: A True Story of Murder and Mercy. A mix of true crime and legal thriller (with a side of moral philosophy to boot), author Alex Mar explores the extraordinary impact of a particularly gruesome murder that took place in 1985, and the miraculous act of forgiveness that followed. By the end of the book, Mar will have told the story of how one man’s Christian experience of mercy catalyzed an international movement, changed the American legal landscape, influenced the decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court, and saved the lives of scores of death row inmates. Look no further for a real-life parable of grace in practice, and the shockwave of change that mercy can bring into the world.

The murder at the core of the book is indeed one of America’s darkest moments. The victim was a beloved white Midwest grandmother named Ruth Pelke, a widow known in the community for leading Sunday School at church and Bible Studies in her home. The assailants were four teenage Black girls who intended at first to simply rob the woman, until one of the girls pulled out a chef knife and stabbed her 33 times. The girls are quickly caught, and while three of them are sentenced to decades in prison, the fourth girl who wielded the knife, a fifteen year old named Paula Cooper, was sentenced to execution. The story is tragic, but familiar and very American: a Black teenager with developmental issues from a poor and abusive household commits a heinous crime, and she becomes the target of the collective outrage and retribution of her community (and the nation). While some took pause that the death penalty was assigned to a minor, the vast majority of Americans were unified in their conviction. Some crimes betray an unredeemable soul and execution is the only option available for those incapable of rehabilitation.

While Paula remains the story’s protagonist, locked away in prison and awaiting an appeal, providence intervenes when she receives an unexpected letter from Bill Pelke, a grandson of the woman she murdered. After explaining to Paula about his grandmother’s faith, he writes that he has been praying for her, that he has forgiven her for the murder, and wants to help her with whatever she needs.

Unbeknownst to Paula, the murder has caused Bill Pelke to have a spiritual awakening. A Vietnam veteran with his own post-war struggles, Bill was the last person anyone expected to get religious. Substance abuse, bankruptcy, trauma from the war, a ramblin’ man lifestyle — he had considered a pastoral calling in college, but ditched the idea after trying alcohol for the first time. If Paula had known about Bill’s past, she might not have been so eager to have him as an ally, nor trusted his newfound spirituality.

One night, however, working the crane in a steel mill, Bill has a vision from God, or more specifically, a vision of his grandmother. In a lull between shifts, Bill picks up a photo of his grandmother and begins to recall the trial. Mar writes:

At this moment, the image he holds in his mind begins to transform. His grandmother’s eyes begin to shine — they are wet — and tears begin a stead, clear runoff down her cheeks. Her face remains still, frozen in that day in the portrait studio, but the photograph is weeping. Ruth Pelke has become like one of the weeping statues of the Virgin Mary, those figures discovered in so many countries leaking tears of blood or oil or scented water, receiving thousands of visitors desperate for a demonstration of Truth. Or else her tears are in the likeness of the Son, of Jesus in Bethany crying over the death of Lazarus: Jesus wept. This, too, is a lamentation. The photograph is weeping because here is a woman in pain. Ruth hurts from the memory of her death, from the final thirty minutes of her life.

But that’s not it. No. It seems to Bill, in this moment, that Ruth’s feelings are passed to him, that they flood his chest. And he believes he understands: she is crying for that girl. For Paula Cooper … She would not want this girl to be killed for killing her, to be killed in her name.

Bill begins to pray, the way a desperate person forms words, unable to prevent them slipping from his lips. He prays for God to make him love Paula Cooper, to flood him with it — and he waits.

He waits. And inevitably, this comes to him: If that girl is worth forgiving — if even his grandmother can feel compassion for her, can wish for her protection — then he must be too. Though he has also, in his own way, fucked things up beyond repair, Bill himself must be worth preserving.

Filled with love for the girl who killed his grandmother, and freshly absolved from feelings of self-recrimination and unworthiness himself, the renewed Bill dives into the Bible his grandmother so revered, particularly Matthew’s Gospel. He reads of Jesus’s offer of forgiveness from the cross, Jesus’s injunction to love and pray for our enemies, and his teaching to forgive “seventy times seven” times. The trajectory of Bill’s life was turned upside down. He begins his correspondence with Paula, which would go on for decades. Bill’s family rejects his call to forgiveness; his girlfriend thinks he’s insane. He will travel the world advocating against the death penalty, he’ll form a nationwide support system for family members of murder victims, his message of forgiveness will be broadcast to millions, and his activism will be part of the amicus brief submitted to Roper v. Simmons, the 2004 case that ended the death penalty for minors in the United States.

Ahead of her book, Alex Mar spent years interviewing the people involved in Paula’s trial and conviction. Bill Pelke, of course, is one of the main characters she interviewed, but he is not the only forgiveness advocate spurred to action by Paula’s sentencing. Mar also introduces us to Monica Foster, who becomes Paula’s legal advocate after she is sentenced to death. “I’m not a religious person,” Foster explains, reflecting on a career of advocacy for death row inmates. “but I think we are all sinners. We’re all fuckups. And how much punishment are we required to extract from them?”

Mar also introduces readers to Jack Crawford, the district prosecutor working behind the scenes to secure Paula’s execution. Crawford, an ambitious politician who trafficked in the righteousness of the death penalty, is victorious in court. As life discloses a string of his hidden indiscretions, however, his goodly façade falls apart and the grand opponent of mercy finds himself in need of what he once attacked. He is a tragic figure, a morally dubious type of Hugo’s Javert whose career takes a nose dive when he eventually becomes the guilty party. Nobody, as they say, likes the idea of forgiveness until they find themselves in need of it.

One more notable figure that Mar introduces in her book is Judy Pelke, the long time love interest and wife of the spiritually awakened Bill Pelke. No other person in the book outside of Paula comes to represent the toll of activism and virtuous living as Judy, who stands with Bill as he embraces his new calling. Joining his marches, traveling to his speaking engagements, Judy deeply appreciates the work of her husband, even if she can’t directly relate to it. Even if it seems like activism is her husband’s true first love. Sadly, when Judy’s sister is murdered by her brother in law, the formerly abstract realities of forgiveness become much harder to bear. The commandment to forgive does not necessarily engender the power or desire to forgive, as outlined by Judy’s role in the story. Forgiveness, we find, is harder to execute the less abstract it becomes.

This massive cast of characters come alive, of course, because of Mar’s clear writing and intense season of research. The hard work of digging through newspaper archives, exploring legal libraries, and interviewing eyewitnesses took her more than five years, and as a result, readers are able to understand a wide cast of characters in all their complexity. This book would not be as powerful, interesting, or engaging without that intensive effort.

Christians reading Seventy Times Seven will be challenged in (at least!) two ways. Some will read the book and be challenged by the many ways the church is complicit in Paula’s suffering. Mar rightly presents the American protestant church as disengaged from the complexity of Jesus’s commands to forgive, uncritically relying on Levitical judgments without the New Testament’s insistence that something beyond judgment is required. Not only this, but the American Protestant churches in the book ooze a pharisaical holier-than-thou attitude, closing off sinners like Paula Cooper and her friends from the kind of community that might have steered her away from a criminal life. The countercultural foil to these American churches is The Roman Catholic Church, which has deeply considered the theology behind the death penalty and the execution of minors for adult crimes. Bill Pelke, too, is presented to readers as a prophet, an evangelical voice in the wilderness calling for change in Jesus’s name. The criticism of the Protestant church in the book — both Black and white churches — is not their disagreement with Bill Pelke or Pope John Paul II, but that this matter of life and death hasn’t received their consideration at all.

But more than anything, the book reveals how impossible Jesus’s command to forgive ultimately is — impossible, at least, without help from the Outside. Forgiveness is costly. Bill Pelke’s decision to forgive severs him from loved ones. Lawyers supporting Paula develop deep anxiety disorders and concerning drinking problems. Bill Pelke’s wife Judy offers a cautionary tale: in the same way that “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth,” every advocate for clemency should reserve judgment toward others until they find themselves in the place of the wronged. Forgiveness is a heavy business; its costs are astronomical. If we think we can forgive on our own accord, we have not counted the cost of what forgiveness actually means.

The subtitle for Mar’s book includes the words “murder” and “mercy,” but a third M-word would fit just as well in that subtitle: miracle. It is a miracle whenever anyone is able to truly forgive an offense. Bill Pelke’s vision of his grandmother’s tears is nothing short of a movement of God. People change, the law is changed, enemies are reconciled, the urge for retribution is extinguished, and the world is changed as a result of his answered prayer. The Spirit, we discover, moves in mysterious ways, even among those condemned to execution.

“For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it?” Jesus offers this rhetorical question to readjust the perspective of his disciples. He’s pressing upon them to think carefully about the worldly loss they will incur following in his footsteps. The rhetorical question is also a sly, understated clue to Jesus’s own heart: a subtle hint that he has counted the cost of heaven’s forgiveness and decided to pay it. Seventy Times Seven is a profound gift: a nonfiction account of a costly act of forgiveness and a mustard seed of faith that miraculously moved mountains. The mercy and joy from this miracle of forgiveness illustrates how, despite the loss, grace is worth it.

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One response to “Seventy Times Seven”

  1. Melanie B. says:

    What an incredible story. I can only hope that if one day I have reason to forgive something so painful, I will be able to use God’s strength to do so, just as the Lord’s Prayer says.

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