Paul Prather: Christian virtues revealed in dark times

Mercy is one response to Colorado shooting

Contributing columnistJuly 28, 2012 

Paul Prather

As I write this, a week before you'll read it, we're in the early stages of trying to understand a mass shooting in a Colorado movie theater.

I've been considering how Christians should respond to this and other awful events. And even to events that aren't so terrible but tick us off, such as the convulsions and accusations of a presidential campaign.

In an article I just read, one of the Colorado wounded, Marcus Weaver, told Yahoo News he hopes to forgive James Holmes, the alleged gunman who put shotgun pellets in Weaver's shoulder.

"I'm a man of faith, but it gets tried in times like this," Weaver said. "I'm not saying I'm forgiving him today, I'm not saying I'm not mad, but at some point I'm going to have to let it go."

Jenny Zakovich, whose niece was killed, expressed mercy toward the shooter's family.

"I can't imagine what they are going through at this time," she told CNN, according to the same Yahoo News article. "Just let them know we don't blame them for his actions. My heart goes out to the mom and dad of that family, too."

To me, Weaver's and Zakovich's comments display the core attitudes that Christianity, America's majority faith, demands of its adherents.

Before I continue, several caveats.

First, while the Yahoo News article made it clear Weaver is a churchgoer, it didn't mention Zakovich's religious affiliation, if any. She might not be a Christian. I assure you, I recognize that many non-Christians are merciful people, and that many Christians aren't. No group has a corner on decency.

Second, I have no idea how I'd react if I or a member of my family were shot. You never know how you'll handle a crisis until you're in it. I prefer not to find out.

Third, I'm not trying to excuse the gunman's crimes or argue that he shouldn't be held responsible and, if found guilty, imprisoned forever.

That said, this is as good a time as any to discuss Christian virtues.

So, if you'll allow me a brief sermon, here's a reminder of several of the attributes we Christians were commanded by Jesus, St. Paul and other fathers of our religion to manifest during every manner of conflict.

Love: As I've written before, the Greek word early Christians used for love was agape, a specific type of love in which we perform gracious deeds regardless of how we feel. Agape isn't an emotional feeling but an act of our will.

If our enemy is hungry, we feed him. If she's thirsty, we fetch her a drink of water. If he persecutes us, we pray for him. In doing these things, we personify God's love to people we might not like. We're never to repay evil with evil.

Forgiveness: As Weaver made clear in that news article, forgiveness isn't easy. When we've been hurt by someone for no discernible reason, there's rarely anything in our nature that would encourage us to wipe the slate clean unilaterally. We're apt to seethe and sizzle with a lust for vengeance.

Forgiveness takes time. It takes effort. It takes dependence on God's spirit.

Yet Jesus said that if we don't forgive others, neither will the Lord forgive us.

Compassion: This is the ability to look beyond our own problems and see that others are hurting, too. It's Zakovich expressing concern for the accused gunman's family. She must be in agony herself, but she understands how crushed, alone and guilty the family must feel.

Compassion doesn't look for someone to blame, but for someone to help.

Humility: If we bravely and honestly assess ourselves, we find that we're frail, limited, flawed and sometimes stupid beings who have made mistakes of our own. That being the case, we ought not judge others too harshly.

We don't have all the answers for ourselves, much less for everybody else. We don't know why people do what they do; placed in their circumstances, we might have behaved worse.

Humility gives people the benefit of the doubt. It listens more and talks less.

Faith: If we believe in God, we should try to trust that he — ultimately, being God — has everything under control. He sees the beginning, the present and the end; he's working toward a larger, eternal good.

We might not understand what's happening right now. We might hate what's happening. We might be furious with others, ourselves or the Lord. That's all OK.

But faith allows us to collapse into God's arms despite our misgivings. There's terrific peace in that surrender.

Let me stress again that I haven't mastered all of these virtues.

Heck, I haven't mastered any of them.

And, as I said, neither do I think these qualities are uniquely Christian. There are people in every religion, and of no religion, who practice such principles.

Still, these are goals we Christians have been commanded to strive toward. Our society often is defined by violence, revenge, competition, presumption and intolerance. We should pray to be different, to be God's lights in a dark world.

Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You can email him at pratpd@yahoo.com.

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