On October 2, 2006, Charles Carl Roberts IV walked into an Amish school in rural Pennsylvania and began shooting. Before Roberts finally shot himself he killed five young girls and wounded five more. In the wake of the carnage people inevitably wanted to know, “How could anybody do this?”
This question was soon accompanied by a second, equally perplexing question: “How could the Amish forgive?” And to forgive so unanimously and prodigiously. To the amazement of just about everyone the community of Amish that had been so unspeakably victimized immediately extended forgiveness to Roberts’ family, the family of the monster. Even more incredibly, members of their community attended his funeral. And they gave some of the money donated for their community to his family.
To forgive a wrong-doing is grace, an extension of unmerited favor. To forgive a wrong-doing this extreme, and to do so with such brazen extravagance, is what I call extreme grace.
The interesting thing about extreme grace is that it both attracts and repels. Some people were profoundly affected by the actions of the Amish. They were fascinated by the extension of forgiveness to the extent of attending the killer’s funeral and donating money to his family. They were drawn inexorably to it and they wanted to know how they too could embody a force this potent.
Others were appalled. They thought the actions of the Amish were inexplicable, even perverse. Of all the funerals to attend in the world, why go to the one of your children’s murderer? Of all the families in need of support why support the family of that same murderer?
So extreme grace both attracts and repels. Even more interestingly, it often attracts and repels the same people at the same time. I count myself in this camp. The two voices I describe above are both my own. I want to know how to extend grace to others this extreme (God forbid, of course, that I should ever have to). But even as I give voice to that desire I am repulsed by the very thought of it.
I can imagine that the same paradox attends to those who are extended extreme grace. From one perspective, it is an inestimable gift, a beautiful extension of mercy and kindness. But it isn’t easy to receive. In certain respects it is easier to be hated and not to have to see those whom you have wronged (or those wronged by a loved one).
Such is the power and mystery of extreme grace.