Sometimes in the rush of the high-speed news cycle a story just reaches out and grabs you. Brian Nichols — on trial for raping his ex-girlfriend at gunpoint for three days — shot a judge and three others in a courtroom in Atlanta, before escaping as a an armed, hunted and highly dangerous fugitive. At 2 AM in a parking lot, he encountered Ashley Smith, and took her hostage in her own apartment:
[Smith] said Nichols tied her up with masking tape, a curtain and extension cord and told her to sit in the bathroom while he took a shower … Smith told Nichols about her daughter and bonded with him after he said that he had a son who had been born the night before.
‘My husband died four years ago, and I told him if he hurt me my little girl wouldn’t have a mommy or daddy,’ Smith said.
Smith’s attorney, Josh Archer, said her husband died in her arms after being stabbed.
…’You’re here in my apartment for some reason,’ she told him, saying he might be destined to be caught and to spread the word of God to fellow prisoners. She also read the bible to Nichols … ‘He told me I was his angel, sent from God, and that I was his sister and he was my brother in Christ,’ said Smith.
It is easy to be cynical about the religious experience described here; there may in time prove to be ample reason for such cynicism. A cornered and defeated criminal may turn to religious talk or claim conversion in hopes of gaining leniency in sentencing or to sway a jury in a region where religious conviction means a great deal, such as the deep South. Such leniency seems a remote hope when an accused rapist has murdered four people in the criminal justice system and taken a hostage, but desperate men take desperate measures.
But the story of Ashley Smith is a truly remarkable one — one which should cause everyone to pause and consider what makes a women behave with such extraordinary grace and poise in such a situation.
Consider: Ashley Smith is a widow with a young daughter, her husband a victim of violent crime. She finds herself taken hostage at gunpoint, bound and gagged in her bedroom by a rapist who has just murdered four people. Her response? She engages her kidnapper, discusses her life with him and inquires about his. When finally unbound, she asks if she can read! Consider this remarkable description from the Wichita Eagle report:
Smith asks if he would mind if she reads.
Nichols says OK. She gets the book she’d been reading, “The Purpose Driven Life.” It is a book that offers daily guidance. She picks up where she left off — the first paragraph of the 33rd chapter.
‘We serve God by serving others. The world defines greatness in terms of power, possessions, prestige and position. If you can demand service from others you’ve arrived. In our self-serving culture with its me-first mentality, acting like a servant is not a popular concept.’
He stops her and asks her to read the passage again.
It gets even better: Nichols needs to hide the truck he has stolen, and asks Smith to help. After moving the truck,
She drives him back to her apartment, where she cooks him eggs and pancakes, gives him fruit juice. They have breakfast together.
Smith washes the dishes and gets ready to leave.
Nichols asks her to come visit him in jail. ‘You’re an angel sent from God to me,’ he tells her. “I want to talk to you again. Will you come see me?”
She tells him she will.
Now think about this for a moment – especially those of you who are skeptical, dismissive or even antagonistic about Christianity: what would a sane woman do in these circumstances? Indeed, what would you do? Perhaps you might have smooth-talked your way out of duct tape and hand cords (nice work, as a women alone with a rapist — how’d you manage that?) Then you start reading the Bible and a devotional book (The Purpose-Driven Life) to him — and he listens and asks you to repeat it. Then, when he decides to move a stolen truck — having left his guns in the apartment (another nice trick, that)– and has you drive alone in a separate car, you drive him back to your apartment (rather than drive away as fast as you can, calling the cops as you run) and you fix him breakfast, dine with him, and calmly clean up the dishes. He sets you free, then gives himself up.
Does anyone find this anything less than astounding? Either Ashley Smith is one of the shrewdest psychologists on planet Earth — and a mind-reader and master manipulator to boot — or something out of the realm of reason and normal human experience has happened here, and two lives have been utterly overtaken by its power. The word awe is not inappropriate here.
What drove Ashley Smith to respond this way? The answer, I believe, was that she was ruled not by fear, but by faith and by love. Fear is a natural response to a personal threat, and there is no doubt she experienced a great deal of fear in her situation. Yet her behavior arose not from the fear, but rather from trust. She understood that she was in the hands of God — a God who had paid the ultimate price for her already, having given up His Son to torture and death to restore her to relationship with Him — the most central tenet of the Christian faith. Such a God, whom she trusted to be in control of every situation in life, had allowed this very crisis for some good purpose, though her fear screamed otherwise. Her job was to trust, to pray, and to serve her God by communicating His love as best she could, no matter what the outcome. She did this through her words made verity by her service.
The concept of love is horribly twisted in our culture. It describes a host of things — infatuation, attraction to superficial beauty, sexual desire, materialism — which are peripheral, or even inimical, to its true meaning: the sacrifice of one’s self for the good of another. Yes, Ashley Smith demonstrated love to Brian Nichols — in seeking to build a relationship with him; to encourage his better angel which she trusted was present (though all evidence pointed to no such redeeming virtue in him); to avoid fleeing and calling police, as his demise was far more likely in a solo standoff with law enforcement; to risk her own life and safety to return to the apartment willingly; to grace this evil and fearful man with a meal prepared and shared; to demonstrate poise and inner peace in attending to routine chores in his presence.
Ashley demonstrated that she had learned the lessons of The Purpose-Driven Life in the brutal schoolroom of an evil world: that life has purpose and power in relationship to God, in service to Him in the mundane and the terrible, in happiness and in horror. God made her something she was not when she arrived in the parking lot that night. No doubt He had prepared the soil through the suffering of a husband murdered — a pointless agony with incomprehensible pain, when you do not know whether to cry out to God or curse Him for allowing it, when life’s plans are shattered and there is nothing left but a slender thread of faith to grasp. Yet grasp it she did, and slogged on in trust — to be rewarded again for her trust as a hostage to a murderous rapist. It all makes no sense: God cannot be fair or just in reason’s eye when such evil overwhelms. Yet her life will be forever changed by her experience, profoundly, for the better, as will those of many, many others.
And what of Brian Nichols? A foxhole conversion? Slick, manipulative religious words in hope of leniency? Time alone will tell; perhaps he will sink into the black hole of life imprisonment, never to be heard from again. But maybe, just maybe, his life — and the life of many he touches — will be likewise transformed by the extraordinary grace given to a woman in service to God. I for one will be watching for it.