I have a strange imagination that, at times, projects me into tragedies. Maybe it’s my feeble attempt at empathy. Sometimes I read the newspaper, read about some horrible event, and try to imagine what exactly was going through the minds of the people involved.
So it was no surprise when I woke up the other day and found myself picturing the scene in the Amish schoolroom when the little girls were bound and shot. I imagined their voices, their fear, the sobs.
Needless to say, I wept my way into the day.
I got to my class on argument and discourse, and the teacher had brought in a press release from the Westboro Baptist Church (the “god hates fags” people), stating that the church was planning to picket the funerals because of statements by Ed Rendell against their congregation, the religious “sins” of the Amish and various other abominations against God.
Church members planned to take their bullhorns down to the funerals and scream religious agitprop at the Amish. And they were “continuing to pray for even worse punishment upon Pennsylvania.”
First reaction: I’m going to meet them at the funerals with a large stick and whack their fundamentalist selves back to the Kansas countryside. Having spent the day dwelling on the severity of those murders, the absolute horror that those little girls must have felt, to then realize that some fringe group of dogmatists were going to use the opportunity to nab some publicity made me see red. Literally.
It took me some time, some heavy breathing and a little prayer to break down my reaction: Westboro Baptist had interpreted Scripture so far away from loving God and loving neighbor that they were going to harass a grieving Amish community. And I, quite literally, hated their guts. Synopsis: they are so poor at loving God and loving neighbor that I want to kill them.
The irony soon sunk into my soul like a thrown pebble. Plunk. And, while I still wanted to dust off the big stick, I had to chuckle at myself–little old me, who tries to always keep the love of God and others at the center of my faith.
This is not an article with easy answers or scripture references to zap us into shiny happy people. It is simply a confession, an admittance of the ways in which I talk big about love and act so little.
To follow up on the funerals, the Westboro Baptist folks opted not to protest when they were offered airtime on a syndicated radio show, where they spouted their vitriol for an entire hour. And I realized, too, that the Amish really didn’t need me to protect them from religious crazies. They are a community that has woven a deep sense of forgiveness and grace into the fabric of their faith.
Case in point: the attendance of many Amish at the funeral of the killer. They went in solidarity with the man’s family and in a spirit of forgiveness. On a hundred front pages throughout the nation, the often-misunderstood Amish painted perhaps the most stirring modern portrait of radical forgiveness that I can remember.
And I’m fairly confident that had the Westboro Baptist members actually made the trip, with their signs and bullhorns in hand, the response of the Amish would have been no less grace-filled.
Life is full of lessons. And some hit harder than others. While all I could see was flashing hot red and the need for a little batting practice, my brothers and sisters in Nickel Mines were calibrating their hearts to forgiveness, even to love, in the face of a sorrow I doubt I will ever know.
May God have mercy on those of us who speak so frequently of His unshakable love and grace, yet exemplify it so rarely.