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In Captive's Ordeal, A Parable of Faith?

By Neely Tucker and Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, March 20, 2005; Page D01

If you saw a miracle, would you know it?

If you watched a biblical tale of loss and redemption, would you see it that way?

Perhaps the power of religious faith -- like that of beauty -- is in the eye of the beholder. But for the two parties involved, and for millions of the Christian faithful across the nation, the remarkable encounter last weekend between accused killer Brian Nichols and Ashley Smith was nothing short of the New Testament.

Killing-spree suspect Brian Nichols, right, arrives in court last week in Atlanta. (Ric Feld -- AP)

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In this season of redemption, the symbolism of that encounter is resonating with the faithful.

"It's a parable," says the Rev. John Mack, pastor of the First Congregational United Church of Christ in Washington, who predicts that the incident will be related in many a pulpit today, Palm Sunday. "She let something pass through her, a faith that made her capable of something much greater than what she would be able to do otherwise. Together, they were able to do something pristine and wonderful. That's the definition of God getting involved."

Nichols, who was on trial for rape and on the run from allegedly killing a judge, two law enforcement officers and a court reporter, shoved Smith into her own apartment in suburban Atlanta at 2 a.m., tied her up and held her at gunpoint.

During the next seven hours, while the southeastern United States was the setting for a massive manhunt broadcast on national television, the 26-year-old widow and waitress persuaded him to untie her, then to talk about God and a divine purpose to their troubled lives. She read a bit from Chapter 33 from "The Purpose-Driven Life," the best-selling Christian book by Rick Warren. The chapter is titled "How Real Servants Act" and begins, "We serve God by serving others." Smith cooked him breakfast, pancakes and eggs. And, a few hours later, he let her go and then he peacefully surrendered. Onlookers burst into applause.

"He told me I was his sister and he was my brother in Christ, and God had led him to me," Smith, who has her own history of legal troubles, told reporters shortly thereafter.

Even for those who are not religious, it was a striking moment.

Still, there are things that lie beneath the surface that are nonetheless part of the world in which we live. Smith is white, Nichols black. In the Deep South, an accused black rapist taking a white woman captive cannot help but carry the baggage of the region's -- or the nation's -- racial and sexual pathologies.

That was not lost on theologian and author Renita Weems, who had a close view of the drama from her home in Atlanta, where at Spelman College she holds a chair as the William and Camille Cosby professor of humanities.

And while she acknowledges the symbolism of faith and forgiveness, she also cautions that plain old common sense had its role, too.

"The power of prayer can always make things happen, but I do not want to take anything away from her composure and levelheadedness," she says of Smith. "She was extremely, extremely fortunate. If we say God was with her, then it's almost like we're saying God was not with the judge, the stenographer, the deputy. That's one of the troubling aspects of this getting splayed across the newspaper."

Weems also points out that Smith and Nichols had some things in common, lending several real-life ties that helped them bond.

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