Like everyone else in the country, I’m angry, confused, sad, frustrated, and grieving. The evil revealed in Boston this week cuts deeply. I was born in Boston and have family there. I’ve been in contact with several of them and they are overwhelmed in the throes of this tragedy.
How many other parts of the U.S. have undergone similar experiences? I live in the Denver metropolitan area, and know this terror and anger firsthand. April 20, 1999 is forever etched in our hearts as we went through the shock of a massacre at Columbine High School—the same school district where my children were enrolled then. Then less than a year ago—July 20, 2012—a deranged young man enters a movie theater in another nearby suburb of Denver and opens fire, killing 12 people and injuring 58 others. Oh, yes, the emotions are powerful.
Inevitably, religious zealots appear on this Boston scene of horror and chaos. Some come with further hatred, but they are more readily dismissed. More difficult are the naïve religious zealots who talk of forgiveness. Really? Forgiveness for brutally killing 8-year-old Martin Richard who was guilty only of eating an ice-cream cone and watching the marathon with his family. Forgiveness for murdering Lingzi Lu, a 23-year-old mathematics and statistics graduate student from China? Forgiveness for cruelly slaying Krystle Campbell, who was planning to celebrate her 30th birthday with her family in a couple of weeks? Forgiveness for the countless injuries—both physical and emotional? Forgiveness for callously hurling so many into the depths of fear, grief, and turmoil? Forgiveness for changing the lives of those who lost limbs, who were first to respond and help, who lived in abject terror as their city was locked down in martial law until a semblance of order could be restored?
Forgiveness? You’ve gotta be kidding. How can anyone realistically talk about forgiving that which is unforgiveable?
Which poses a bit of a dilemma for those of us in the church. Forgiveness is, in fact, the very cornerstone of our faith. It is our foundation, our identity; the core characteristic of the God that Jesus came to reveal in our broken world. We talk about the cross of Christ as the height of God’s commitment to forgiving the world. Granted, some talk about God’s forgiveness being conditional, based on one’s act of repentance and/or making a declaration of Jesus as savior. My “brand” of Christianity isn’t among those, however. I have preached with enthusiasm and vehemence that God’s forgiveness—like God’s love—is unconditional. It is simply who God is.
Now I, and others like me, have to again reconcile what we’ve been proclaiming with the reality of Boston. I find it less-than-compassionate to impose in Boston the extra burden of attempting forgiveness when the rawness of this tragedy still pains wounded hearts and limbs. So what can I say to those who take Christian faith seriously and—on top of everything else—now experience some sense of guilt for an inability to forgive the evil perpetrators of this horror?
Right now I say, “Don’t worry about it. God understands. God is as angry and as pained as you are. God is walking in the midst of the agony and the devastation with you. God holds you as you get through today.” I believe that is the Godliest thing to say and to do. Hold and comfort and walk with those who are hurting and trying to make any sense of what their lives now are. As long as it takes. With whatever it takes. Boston, we walk with you in your pain and in your grief.
And someday we’ll also walk with you in the difficult journey of forgiveness. Before you quit reading, it’s relevant to say that we’ve been misinformed about forgiveness. It doesn’t mean we pretend all’s well. It doesn’t mean we forget what has happened. It doesn’t mean we ignore the hurt and the grief and the loss we’ve experienced. The surviving perpetrator will never be our friend. We can feel angry, and in fact ought to. We can seek justice, and in fact ought to. Forgiveness doesn’t negate that, nor should it cause us to feel guilty for experiencing anger and justice. But it does mean that there is more than those feelings.
Forgiveness begins by recognizing that what has happened cannot be changed. There are those who’ve died, who’ve lost limbs, who have suffered loss. That is real. That is permanent. It is now part of our future from this day forward. Yes, anger is a necessary part of coming to terms with all that. Working to ensure those responsible are kept apart from society while attempting to keep such atrocities from happening again is what responsible people do. But nothing we do will ever change what happened this week in Boston.
I believe the hardest part of forgiveness (and the part that makes it divine—and therefore foreign to us) is the acceptance that God still loves those we hate. It is recognizing that the image of God is still in the other who has shown everything contrary to God in our midst. Those responsible for all this pain and terror in Boston were created by a God of love and life. That is hard to swallow. Accepting that is also not immediate. It is also not within our ability to choose. It is God’s work within us; and like so many things God does, it can take a long time.
I don’t think it’s helpful to be in a hurry to get there. God will work in us according to our own journey. That’s up to God. Where we fail isn’t in being angry or seeking justice and safety, it’s in clinging to our anger once God begins that work of moving us past it. Though the loss is permanent, the anger is not. Forgiveness means that we allow God to do what God does. It is God’s work in us; we do a disservice to those in Boston by suggesting they try to drum it up from within themselves.