If anything can teach us how to understand and appreciate religious differences, it is the way that people of different faiths have been responding to the horror in Parkland, Florida.
On Monday (Feb. 19), I spoke at a candlelight vigil at a middle school in Miramar, Florida – not that far away from Parkland.
Students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School were there. They spoke of what it meant for them to see their friends and teachers gunned down before them; about the nightmares that have shown no signs of abating; of the ongoing, day by day trauma that engulfs them.
A pastor arose to speak. This is what he said: “I ask us all to forgive Nikolas Cruz (the gunman who had taken 17 lives).”
I took him aside afterwards.
“How can we forgive this murderer, this anti-Semite, this white supremacist?!?! Has he asked for forgiveness?!?!”
“It is not necessary," the pastor answered. "We have to forgive him.”
To which I said: “You do it, then. I can’t. I won’t.”
Who are we – the onlookers – to offer him forgiveness?
- Let him seek forgiveness from the families of the people he murdered.
- Let him seek forgiveness from the students and faculty of Stoneman Douglas High School.
- Let him seek forgiveness from the entire community, the entire country, the entire world.
Better yet: let him to go the unborn children and grandchildren of the beautiful young people that he killed.
Let him seek forgiveness from them – for the sin that he committed against them.
The sin of not letting them be born.
This whole forgiveness thing reminded me of Simon Wiesenthal’s classic book, The Sunflower.
As a prisoner in a concentration camp, the future Nazi hunter is summoned to the bedside of a dying Nazi. The Nazi tells him how he participated in the murder and torture of hundreds of Jews.
What does the dying Nazi want Wiesenthal to do?
To forgive him.
What did Wiesenthal do?
He walked out of the room.
Wiesenthal submitted this story to a varied group of religious respondents, asking: “Did I do the right thing?” Those responses were published in the book.
The late Father Edward Flannery: “I can well understand Simon’s refusal [to forgive], but I find it impossible to defend it.”
The late Archbishop Desmond Tutu remembered how South African blacks forgave their white tormentors, following “the Jewish rabbi who, when he was crucified, said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’”
But the Jewish writer, Cynthia Ozick, recalled how Wiesenthal brushed a fly away from the Nazi.
She ends her offering with these words:
"Let the SS man die unshriven. Let him go to hell. Sooner the fly to God than he.”
Yes, I am angry. I have every intention of staying angry. I told the students who were gathered at the vigil to stay angry. (Sort of what I wrote here).
No more, I said to them, as they screamed back: “No more!”
"Prayer is good," I said. "Action is better. This is your moment!”
Several of the kids and their parents came over to me afterwards. They told me that they had never heard a minister, or a rabbi, speak this way. (I told them that they need to hang out with different ministers and rabbis).
Then came the moment that will stay with me forever.
A Muslim family approached me. Their youngest daughter presented me with a flower.
“Thank you for saying what you said.”
I thanked her for the flower, asked their names, taught them about the parallels between shalom and salaam.
Through my tears, I said to them: “Make this world better. Please, tell me that you will make this world better.”
The older sister said to me: “Inshallah” (may it be Allah’s will).
I echoed: “Inshallah.”
When the American South was a hell on earth for blacks, people of all faiths got together. We fought – together.
When there was an unethical war in Southeast Asia, people of all faiths got together and rallied against that war. We fought – together.
How will America win this (paradoxical) war against guns?
First: we have now reached the tipping point. I saw it. I felt it. It should have happened at any number of places along this blood-stained journey. But, it didn’t. Something is different now. This fight is not going away. Please, let it not go away.
Second: people of all faiths are going to have to scream, and be uncivil, and be impolite, and channel Isaiah and Martin Luther King, and march, and scream, and be uncivil…..
Faith communities have won wars before.
Now, it is this generation’s term.
May it be God’s will.