Earlier this week, tragic news reached the Episcopal community in the United States: a bishop, the Bishop Suffragan of Maryland, struck a 41 year old cyclist, a husband and father of two, Tom Palermo, and killed him. As we were absorbing that news, we were told that the bishop apparently left the scene of the accident — eventually, she returned, but nevertheless, her first reaction was to flee.
Our hearts immediately reached out to the family of the man who died. What a terrible, awful thing to have happened. Few of us can imagine the grief they now live, few can understand how suddenly and irrevocably their lives have been changed. And the bishop’s role in this incident — about much of which we still know almost nothing — leaves most of us deeply unsettled.
What has also disturbed me this week has been how reluctant so many hearts have been to reach out to Bishop Cook. An old DUI incident has been brought up, though it is not clear whether alcohol was involved in this tragedy. People have been quick to condemn, quick to judge, and often in the most mean-spirited of terms. Few seem to have spared a thought for how devastated the bishop must be, having to live now with the knowledge that her actions or inactions led to someone’s death, and devastated a family and community. And knowing that her life and work as a bishop, as an ordained person in The Episcopal Church, will be forever changed and, quite possibly, lost.
Let me be clear: As the details of this incident are investigated, and Bishop Cook’s role in it becomes clear, she must and should face the consequences of what has happened. She, like each of us, remains accountable, and she will ultimately have to live into that accountability.
But what disturbs me so much is how many Episcopalians have joined the reactions of condemnation, quick judgment, and mean-spirited talk, how many have seemed to have difficulty finding any compassion for the bishop to match their compassion for the man who died and his family.
Richard Rohr, speaking of the spiritual journey, notes that as we move into what he calls a second half of life spiritual perspective — in other words, as we mature in our spiritual path — we move from a dualistic to a more non-dualistic view of the world. When we are caught in a dualistic mindset — the default mode of the Western mind — we have a need to split things into clear and mutually exclusive categories. People are either good or bad, right or wrong, innocent or guilty. As we mature spiritually, we come to appreciate how complicated our own humanity is and, consequently, how complicated is the humanity of others. We recognize that within each of us lives good and bad, right and wrong, innocence and guilt. Each of us is a tragic figure, a mixed bag, and the great good news of the gospel is that it is precisely this tragic figure, this mixed bag, that God loves. For the spirit of God searches the hearts of us all, and has known our complexity from the beginning, long before we could acknowledge it to ourselves.
When we are able to see non-dualistically, then we are able both to hold people accountable for their actions and embrace them with love and compassion at the same time. We do not feel the need to choose one or the other: we are able to choose both.
Jesus enacts this non-duality many times in his life and ministry. For me, one of the most powerful stories of his enacting of this quality is in the “story of the woman caught in adultery” in St. John’s Gospel. Here, a crowd brings a woman before Jesus to ask that he affirm the legal penalty for her misdeed, which means that she is to be stoned to death. Jesus invites the sinless person in the crowd to cast the first stone, and one by one, they all drift away. He has forced them to recognize that it is not as simple as the woman being a sinner and the crowd being filled with the righteous. He has made them recognize that they, too, have done things that render them guilty or sinful in some way, shape, or form. When Jesus finds the woman standing alone with him, he declines to condemn her, and instead sends her on her way with the instruction to “sin no more.” In other words, Jesus does not excuse her behavior, he does not suggest that her actions don’t have consequences. But he doesn’t judge or condemn her. Rather, he has compassion for her, and invites her to move on from this point in her life in a new way, invites her to live a different sort of life.
The story does not tell us whether that woman accepted his invitation to a new life. It seems clear to me, however, that the possibility of her choosing that new life is created by Jesus’ own act of forgiveness. His compassion — his refusal to condemn — becomes the foundation upon which a new life may be built, if she chooses to do so.
As people who claim to be followers of Jesus, this is a lesson which we must seek to learn. Our condemnation and judgment does not create the possibility of new life. It is our compassion that does that. No one was ever bullied into transformation. Jesus teaches us that for true transformation to happen, we must be loved into it.
Jesus reminds us that our calling is to stand in the tragic gap that opens when we are confronted with a tragedy such as this one. Rather than running to one side or the other, we are called to hold both in tension. We are called to stand in the place that calls for justice and accountability while at the same time extending compassion and love to all concerned. We are called to recognize the deeply human forces at play here, and to stand as witnesses to both the prophet’s call to responsibility and Jesus’ call to love. It can be a very difficult place to stand, indeed.
I would hope that we might be able to step back and reflect upon this terrible tragedy. As we pray for Tom Palermo and his family and friends, let us also pray for Bishop Cook and her family and friends, and for the people of the Diocese of Maryland. We stand in the face of a terrible tragedy, and we are called to hold the whole of that tragedy, and all involved, in prayer.