By Ronnie McBrayer
I once read about Charles Brown, a World War 2 pilot on his first mission, just before Christmas, 1943. His B-17 had been shot to pieces; half his crew was wounded or dead, and he was flying alone over Germany. Then, Brown looked to his left and locked eyes with Franz Stigler, an ace German fighter pilot flying no more than a few feet off the B-17’s wing. This was the end.
Stigler saw that his enemy’s aircraft was torn to pieces, and with one hand on the trigger and another on his rosary, he couldn’t shoot. Instead, he nodded at Brown and protectively escorted the bomber to the edge of Allied airspace, saluted Brown, and peeled away.
Brown landed safely and eventually returned home. As he aged, the more he thought about that December day. He decided that he must find that German pilot. His search was showing little progress when he received an unexpected letter from Franz Stigler! The two pilots became best of friends.
Brown was forever grateful for Stigler’s gift of mercy – his whole life had been possible because of it. But the event changed Stigler’s life as well. He said, “The war cost me everything. Charles Brown was the only good thing that came out of [it]. It was the one thing I could be proud of.”
Stigler and Brown died within months of each other in 2008. A book found in Charles Brown’s library after their deaths, a gift from Stigler, had this written on the flap: “On the 20th of December, 1943, four days before Christmas, I had the chance to save a B-17 from her destruction…The pilot, Charles Brown, is for me, as precious as my brother.”
Few stories illustrate so well how transformational mercy can be, for it is a shared gift. When we replace vengeance with compassion; retaliation with grace; and punishment with forgiveness, then, like no other moment, we are giving life to the world.
So who in your life could best be served by the gift of mercy? That old enemy? A shystering, former business partner? A parent, child, neighbor, or sibling? There’s no shortage of offenders, just a shortage of forgiveness. Maybe it’s time to ask God for the grace to grace others, to cling to your rosary, and take your finger off the trigger. The person you save might be yourself.
Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, blogger, pastor, and author of multiple books. Visit his website at www.ronniemcbrayer.me.