Discovering Forgiveness

The day of the Boston Marathon bombings, and the days that followed, were some of the most terrifying days of my life. Patriot’s Day, also lovingly known as Marathon Monday, is one of the most glorious days of the year—when strangers come together to support one another for a passing moment in time. It’s a day that fundamentally reminds me of our human capacity for connectedness, love, and strength. On April 15, 2013, I was watching the marathon runners as they passed Mile 21 near Boston College’s main campus. The exhausted runners are always infused with hope as they approach the top of ‘heartbreak hill,’ from the never-ending chants exclaiming, “It’s all down hill from here!” With each smile or fist thrown up in the air from a passing runner, the cheering only becomes more intense. Their hope, their determination, and their unremitting resilience is absolutely contagious.

Scene of explosion on Boylston Street
Scene of explosion on Boylston Street

Just before 3:00 PM that Monday, I suddenly started getting a lot of text messages from friends and family wanting to know where I was, and whether or not I was okay. Their descriptions of a bombing downtown were surreal; but once I got back to my room and saw the destruction and chaos erupting only 5 miles away on Boylston Street, I became paralyzed with fear. At this point in our shared histories, in some way we have all felt this: in the face of terror, anger and panic simultaneously tighten their grasp on our hearts. Time seemed to stand still as I watched the television motionlessly – frozen by the scenes of the billowing smoke and the blood stained pavement – fearful that several of my friends had become victims – fearful, as a child who lived through the 9/11 attacks, that the terror would not end here. The most hopeful day in the city had quickly become my greatest nightmare.

This past Monday, the long awaited trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev began at the US District Court. There is no doubt that the wounds inflicted by this young man on April 15, 2013 are being reopened; in fact, some wounds still have not healed. Many people have been discussing what they hope will come from the allegations that Dzhokhar conspired with his late brother to plant the two bombs that killed three people and injured more than 260 others. Some believe that the death penalty will bring closure for the City of Boston; they want ‘justice’ done as quickly as possible for those families who were most directly affected by the attacks. In a recent Boston Globe article, one of the victims of the bombing commented on Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s trial by saying, “I wouldn’t mind if they put him in a room and blow him up … that would be one way to show what he did to other people.” These sentiments come from the most unfathomable place of pain. Though I was not physically injured and hence cannot fully understand the pain- I hold all of the victims stories so close to my heart because I am not blind to the death and destruction, and the fear and heartbreak that this young man caused.

Image of the Boston Marathon Bombing Memorial on Arlington Street in Boston
Image of the Boston Marathon Bombing Memorial on Arlington Street in Boston

All too often, Christian forgiveness is conflated with submission to complacency. The notion of “turning the other cheek,” is demeaned as a sign of weakness and acceptance of the wrong that other people do to us. However, in my estimation forgiveness is the hardest of all Christian acts and hence it requires the most strength. Loving a stranger seems far easier than forgiving one. Forgiveness is, according to Jesus, something that is neither to have an end point, nor be subject to the confines of boundaries. In Colossians 3:13, we are exhorted to “bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” In addition, when Peter asks Jesus how often we should forgive Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:21-22). The implication here is not that we are to say, “I am sorry,” 77 times. The exaggerated number means that we must keep trying, keep working on discovering forgiveness in our own lives. If we tried to enumerate the number of times “the Lord has forgiven” us, I would imagine that we would far exceed the number 77. The goal that Christ challenges us with is to spend our lives discovering what it means to forgive.

The question of whether the survivors of the bombing, the families of the victims, and the entire City of Boston should forgive Dzhokhar is undoubtedly a difficult one. Although I was taught from a young age to “forgive and forget,” I know that I certainly will not be able to forget what he did, and I don’t know if I will be able to forgive him. But we cannot overlook what Jesus asks of us, challenging as it may be to comprehend and to enact. The demands of the Gospel make clear that we cannot define ourselves fully as Christians if we do not aim to discover forgiveness in our own life.

John Paul II visiting Mehmet Ali Ağca in prison

True forgiveness has an inexplicable power to transform our hearts. A few weeks ago, Mehmet Ali Ağca, the man who attempted to kill John Paul II placed flowers on the late pontiff’s tomb. It was his first visit to the Vatican since his attack on John Paul II on May 13, 1981, and nearly 31 years to the day that the Pope visited Ağca in his prison cell and forgave him. Ağca’s intentions for laying the white roses are as unclear as his original intent to shoot the Pope. Yet, this instance makes evident that forgiveness breaks the cycle of hostility and violence. I imagine that it was not easy for John Paul to walk into that jail cell, to hold the hand of his assassin and say fervently from the depths of his heart, “I forgive you.” John Paul was no stranger to crimes against humanity, as someone who lived during the atrocities caused by Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany. Yet as a follower of Christ he exemplified how forgiveness always allows goodness to have the final say over evil.

Over 30 years later, Mehmet Ali Agca stands in St. Peter's Square before placing the white roses on John Paul II's tomb.
Over 30 years later, Mehmet Ali Agca stands in St. Peter’s Square before placing the white roses on John Paul II’s tomb.

The poignant images of John Paul II’s visit to the prison that day placed beside the image of Ağca laying roses on his tomb undoubtedly creates a paradigm for understanding Christian forgiveness. It is a testimony to the fact that although the human experience is continually wrought with violence – somehow goodness, forgiveness, and love prevail. Last May, Pope Francis reflected on the theme of forgiveness saying, “What is beautiful is that when we become aware that we are sinners, we find the mercy of God. God always forgives. Don’t forget this. God always forgives.” It seems easy to forgive small accidents, but when it comes to something as premeditated and horrific as the Boston Marathon bombings, I know that I have difficulty fulfilling the command that Jesus beseeches to us all. Forgiveness is more than a mere apology; it is an ultimate metanoia, a change of heart, which breaks the bondage of evil and allows us to discover freedom in God’s mercy and grace. Forgiveness is not acceptance of the wrong that occurred; it is the courage to demand that evil will not have the final word, and it is the Christian response which exclaims ‘thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Dzohkhar doesn’t know me; but he tried to kill my classmates at Boston College, and my teammates on the track team who had just crossed the finish line. He tried to instill fear and hate in a city on its most spirited and joyful day of celebration. Yet despite the destruction, the deaths, and the injuries that he caused – he failed. Boston became proof that love is louder than hate, and that goodness triumphs over evil. Somehow, his sin was turned for good. The glimmer of hope that shines from the ‘Boston Strong’ motto is the driving force compelling me to forgive this man. I know it will not be easy, and I pray for God’s grace to do so, recalling that only light can cast out darkness.

A message from Martin Richard, one of the three people killed by the bombs on April 15, 2013
A message from Martin Richard, one of the three people killed by the bombs on April 15, 2013

Bearing in mind this message, I pray for all of the victims of the violence in our world. Especially the nearly 2,000 people killed by Boko Haram in Nigeria on January 3 and all of the journalists and staff of Charlie Hebdo killed on January 7. May our world know forgiveness and peace.

Author’s Note: I prayed a lot before, during, and after writing this article. The form of prayer that I used was Lectio Divina (excellent instructions found in the link below) with John 8:1-12 (NIV). I humbly offer this to you….

Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him. But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground. At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. 10 Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”11 “No one, sir,” she said. “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

Meg Stapleton SmithMeg Stapleton Smith is a master’s candidate in Ethics at Yale Divinity School. After graduating from Boston College in 2013, she was Director of Campus Ministry and a Theology teacher at Notre Dame Cristo Rey High School in Lawrence, MA. Her current research interests lie mainly in Salvadoran liberation theology and contemporary Christian social ethics.

Meg Stapleton Smith’s posts