On October 2, 2006, 32-year-old milk truck driver Charles Roberts walked into a one-room schoolhouse in the Amish community of Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, took a number of elementary-aged girls hostage and threatened to kill them. He eventually shot ten of them before committing suicide, himself. Five of the girls died. Others remain disabled to this day. Roberts was delusional and profoundly disturbed over the death of his own infant daughter some nine years earlier. But this is not a story about Roberts or his immediate victims. It’s a story about forgiveness.
In the midst of their grief over this shocking loss, the Amish community didn’t cast blame, they didn’t point fingers, they didn’t hold a press conference with attorneys at their sides. Instead, as they mourned their own dead, they reached out with grace and compassion to the killer’s family. The afternoon of the shooting, an Amish grandfather expressed forgiveness toward his granddaughter’s killer. That same day, Amish neighbors visited the Roberts family to comfort them in their sorrow and pain. Later that week, the Roberts family was invited to the funeral of one of the Amish girls who had been killed. And Amish mourners outnumbered the non-Amish at Charles Roberts’ funeral. How hard that must have been.
On the evening of June 17, 2015, another disturbed young man, 21-year-old Dylann Roof, attended a Bible study and prayer service at Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Charleston, South Carolina, where he killed nine African American churchgoers, including the church’s pastor. Roof had planned to kill himself… but ran out of ammunition. He was eventually captured and charged with nine counts of murder, as well as federal hate crimes. It seems that a toxic mix of drug abuse and deep racial paranoia combined to fuel Roof’s rage. So many lost so much. And of course, there was plenty of anger… deep, visceral, palpable anger. And yet here, as in Nickel Mines, some of the people most impacted by the tragedy found the strength to forgive the unforgivable.
One of the Emmanuel AME victims was a seventy-year-old great-grandmother. At Roof’s arraignment, the woman’s daughter spoke for her family: “I will never be able to hold [my mother] again. But I forgive you and have mercy on your soul,” she said. “It hurts me, it hurts a lot of people, but God forgive you… and I forgive you.” The sole survivor of the incident, a mother whose twenty-six-year-old son had reportedly tried to shield others with his own body during Roof’s rampage also addressed his accused killer: “We welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible study with open arms,” she said. “You have killed some of the most beautiful people that I know. [My son] was my hero . . . we welcomed you. May God have mercy on you.” The sister of another victim faced Roof steadily: “We have no room for hate. We have to forgive. I pray God have mercy on your soul. And I also thank God that I won’t be around when your judgment day comes with him,” she said.
We’ve all been hurt, at one time or another, by people we love. By people we trusted or, at least, had no reason to distrust. Perhaps not in precisely the same way as the people in Nickel Mines and Charleston… Parkland and Las Vegas… Orlando and Sandy Hook Elementary… and so many other places where a disturbed soul with the inclination and capacity for violence wreaked havoc on innocent lives. Maybe none of us here today has ever experienced that degree of suffering, but we all carry wounds. And the acute, searing pain of these injuries sometimes eases over time, but in other cases it just never seems to get better. We can push it to the back of our mind for a little while… but it always seems to return to haunt us. We must remember, however, that the pain and anger that so often dogs our steps, one day to the next, one year to the next, isn’t sentient—it doesn’t have a life of its own. We give our pain and anger life—and a continuing claim on our souls—by holding on to it.
The writer of the letter to the Ephesians doesn’t think we should “sugarcoat” our response to people who have hurt us with platitudes and false piety. We are to speak truth to our neighbors. It’s OK for us to be angry with them (and even with God!) but it’s not OK to let the “sun go down on that anger”—to hold on to it—no matter how egregiously we’ve been treated, no matter how badly we’ve been hurt. And let me be clear: the writer of Ephesians isn’t asking us to let go of our anger and bitterness so that folks around us will hold us up as saints, or paragons of Christian discipleship. No. Certainly, it’s important for us to be good ambassadors for Christ, but the real purpose in our striving to move beyond the pain is for the sake of healing… for our own sanity and salvation… so that hatred and resentment does not become a canker in our souls, separating us from God. Even when we’re hurting… especially when we’re hurting… we must put away all bitterness, wrath and anger (and wrangling and slander, together with all malice) and forgive one another, as God, through Christ, has forgiven us.
It’s hard. Wrath can be seductive, can’t it? And wrapping ourselves in a cloak of righteous anger and indignation helps us avoid dealing with the hurt that lies underneath. But remember this: when we forgive someone, we are not “taking them off the hook” for doing something cruel or unthinkable. We are simply refusing to let someone else’s sins continue to define us, and the span of our time here on Earth. We’re putting those sins, along with the perpetrator (and all of the Devil’s canker) into the hands of the Creator of the Universe, trusting in God’s ultimate justice. Only then can true healing begin.
So, how do we forgive? Each of us is different… there’s no one-size-fits-all formula for forgiveness. I’ve always found, however, that it is hard to stay deeply and destructively angry with someone when you pray for them. God has a plan for the best of us and the worst of us (if there is such a thing), and we all fall short of God’s vision for our lives. Only when we ask God to be present and act in someone’s life, even when that someone has wounded us deeply, only then can we begin to let go of the anger and even the hatred we’re holding inside. Only then can the healing start… and the reconciliation begin. You’ll recall that Jesus prayed for his tormenters as he hung on the cross saying, “Father, forgive…”.
On the night of November 14, 1940, the town of Coventry, in England, was devastated by bombs dropped by the German Luftwaffe. There were few if any targets with military value in the town, but Coventry’s 14thcentury cathedral was hit by several incendiary bombs and burned with the rest of the town. Hundreds were killed… thousands injured and displaced. Two charred timbers from the cathedral’s roof fell to the floor of the nave in the shape of a cross and were placed atop the ruined altar with the words “Father Forgive…” chiseled onto the Sanctuary wall behind. Crosses were later fashioned from medieval nails that fell from the roof as it burned. The decision to rebuild the cathedral was made the morning after its destruction. Rather than an act of defiance, rebuilding would be a sign of faith, trust and hope for the future of the world.
It would take a while for this new paradigm of reconciliation to catch on, however. Four years later, from February 13th to 15th 1945, the Allies firebombed the medieval city of Dresden in Germany destroying, among other things, the 18th century Lutheran Frauenkirche. Tens of thousands were killed… an untold number injured and displaced. Some say it was payback for Coventry. Others say the raid was disproportionate. By any measure, the level of destruction was horrific. After the war, the two churches instituted a regular exchange of members aimed at rebuilding faith, trust and hope in a world torn by strife. It was a long road, but efforts towards reconciliation eventually bore fruit and the two cities, Coventry and Dresden, were formally “twinned” in 1959. And the Cross of Nails, born of fire and death and destruction, has become a symbol of the ministry of reconciliation not only in Coventry, but around the world. Such a cross has graced the altar of the Frauenkirche since its rededication in 2005.
No one said it was easy… in fact, it’s probably the hardest thing we’ll ever do: learning to forgive those who have wounded us in ways large and small. But I’m pretty sure it’s of the utmost importance… perhaps even one of key lessons we are meant to learn in this Earthly schoolhouse. Maybe it’s part of why Jesus became God incarnate: to help us learn to rise above fear and hatred born of the devil and forgive. “Father, forgive….”
What pain do we carry in our hearts? What injuries haven’t we let go of? What wounds still bleed? When we pray the Lord’s Prayer together in a few minutes during the Liturgy of the Table, I urge you to think carefully about what it means when we ask God to “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” Jesus gave us this prayer as a comfort, but also as a prescription for right living. “Father, forgive… as we forgive.” This verb and simile are connected—different sides of the same coin. And they’re both for us. So ask, and you shall receive (Matt 7:7)… but you can’t have one without the other.