Grace from the Rubble – Book Review

I’ve been posting book reviews on the themes of egalitarianism, common good, and restorative justice since 2014. Click on the above “Book Reviews” heading to see my other reviews.

A generation ago, a bombing in Oklahoma City shocked an entire nation. An intentional truck-bomb blast killed one hundred sixty-eight people and injured more than six hundred at the Murrah Federal Building on April 19, 1995. The event is the deadliest domestic terrorist attack in US history.

Grace from the Rubble gives a thorough sketch of the build-up to the fateful day. If you were born after 1985 and have never read up on the event, Grace provides an overview of the calamity with personal touchpoints. The crux of the book, however, is the unlikely friendship that develops between Bud Welch, whose daughter Julie Welch perished in the blast, and Bill McVeigh, father of perpetrator Tim McVeigh.

Author Jeanne Bishop is a trained journalist, a decades-long public defender, and crime-victim survivor – all of which makes her uniquely equipped to tell this story. Her first book, Change of Heart, details a personal tragedy: the murder of her younger sister, three months pregnant, and brother-in-law, perpetrated by a wayward teenager during a robbery gone awry. The memoir focuses on the author’s journey of acceptance of the event and her reconciliation with the imprisoned offender – years after the crime.

Jeanne Bishop recently spoke to me by telephone from her Chicago-area residence. She told me about her transformation, inspired by her Christian faith, from wanting her sister’s murderer to rot to death in prison to advocating for prisoner rehabilitation and the abolition of the death penalty. “God’s taught me that every life is precious.” For Jeanne Bishop that includes teenagers who commit serious crimes, often deemed unworthy of rehabilitation in this society.

Her work as a public defender and her involvement in abolition advocacy often pits her against capital punishment supporters. “Every time I’d get into a debate about the death penalty, people would say ‘If it was your family member who was killed, you’d want the death penalty for the murderer.'” She says her opponents often have no idea that she is one of those family members.

Those debate experiences compelled Bishop to write her first book – “I wanted to tell my one small story of my sister” – in order to provide a counternarrative to the commonly-held idea that retributive punishment is naturally part of the healing process for crime-victim survivors.

Through her advocacy work to abolish the death penalty, she met a kindred spirit in Oklahoman Bud Welch. They’d speak as panelists at the same criminal justice reform conferences – two crime-victim survivors, she of a horrific family murder by a sixteen-year-old kid fascinated by guns and he of a barbaric attack by an anti-government, militia-movement extremist.

For years, Bishop heard Welch speak from podiums and in personal conversations about his connections with the elder McVeigh. The implausible Welch-McVeigh companionship gave birth to her second book, Grace from the Rubble. “I wanted to write about how we respond to evil. We have to learn how to respond to that other than with more evil.”*

In the immediate months after his daughter Julie’s death in the rubble, Bud Welch’s life consisted of three excesses: cigarettes, booze, and vivid images of revenge. After reeling for six months, Bud intentionally focused in on how he might feel if and when Timothy McVeigh was executed. Through splitting hangover headaches most every day for a month, Bud Welch finally decided that killing a killer made no more sense the original heinous act. Bud Welch, a Roman Catholic, cut back on booze and smokes, and began to let the thoughts of revenge go. Instinctively, he knew that McVeigh’s eventual execution would do nothing for his own healing process.

He happened to tell an AP reporter of his desire that McVeigh not be executed. The story went viral: The father of an Oklahoma City bombing victim who didn’t want McVeigh to fry. The Washington Post quoted Bud at the time: “That was why Julie and the other one hundred sixty-seven people were dead – because of vengeance and rage. It has to stop somewhere.”

A Roman Catholic nun in the death penalty abolition movement happened to read about Bud Welch and his opposition to McVeigh’s execution. The nun invited Bud to come and speak to her advocacy group in Buffalo, New York. Bud agreed, and he had a favor to ask. He knew that Bill McVeigh, also a Roman Catholic, lived in nearby Pendleton, New York. Bud asked the nun if she’d set up a meeting between him and the elder McVeigh.

The rest of this improbable story is in the final chapters of Grace from the Rubble. Kudos to Bud Welch for pursuing an encounter with Bill McVeigh, and kudos to Jeanne Bishop for sharing their story with the reading public. Their story is one of restorative justice – healing the harm done by crime beyond what happens in the courtroom or in a prison death chamber. **

At the end of our interview, I asked Jeanne Bishop to share her thoughts on restorative justice. “The beauty of restorative justice is that it allows for people to come together in their humanity with an opportunity to redeem a tragic event.”

* Quote from article by Norman Jameson, Baptist News Global, “25 years later, grace and forgiveness still rise from rubble of the Oklahoma City bombing – Baptist News Global.”
** Tim McVeigh was executed on June 11, 2001, the first federal execution since 1963.

T. Carlos “Tim” Anderson – I’m a Protestant minister and Director of Austin City Lutherans (ACL), the social ministry expression of a dozen ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregations in Austin, Texas. I’m the author of There is a Balm in Huntsville: A True Story of Tragedy and Restoration from the Heart of the Texas Prison System (Walnut Street Books, 2019). Readers describe it as “compelling,” “inspiring,” and “well written.”

I’m also the author of Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good (ACTA-Chicago, 2014), which traces the history of economic inequality in American society. Reviewing Just a Little Bit More, journalist Sam Pizzigati says, “Anderson, above all, writes with a purpose. He’s hoping to help Americans understand that an egalitarian ideal helped create the United States. We need that ideal, Anderson helps us see, now more than ever.”

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