In the wake of last week’s deadly shootings at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church at Ellicott Mills, the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland has offered forgiveness to Douglas Jones, the man accused of the crime who subsequently took his own life. Several parishes have offered to hold funeral services for him, and the bishop has reached out to his family.
The concept of forgiveness lies at the heart of the Christian proclamation, located in God’s own response to human violence. We believe that God took on humanity in the person of Jesus Christ, but that humanity in its blindness committed the ultimate act of disdain and disobedience towards this gift; rather than heeding his call to return to God’s paths of love, we chose to kill the very Author of Life. God’s response was not retribution nor revenge but the ultimate act of forgiveness — God transformed the cross and grave into a means for reconciling the world to himself, a reconciliation founded in and through the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
Forgiveness is not easy. Our hearts break at the loss of the Rev. Mary-Marguerite Kohn and Brenda Brewington. We have lost two loving people who died in the midst of serving their neighbors. In the aftermath of tragedy like this, forgiveness takes both outward and inward forms. We offer forgiveness outwardly, instinctively, following the example of Christ who, on the cross itself, asked forgiveness for the humanity intent upon his death. Inwardly we struggle, trying to make meaning of these events, trying to honoring the fallen, and beginning the process of wrestling with our own fear, grief and anger that will — in its own time — lead to full forgiveness.
Forgiveness is not easy — but it is necessary. In the Lord’s Prayer, prayed by Christians daily across the world, we ask God to “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” Our forgiveness from God is bound with our forgiveness of those who have acted wrongly toward us. Only by breaking the cycle of hatred and seeking to love as God loves do we open ourselves to understanding God’s own love for us.
Therefore, in response and in obedience, we reach out arms of love, not hands of hate. I pray for the repose of the souls of Mary-Marguerite and Brenda. I pray for the repose of the soul of Douglas. I pray for my wife and the so many others of our communities who knew Mary-Marguerite and Brenda as colleagues and friends. I pray for the safety of all who work with the marginalized, the desperate and the dangerous. And I pray for the transforming grace of God that will show a hurting world a yet more excellent way, a path to love and reconciliation that cuts across the empty cycles of retribution and hate.
Derek Olsen is a layman in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland serving as theologian in residence at the Church of the Advent in Baltimore, Md.