This article was originally posted on March 24, 2017.
Detective Steven McDonald of the New York City Police Department, who died January 10, was shot in the line of duty in 1986 and paralyzed from the neck down. Confined to a wheelchair and dependent on a ventilator to breathe, he forgave his teenage assailant.
I first met Steven McDonald in the studio of a national TV talk show. The night before, a young black man, Malcolm Ferguson, had been shot and killed by police in the Bronx after protesting the acquittal of four police officers in the shooting death of unarmed immigrant Amadou Diallo in the same neighborhood. Tensions between police and the black community had skyrocketed. Could anyone bridge that chasm or at least close the distance? Or would a third-generation Irish-Catholic NYPD officer who had been shot point-blank by a black teenager pour gas on the fire?
I needn’t have worried. McDonald was there to promote a new book, Why Forgive?, in which his friend, Bruderhof pastor Johann Christoph Arnold, tells McDonald’s story. Joining him was Roberto Rodriguez, a victim of police brutality in Los Angeles who is also featured in Why Forgive? Radiating peace as they calmly recounted their stories, the two men acknowledged the need for justice but offered a more radical prescription for the healing of individual souls and entire cities: forgiveness and prayer.
Speaking in bursts between the puffs of his breathing machine, McDonald said, “Many people of different races and different religions were praying for me to live when I was dying, which I was. And when I was told that I would be completely disabled, they prayed that I would recover my abilities. I believe God answered that prayer in giving me the faith and love to forgive the young man who shot me.”
On July 12, 1986, McDonald, a twenty-nine-year-old police officer on patrol in Central Park, stopped to question three teenagers about a recent bicycle theft. The oldest, a fifteen-year-old, took out a gun and shot him in the head, neck, and arm. McDonald was rushed to a hospital, where surgeons told his wife that he would be paralyzed from the neck down for the rest of his life. He later wrote: