The current issue of Rolling Stone magazine features on its cover a dark, handsome young man with unruly hair and a designer t-shirt. He looks out at you from the newsstand with an honest, searching gaze. He looks like Jim Morrison or a young Bob Dylan, but he’s not a rock star. He’s a terrorist. He built and planted the bombs that rocked Boston and the rest of America on April 15th. He killed four innocent people and injured more than 250. Had it not been for the grace of God and the skillful, heroic response of the entire Boston community, many more innocent people would have died at his hands.
Rolling Stone is, understandably, receiving some criticism for this editorial decision. Despite the claim that the cover and accompanying article align with Rolling Stone’s “commitment to serious and thoughtful coverage of the most important political and cultural issues of our day,” many vocal, impassioned commenters assume the worst: that this is a blatant attempt to create controversy and sell magazines, at the expense of the families who have already suffered so much. To be sure, the article has people talking about Rolling Stone, and there is no such thing as bad press. It is also true that, by virtue of Rolling Stone being Rolling Stone, anyone who appears on the cover is glamorized. Those who criticize the magazine are motivated, I think, by a noble sense that an injustice is being done to the memory of the victims.
But let’s try for a moment, as a sort of thought experiment, to assume the best. Different readers will interpret the tone and implications of an 11-page article differently, but a case can certainly be made that the tone of this article is one of sympathy and compassion for a sad, confused kid. And while many Americans feel that to express sympathy and compassion for a killer is to do wrong by those he killed, I disagree.
I’m reminded of the parable of the workers in the vineyard. In the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 20, Christ tells a story about some migrant workers who get hired for a day’s worth of farm work. It’s hot, and the work is hard, but at least they’ve got work, right? Throughout the day, the farmer finds more laborers looking for work. He hires them. At the end of the day, he pays a full day’s wages even to those who worked only a single hour. Understandably, those who’ve been at it all day are upset. They complain. The farmer replies, essentially: hey, it’s my farm and my money. And though you feel like an injustice is being done you, it’s not. My generosity to someone else in no way infringes upon your rights.
And so it is with sympathy, and compassion, and forgiveness. The public feels that for the editors of Rolling Stone to be generous with their sympathy is to somehow disrespect the victims and their families. If we examine this feeling, this understandable, instinctual reaction, we find that it just isn’t true. That’s not how forgiveness works. The sympathy I feel for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in no way diminishes the sympathy I feel for Krystle Campbell, Martin Richard, Lingzi Lu or Sean Collier. My forgiving a 19-year-old kid in no way condones the tragic, fatal, evil decisions that he made.
Americans are especially fond of demanding and adept at pursuing justice. It’s part of our national identity. It’s part of what has made us great and it’s a noble pursuit. “If you want peace, work for justice,” Pope Paul VI said, paraphrasing Isaiah. But justice is not an end in itself. At least, not the greatest end. We passed that point in our moral evolution 2,000 years ago. As Christians, we know that when these two virtuous desires conflict in the human heart — the thirst for justice and the quiet call to compassion — justice is good, but compassion is better. That central theme is one way of interpreting the Old and New Testaments. Within the Jewish tradition of a just, law-giving God, Christ introduced the idea – and ideal – of a compassionate One.
To those who are uncomfortable even considering the idea of feeling sympathy for a young man who knowingly and with much preparation set out to kill as many innocent strangers as he could, I can only say this: Christ Himself was radically compassionate. He wasn’t arrested and executed because He was exhorting people to forgive only those whom they already liked. He didn’t say, when He commanded us to forgive our brother seventy times seven times, that we should make an exception for those whose sins are too great.
The reality of love which we are called to proclaim and the magnitude of worldly pain in which we are called to proclaim it are often uncomfortable and easily ignored. And yet we are called. The tragedy of the bombing of the Boston marathon and the magnitude of the sins of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev are difficult even to comprehend, let alone to forgive. And yet we are called.
We will not achieve the transcendent love of Christ in this fallen world, but as Christians we continue to strive for exactly that. Faced with the seemingly impossible task of forgiving a monster, what better place to begin than by speaking to his childhood friends, as Rolling Stone has done? Are we as a nation so hard of heart that we cannot bear even to take this first step?
Paul Kane graduated in 2007 with a BA in German Language and Literature. He is now a Submarine Officer in the US Navy.