A couple of weeks ago, a memorial Mass for Michael was held here in Birmingham at the Cathedral. The bishop presided and offered a very nice, even charming homily in which he first focused on the Scripture readings of the day, and then turned to Michael, whom he remembered, among other things, as one who […]
What sets hearts apart is how they deal with sins and tragedies. In his suicide note, Mr. Roberts said one reason he did what he did was out of anger at God for the death of his infant daughter in 1997. Wouldn’t any parent wonder why God allowed that to happen? Mr. Roberts held onto his hatred, purifying it under pressure until it exploded in an act of infamy. That’s one way to deal with anger.
Another is the Amish way. If Mr. Roberts’ rage at God over the death of his baby girl was in some sense understandable, how much more comprehensible would be the rage of those Amish mothers and fathers whose children perished by his hand? Had my child suffered and died that way, I cannot imagine what would have become of me, for all my pretenses of piety. And yet, the Amish do not rage. They do not return evil for evil. In fact, they embody peace and love beyond all human understanding.
In our time, religion makes the front pages usually in the ghastliest ways. In the name of God, the faithful fly planes into buildings, blow themselves up to murder the innocent, burn down rival houses of worship, insult and condemn and cry out to heaven for vengeance. The wicked Rev. Fred Phelps and his crazy brood of fundamentalist vipers even planned to protest at the Amish children’s funeral, until Dallas-based radio talker Mike Gallagher, bless him, gave them an hour of his program if they would only let those poor people bury their dead in peace.
But sometimes, faith helps ordinary men and women do the humanly impossible: to forgive, to love, to heal and to redeem. It makes no sense. It is the most sensible thing in the world. The Amish have turned this occasion of spectacular evil into a bright witness to hope. Despite everything, a light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
But hatred is not always wrong, and forgiveness is not always deserved. I admire the Amish villagers’ resolve to live up to their Christian ideals even amid heartbreak, but how many of us would really want to live in a society in which no one gets angry when children are slaughtered? In which even the most horrific acts of cruelty were always and instantly forgiven? There is a time to love and a time to hate, Ecclesiastes teaches. If anything deserves to be hated, surely it is the pitiless murder of innocents.
To voluntarily forgive those who have hurt you is beautiful and praiseworthy. That is what Jesus did on the cross, what Christians do when they say the Lord’s Prayer, what observant Jews do when they recite the bedtime Kriat Sh’ma. But to forgive those who have hurt — who have murdered — someone else? I cannot see how the world is made a better place by assuring someone who would do terrible things to others that he will be readily forgiven afterward, even if he shows no remorse.
There are indications that the killer in this case may have been in the grip of depression or delusion . Perhaps it was madness more than evil that drove him to commit this horror, in which case forgiveness might be more understandable.
But the Amish make it clear that their reaction would be the same either way. I wish them well, but I would not want to be like them, reacting to terrible crimes with dispassion and absolution. “Let those who love the Lord hate evil," the Psalmist writes. The murder of the Amish girls was a deeply hateful evil. There is nothing godly about pretending it wasn’t.
Contrast the Amish and Islamist. Both appear to be religious fanatics. Both societies are intentionally anti-modern. Both societies are culturally antique. The men with their beards, the women with their dark modest dress, the suspicion of the outside world, the suspicion of technology…they look pretty similar. And suddenly in Amish land just as in Islam land both societies are faced with wanton violence and unimaginable bloodshed. In both crazed gunmen execute innocent little girls.
The violence and insane killing does not surprise me. Murder is as ancient as Cain and Abel.
It is the different response that makes me gasp with sudden enlightenment. The different response among people in Lancaster County and people in Baghdad reveals the core difference between Islam and Christianity. In one culture they wail and beat their breasts and then plot how to murder their enemy. In the other they wail and beat their breasts, then load up their buggies to go and forgive their enemy.
At the heart of the Christian faith is forgiveness: the need for forgiveness, the way of forgiveness, and the power of forgiveness which is the cross of Christ. Is forgiveness a part of Islam? Have you ever heard any Muslim–radical, moderate or nominal–ever mention forgiveness at all? Even once? Have you ever got the idea that they even have it in their vocabulary? I haven’t.
I am no expert in Islam, but I do know that the cross of Christ is not at the center of Islam, and the demand to forgive and be forgiven (if it exists at all) is marginal. Instead the Muslim follows the only other form of ‘justice’ that humanity can conceive: retribution and revenge. In the face of violence, the downward spiral of retribution and revenge can only plunge everyone into more violence, bloodshed and grief.
Christianity stands that on its head. The Christian faith demands forgiveness–radical, crazy, totally total unconditional forgiveness.