Some Thoughts on Grace: Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s Statement before Receiving the Death Penalty

San Damiano Cross

By Katie Wrisley Shelby 

On Wednesday, June 24, 2015, before being officially sentenced to death, the surviving perpetrator of the Boston Marathon bombing, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, gave his first public statement in a courtroom peopled by those he had injured two years ago. Upon reading it, I was overcome with the rather strange feeling that Tsarnaev’s statement might very well be among the most important pieces I have ever read in my very short career as a theologian. I posted something to this effect on my Facebook wall, foolishly thinking that the reasoning behind his statement’s importance would be quite obvious, but thankfully, a friend rather promptly corrected this presumption of mine by simply commenting: “Most important? Can you explain why?”

This is my highly inadequate attempt to articulate a response to that friend’s very appropriate question.

Pope Francis’s latest encyclical, Laudate Si’,  includes several references to the thirteenth-century Franciscan theologian, St. Bonaventure, whereby the Pope briefly touches upon Bonaventure’s doctrine of grace:

The universe unfolds in God, who fills it completely. Hence, there is a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dewdrop, in a poor person’s face. The ideal is not only to pass from the exterior to the interior to discover the action of God in the soul, but also to discover God in all things. Saint Bonaventure teaches us that ‘contemplation deepens the more we feel the working of God’s grace within our hearts, and the better we learn to encounter God in creatures outside ourselves.’  (233)

Although succinct, the Pope’s reference to Bonaventure’s theology of grace here points to a crucial aspect of the saint’s doctrine as such, namely, that for Bonaventure, grace is primarily that which connects us to the Triune God, but it is also that through which we encounter God in the Other.  Frequently throughout his extensive writings, St. Bonaventure describes grace coming down from the Father of Lights through the work of the Son and Spirit to deify, or conform, the human soul to God.

Despite the fact that his works are frequently (and rightly) referenced for their descriptions of such contemplative union with God, Bonaventure is always also careful to note that contemplation goes hand in hand with action, that the mercy poured down into the soul from God through grace ought to flow out of the graced person unto others, as well. In his theological masterpiece, the Breviloquium, for example, he describes how grace helps the human person fulfill the double love commandment:  grace gifts us with the charity whereby we love God and likewise gifts us with the charity whereby we love God in our neighbor. For Bonaventure, the mercy that flows into us through the gift of grace flows outward from us to others as we imitate the mercy displayed by the Crucified Christ. Likewise, as Pope Francis’s encyclical suggests, the more we learn to recognize God in other creatures through grace, the more our “contemplation deepens,” as well.

Through loving others (an act made possible through grace), in other words, we grow deeper in our love of God. Grace not only grants salvation as the remedy for sin, rather, Bonaventure’s definition of grace also provides a method of describing how human persons are most fundamentally related to God and to one another.

As I read Tsarnaev’s statement, I thought of these things.

I thought about the concept of grace flowing down from the Father of Lights into the souls of all those who recognize their faults and ask forgiveness. I thought about grace then flowing out from those graced souls, as those graced souls strive to recognize the face of God in other creatures. I thought about the mercy of Christ reflected pictorially through the Franciscan icon of the San Damiano Cross, upon which Christ’s arms outstretch to offer embrace to the least of these. I thought of Christ’s injunction to Peter to not merely forgive a person 7 times, but 77 times. I thought of St. Bonaventure’s devotion to Christ’s suffering on the Cross and reflected upon the fact that forgiveness, grace, and mercy lie at the heart of the Gospel and are inextricably bound together.

I also thought about the fact that Tsarnaev’s actions made me fear for the life of my husband and friends two years ago. I thought about Martin Richard, Krystle Campbell, Sean Collier, and Lingzi Lu, and about all those who lost limbs and will never get them back. Make no mistake, I hold that the actions of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his brother are to be utterly denounced as a great evil. The Boston Marathon bombings were acts of terrorism that not only hit close to home, but truly hit my home – quite literally the street upon which my Church still sits and along which my husband commuted daily to work. Tsarnaev deserves to be brought to justice.

Even so, as I now read his words, his apology, his desire to begin all his words by pointing to the goodness of Allah and his willingness to be humbled before the faces of those whom he has so deeply and irrevocably hurt, I grieve.

I grieve for Martin Richard, Krystle Campbell, Lingzi Lu, Sean Collier, and the wounded.

I grieve also because, on some level, I appreciate Tsarnaev’s remorse and am grateful that he did, in fact, apologize, and I see in his words the words of a misguided youth who will not be shown mercy.

I grieve because we – a nation wherein so many often feel a need to defend its Christian heritage – have an opportunity to show grace, forgiveness, and mercy; an opportunity to live into the Christian vocation of pouring forth the light of God unto others through love; an opportunity that if seized could potentially have a profound effect on helping heal strained relations between Christian and Muslims; but we have instead achieved the exact opposite of what Christ teaches about forgiveness throughout the Gospels by sentencing Tsarnaev to death. Bonaventure’s theology of grace calls us to behold the light of God as it can shine in all creatures, a light that is made manifest through the merciful act of forgiveness displayed by the Crucified Christ on Good Friday.

I grieve because by refusing grace to Tsarnaev, we seem to deny the grace offered to us through the Cross. We mistakenly think that grace is something given to us for our own personal gain without recognizing the rather obvious ways that we can pour that grace outwards to the Other, namely, in this circumstance, by sparing Tsarnaev from the death penalty.  We mistakenly think that the Cross’s power lies only in the forgiveness of our own sins and no one else’s, even as we forget that the mercy displayed by the Crucified Christ has cosmic and relational, and not merely personal, implications.  The grace that flows forth from Christ’s wounds on the Cross elevates us to God, even as it also directs our attention to the presence of God in our neighbor, to whom we are called to show mercy in an imitatio Christi. I grieve because we have not shown this mercy.

Tsarnaev’s words are the most important words I’ve read all year precisely because in an odd way they point toward the grace of Christ’s wounds – and perhaps to the tragic rarity of that grace, its preciousness in a world that suffers beneath the weight of a deep-seated hate that refuses forgiveness. But even as Tsarnaev’s words tempt me to think upon grace’s rarity, his words also provide an assurance that grace is nonetheless still strangely present, a dim spark that refuses extinguishing and patiently waits for us to ignite it into an all-consuming flame. It is present in the faces of the victims whose stories moved Tsarnaev to offer an apology, even as it is present in the words of Bill and Denise Richards, who wrote a letter requesting the removal of the death penalty during Tsarnaev’s trial despite the all-too untimely death of their own son. It is present as well in Tsarnaev’s words of contrition on Wednesday. All these urge me to remember that – even despite us – such grace remains and continues to flow down amidst all the tragedy and heartache and hate that blinds us from seeing the hand of God even within those whom we have deemed the most unlikeable of creatures.

Father of Lights, may thy grace prevail.

Katie Wrisley Shelby is a doctoral student in historical theology at Boston College, where she focuses primarily on medieval Franciscan theology. She enjoys getting lost in the woods with her husband, Tyson, and regularly yells herself hoarse at Fenway Park.