On Forgiveness and School Shooters

On Forgiveness and School Shooters

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“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they were no more.” (Matthew 2:18 quoting the Prophet Jeremiah)

The anger and tears are real.

The one word on the lips of so many is “Why?”

Greek Orthodox Christians throughout the United States are looking inward and facing tough questions after a young member of our community allegedly killed multiple people in a school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas.

The video of the suspect, Dimitrios Pagourtzis, dancing at the parish festival is in stark contrast to the photos of his alleged victims. These images have shattered many of the pre-conceptions Greek Orthodoxy has embraced over the years. Watching a teenager take part in the ethnic dancing that is so often portrayed as the centerpiece of parish life just days before so many innocent lives were taken raises urgent questions regarding the needs of our youth. It also places a challenge before each of us.

How does the Church respond when one of its sons is charged with committing such an evil act?

One response that is not acceptable includes certain views shared on social media. Too many people have rushed to judgement with comments along the lines of “He wasn’t really Greek,” “He wasn’t really Orthodox,” “He wasn’t really one of us.” More extreme examples include people tossing around the label of Atheist and Apostate to describe the struggles, doubts, and anger of a 17-year boy.

One must ask, what teenager does not struggle with doubts and anger?

The Us vs. Them mindset is alive and well in Greek Orthodoxy and if left unchecked, it will continue to poison us.

As emotions run high, our ability to live our faith is diminished. The truth is that Dimitrios Pagourtzis is charged with committing an evil act for which there must be accountability. Information available also shows that Dimitrios Pagourtzis is an Orthodox Christian and part of the Body of Christ. It may be easy for us to dismiss him or judge him. We may want to forget about him or pretend he was never part of the Church. However, we have a more difficult and demanding responsibility: We are called to forgive him.

Forgiveness is not optional. It is an essential part being created in the image and likeness of God. We cannot live without it. This is demonstrated when Jesus Christ speaks to the Apostle Peter in the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. “Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.” (Matthew 18:21-22)

Christ not only commands us to forgive those who have committed evil, but he reminds us, “my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”

If we do not live forgiveness, the consequences are serious for our own lives. Fr. Thomas Hopko tells us, “the act of forgiveness is the very act by which our humanity is constituted. Deny that, and we kill ourselves. It’s a metaphysical suicide.”

“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” (Matthew 6:12) applies not only to friends and family who will never know prison but those who will live the remainder of their lives in prison.

Putting Words into Practice

Real forgiveness is never cheap. Metropolitan Anthony (Bloom) tells us, “To forgive does not mean to forget what has happened between us, but to shoulder the weight of another person’s frailty, or at times of another person’s evil.”

Real forgiveness is not about understanding the reasons. It is not about condoning evil and eluding consequences of one’s actions. Forgiveness is responding God’s love and growing in the communion that Jesus Christ gives to each us through his life, death and resurrection. The life of Christ shows us what authentic human living looks like and that includes forgiveness. Again, Fr. Thomas Hopko tell us that “. . if Christ crucified is at the heart of the matter, then evil is real and forgiveness is real and freedom is real, and there’s no other way to deify life but through an act of mercy.”

One example of deifying one’s life through an act of mercy is St. Dionysios of Zakynthos. St. Dionysios of Zakynthos is the patron saint of Ionian Village, a camping program for teens and young adults. It could not be more fitting that so many campers will have the example of St. Dionysios of Zakynthos before them this year as they the face the questions posed by school shootings.

St. Dionysios of Zakynthos is best known as the saint who forgave his brother’s murderer. According to the Ionian Village website:

Among the many blessings and miracles for which St. Dionysios will be remembered is his unbelievable act of forgiveness. In December of 1580, St. Dionysios’ brother, Konstantinos, was murdered by a man, who in trying to flee from the authorities, found refuge at the monastery where St. Dionysios served as abbot. While at the monastery, the murderer confessed the sin to St. Dionysios, who not only forgave him of the crime, but hid him from the soldiers and helped him escape across the sea to the shores of Cephalonia. St. Dionysios serves as a continual reminder to all Orthodox Christians that we should not let our hearts be hardened by evil or burdened with vengeance but should forgive those who do wrong.

Tradition holds that the murderer of St. Dionysios’ brother repented and answered the call to monasticism after being forgiven.

The threshold for violence in our culture continues to be lowered time and again. As we witness shooting after shooting, one is tempted to become numb to evil. Real forgiveness lived through the example of St. Dionysios of Zakynthos is needed more than ever. Only lived forgiveness can break the cycle of evil our culture is witnessing. Only lived forgiveness can transform us into the people God calls us to be.

There is not one among us who can control the circumstances in which we find ourselves, but all of us can control how we respond to evil when we witness it and endure it. Each of us can be part of the solution to the violence of our world by striving to live a life of forgiveness and embodying the words of Fr. Arsenie Boca who tells us that, “God’s love for the biggest sinner is greater than the love of the holiest man for God.”

Mercy leads to the truth of who we are. This is true not only for those charged with heinous crimes but each of us as well.

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Andrew Estocin

Andrew Estocin is a lifelong Orthodox Christian and alumni of OCF. He received his theological degree from Fordham University and is a parishioner at St. George Greek Orthodox Church in Albuquerque, NM.