Chekhov famously said that if the audience sees a pistol hanging from the wall in Act One, it has to be fired in Act Three. It’s one of the first and most important lessons you learn as a writer. Stories need endings just as chords need to be resolved. The murder is avenged. The mystery is solved. Love is requited, or tragically unrequited.
In 1969 in Glasgow, James Nelson murdered his own mother. What’s the proper ending for that story? A life spent in jail haunted by her ghost? In fact Nelson served his time, studied theology and applied to be a minister in the Church of Scotland. He was not a spectacular penitent. He didn’t give inspirational talks about his conversion or describe himself as the greatest of sinners. He simply challenged his Church to demonstrate its belief in the possibility of redemption.
The Church rose to the challenge. He found a parish. When, 10 years later, the press tried to rake up and sensationalise the story, his parishioners wrote letters of support to the papers.
Of course, a Church recognising that a sinner can repent and believe in the Gospel is not the same as a victim – or the parent of a victim – forgiving someone who has sinned against them personally.
A national Eucharistic congress will take place this September in Liverpool: a city that is still haunted by the murder of one child – Jamie Bulger – by two others. The continuing pain of that story disturbs our senses and seems to have no ending.
And just as the unresolved chord jars your brain, so the lack of a satisfactory ending produces rage. If you look at social media, you get the sense that, for many people, the only real ending would be a death sentence for the killers. Certainly the opposite ending – forgiveness – seems too much to ask of the boy’s parents. The title of his mother’s autobiography, I Let Him Go, seems to suggest that she has not yet forgiven even herself for her own tiny part in his loss.
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