Sympathy for the devil: the Christian legacy?

This week someone reminded me of the Amish school shooting: in 2006, milkman Charles Karl Roberts IV went into an Amish community and shot ten girls, killing five of them, and then turned the gun on himself. Here’s part of the Wikipedia article (as it currently stands) on the aftermath of that horrific event:

On the day of the shooting, a grandfather of one of the murdered Amish girls was heard warning some young relatives not to hate the killer, saying, “We must not think evil of this man.” Another Amish father noted, “He had a mother and a wife and a soul and now he’s standing before a just God.”

Jack Meyer, a member of the Brethren community living near the Amish in Lancaster County, explained: “I don’t think there’s anybody here that wants to do anything but forgive and not only reach out to those who have suffered a loss in that way but to reach out to the family of the man who committed these acts.”

A Roberts family spokesman said an Amish neighbor comforted the Roberts family hours after the shooting and extended forgiveness to them. Amish community members visited and comforted Roberts’ widow, parents, and parents-in-law. One Amish man held Roberts’ sobbing father in his arms, reportedly for as long as an hour, to comfort him. The Amish have also set up a charitable fund for the family of the shooter. About 30 members of the Amish community attended Roberts’ funeral, and Marie Roberts, the widow of the killer, was one of the few outsiders invited to the funeral of one of the victims.

Marie Roberts sent out an open letter thanking the community for their response, saying, “Your love for our family has helped to provide the healing we so desperately need. Gifts you’ve given have touched our hearts in a way no words can describe.”

This is Christianity. You can take all your supposed hallmarks of Christian orthodoxy – your atonement theories, your hell, your heaven, your Trinity, your bodily resurrection of Jesus – and you may as well hang them in a museum. Not because I think they’re all false (I do not), but because our preoccupation with affirming facts has been distracting us from focusing on being “Christian” in the most meaningful sense: behaving as people born from above.

Now ask yourself, is the response of this Amish community the stereotypical Christian response? We certainly hold many of those ideals, and hold those who live them up as great examples of Christian virtue. But when the rubber meets the road, or when devotees of a competing religion strike us down, or when we get to see murderers finally “get theirs” — are we characterized by scandalous and reckless compassion?

It’s love like this that really confounds our minds. Most of us should be able to see the futility of harboring hate against anyone but the actual perpetrator; the truly magnanimous may be able to recognize, even through their pain, certain factors in the state of mind of the perpetrator that would grant him some level of absolution, even forgiveness, for his crimes. But to be truly moved by compassion for the perpetrator and his loved ones such that an entire community is able to see past their own pain and immediately mobilize to offer peace and comfort to “outsiders”…that is above and beyond, and bafflingly counter-intuitive. What motivates love like that?

One dear woman I know helped bring home to me the logic of it when she wrote this concerning the hollowness of retributive “justice”:

Would it have helped us at all, when our own son was killed by a careless and drinking driver, to see that young man made to suffer– or to die, to give us “justice” ? And how would it have helped that driver’s grieving mother, who, like our Father, ached and wept at what her child had done?

To be sure, I would ache and weep if my son were killed. I can hardly bear the thought of it. But would I not also ache and weep if my son became psychologically disturbed enough to shoot schoolgirls? Wouldn’t I ache and weep if he became so misguided that he bombed civilian targets to advance a religious or political agenda? And if God is Father, can we not be fairly certain that whatever “justice” was served bin Laden by his being shot through the left eye, God grieved both for bin Laden’s monstrous actions and the violent demise that came to him, even though he was undoubtedly defiant and defensive of his terrible ideals to the end?

Can you imagine if instead of reveling in our desire for vengeance upon those who harm us as though they were animals needing to be put down, we were compelled to weep for the waywardness of those people as we would members of our own family? No, we can’t expect to accomplish their repentance, and we can’t just let them off the hook without consequence. What I’m talking about is an attitude of the heart. Specifically, if we want our hearts to resemble God’s as much as we claim we do, we’ve got a lot of work to do in cultivating a sincere and deep-seated compassion for even our enemies. Sympathy, empathy, and kenosis would then become the hallmarks of our faith, and it would be the kind of faith that would finally begin to earn responses like that of Marie Roberts, in response to the bereaved but compassionate Amish community:

Your compassion has reached beyond our family, beyond our community, and is changing our world, and for this we sincerely thank you.

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