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Repentance, compassion, and faith in Maryland

January 23, 2015

passionBY NOW, most of our readers will be aware that the bishop suffragan of Maryland, the Rt Revd Heather Cook, is charged with having struck and killed a cyclist, Thomas Palermo, with her car while under the influence of alcohol. As the story has made its way through the news media and the blogs, much ink has been spilled over the roles of alcohol and addiction in Bishop Cook’s crime, and over what the appropriate response of the Diocese of Maryland and indeed of any Christian ought to be to such a calamity. What do we do with addicts? What do we do with recovering addicts? What is the role of forgiveness? Indeed this last topic has been taken up in Tuesday’s Washington Post.

I am not an alcoholic, but I have known alcoholics, and I have the utmost admiration for those who are in recovery. They are people of courage, humility, and resolve, who have done what most of us, to use a theological phrase, are too chickenshit to do: they have faced the truth of their own frailty, their own powerlessness, and have admitted the need for help from beyond themselves.

It is a far cry from “I’m okay; you’re okay.” It has the added merit of being honest.

We would do well, as Christians, to remember the Twelve Steps. I was only going to post the first few of them, but as I re-read the list, it became clear that a full accounting was necessary:

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.
  11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

Alcoholic or not, there are very few more succinct and comprehensive lists of what each of us ought to do as Christians. Swap out “alcohol” for “sin,” and you could post this behind the altar, next to the Apostles’ Creed and the Ten Commandments.

The first step in the adult Christian life is not attendance at church. The first step in such a life is to become conscious. The first step is to admit that we are powerless over sin and that our lives have become unmanageable. We are profoundly alienated from God and our fellow men. We must recognize that we cannot go it alone and admit our essential dependency upon God almighty, and we must decide to turn our will and our lives over to His merciful care. In the church, this is called repentance.

Sin being the unpopular topic that it is in the Episcopal Church, many of us are unaccustomed to hearing about it. We are unaccustomed to thinking about it. Indeed many of us do not even know what it is. So let us be clear:

Sin is not an ethical concept.

Sin is not an ethical concept. As Giles Fraser has written, sin is “not about the church grubbing around in your misdemeanours.” Indeed sin is not even properly an individualistic concept, one which can be articulated as deriving from I, or you, or him, or her. Rather, we are all sinners insofar as we are members of the human race, Tolkien’s great and troubled “race of men.” Sin is common. Sin is the condition of our separation from the loving purposes of God. We cannot help it; indeed we cannot help ourselves.

No one knew this better than St. Paul: “I have already charged that all men, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin, as it is written: ‘None is righteous, no, not one'” (Romans 3:9-10). And right at this place, right here I imagine in this blog post, is where we turn into chickenshit.

Sed Angli, you ridiculous reactionaries! There is good in humanity! People have kindness and decency and honorableness, under the right conditions. I will not sit here and listen to you badmouth the human race!

And of course that’s true. But it is irrelevant to what we’re talking about, because sin is not an ethical concept. If it were, then the sinners would be bad and we, the righteous ones, would have no truck with them. But all have fallen short. We are no better than they are. Indeed there is not even really a we as against they or an us as against them. We are all in this together.

As a result, our first step toward forgiveness is to have compassion for the sinner, as we are all under the power of sin. We have that in common, which is a lot. The Prayer Book is big on the word compassion, but we nevertheless remain hazy about its true meaning. Compassion is not merely pity. According to the Oxford Dictionaries, compassion is: “sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.” It is from the Latin compatior, literally to ‘suffer together’.

This shared suffering is expressed nowhere better than in the stunning text of the Holy Week hymn Ah, holy Jesus. The second verse drives the point home with unflinching power:

Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon Thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone Thee.
’Twas I, Lord, Jesus, I it was denied Thee!
I crucified Thee.

Alas, my treason. I it was denied Thee. I crucified Thee.

If we forgive Bishop Cook, as we as Christians are bound to do, then we must do so first through our compassion. We suffer with her. We recognize in her a sister, a fellow sinner, and as a sister and fellow sinner we know her to be forgiven in Christ. Her treason is our treason, her denials are our denials, and her crucifixion — her homicide — is our homicide. It should come as no surprise that Bishop Cook’s “steady companion” since her incarceration has been a defrocked priest. Unsurprising, but it need not take a person who has lost his orders to have compassion.

One reason why the grotesqueness of what has happened to Bishop Cook is so upsetting — indeed why many of us in the church focus much more attention on the bishop than on Thomas Palermo — is the unpleasant hint it provides of how quickly the world can turn on any of us. This is why people in Bishop Cook’s position turn into social pariahs: their calamities are potent reminders of the fragility of our own lives, and we don’t want to be reminded. I don’t know how many of you will remember the HBO series Oz, but the pilot episode was absolutely chilling for someone like me. Tobias Beecher, a Harvard Law graduate and successful lawyer, a suburban husband and father, is also a functioning alcoholic. As Wikipedia tells it, “One night, he drives drunk — something he had already been arrested for twice — and hits and kills a nine-year-old girl named Kathy Rockwell. He is offered a plea bargain that would have allowed him to serve his sentence in a minimum security prison, but Beecher, not wanting to do any time in prison, instead goes to trial seeking an acquittal. The effort fails and the judge, a family friend of the Beechers, decides to make an example of him and sentences him to 15 years in a maximum security prison.” Oz.

No stranger to alcohol, and privy (thanks to HBO) of what happens to a thin suburban white guy in a maximum security prison, I could not help but imagine myself in Beecher’s place. Talk about jail bait. I never watched another episode.

In the case of Bishop Cook, we are not talking about television. Her homicide was real. Thomas Palermo is really dead. But we cannot turn away. We must face human ugliness in all its devastation. As Fleming Rutledge writes, “One of the things that clergy learn about pastoral care is that you never try to move the hurting person away from the pain…. You yourself must enter the pain in order to help. I will never forget a workshop I went to on suicide prevention. The leader said, ‘Steer toward the pain.’ This is the most deeply Christian thing that we can do for another human being. It reflects the love of the Crucified one. In the Cross, we see that God has not only steered toward the pain, but has done more; he has taken the pain upon himself.”1 As Christians, we can neglect neither Bishop Cook, nor Thomas Palermo, nor the truth of what has transpired. And in striving after Christ-likeness, if we begin in compassion, we continue in forgiveness. “Take heed to yourselves; if your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him; and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, and says, `I repent,’ you must forgive him” (Luke 17:3-4).

The Diocese of Maryland at least knows this much. In a short statement released immediately after the accident, the diocese said:

“‘One of the core values of the Christian faith is forgiveness. We cannot preach forgiveness without practicing forgiveness and offering people opportunity for redemption.'”

Here, however, right alongside forgiveness, one finds a devastating error in discussions of this matter: we may forgive, and forgive we ought, but redemption… redemption is not ours to give. Redemption comes by God alone through the death of Jesus Christ on the Cross. Redemption was bought for us on Good Friday. We in the church do not “offer an opportunity for redemption,” and the insidiousness of this sort of thinking is important. It is a theological error with severe ramifications, and it matters.

The charge against the Diocese of Maryland is that, in the name of redemption, it saddled with episcopal responsibilities someone who was, for the personal and medical reasons at issue, both unprepared and incapable. Heavy is the head that wears the mitre. It is difficult work under the best of conditions, and for someone whose house is not in order the results can be devastating. I have heard concerns raised over hiring as a parish priest someone in the midst of a messy and contentious divorce. Such a one would no doubt be found ineligible — at the time — for the episcopacy. Those who would take on positions of leadership in any field, with all of their temporal, emotional, and psychic demands, ought to be ready, not least in the church because of our prayer of God’s grace for all “bishops and other ministers that they may, both by their life and doctrine, set forth thy true and lively Word, and rightly and duly administer thy holy Sacraments.”

In its statement of December 30, 2014, the Diocese of Maryland wrote that: “As part of the search process, Bishop Cook fully disclosed the 2010 DUI for which charges were filed resulting in a ‘probation before judgment.’ After extensive discussion and discernment about the incident, and after further investigation, including extensive background check and psychological investigation, it was determined that this one mistake should not bar her for consideration as a leader.” In time, the nature of that “discussion and discernment,” along with the psychological evaluations, will no doubt be revealed. Hopefully, we will know if errors in judgement were made, and we will learn of their content.

It is important to say as well, indeed it is very important for us to acknowledge, that carelessness or errors in judgment do not need to exist for tragedy to occur. Each of us, mired as we are in sin, is a loaded gun. We are all pathological in some way.

I am told by the alcoholics I know that they are in recovery perpetually, that they are never cured of their toxic relationship with alcohol. It is a constant contest. Each day brings new challenges, some harder than others, but all very real obstacles to the their continued presence on the wagon. After his lamentable suicide, a story was told about Robin Williams by a young comic who had had the chance of working with him:

I make eye contact with him. He glances down to the floor, towards a cooler kept backstage filled with drinks for the cast. Bottles of various brands of beers jut through the ice and poke over the edge of the cooler.
‘You guys sure don’t make it easy, huh?’ he asks me, quietly, with a small smile on his face and a deep and real pain in his eyes. And I understand that all the rumors I ever heard about his demons and struggles are true.

There is a faulty assumption in the church — indeed it runs rampant in the church — that forgiveness and recovery are one in the same. We forgive, therefore all is well. This idea has not only slender theological validity; it is also plainly born of the sentimental fantasy that underneath it all, we are basically good and lovely. But we are all under the power of sin. Whether that manifests as alcoholism or not, theologically it is no matter. We must own up to it. We forgive, but recovery is a long and difficult road. As the great orator John Philpot Curran so memorably said, “The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance; which condition if he break, servitude is at once the consequence of his crime and the punishment of his guilt.”2 Constant vigilance must be among our watchwords.

At this point, the fate of Bishop Cook is all but settled. She has killed a man, and she will be held to account for that most grievous trespass. She must not be forgotten in our prayers or in the jail ministry of the Diocese of Maryland. Neither must the church forget its ministry to the Palermo family, the ministry to widows and orphans that is among the church’s most historic missions in this world.

Those of us left behind in the church to pick up the pieces struggle, as the case before us wants for administrative solutions. We want answers, fixes. We want to put policies in place to prevent this from ever happening again, and such efforts are meet and right. Policies and programs can encode memory and serve as useful guideposts as we work to serve God in governing the “holy Church universal in the right way.” But policies and programs alone cannot save us, a fact which the church often forgets. Christian witness happens personally, it happens individually, and we must address the person right in front of us. There is indeed no conclusive answer to the question of what we do with addicts, what we do with recovering addicts. Some will be equipped for ministry, some not. Some will be equipped for the mitre, some not. As St. Paul writes: “there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of working, but it is the same God who inspires them all in every one” (1 Cor. 12:5-6). The only way we can know is by meeting each person where he is, meeting him in compassion and forgiveness for his sins. Forgiveness does not mean that all will get what they desire, nor what we desire for them, but they will not be denied full membership in the company of the faithful.

We cannot make right what has happened. Is there any way that Heather Cook, even if she should spend the rest of her days in jail, can ever atone for the hideous death of Mr. Palermo? Is there anything the Diocese of Maryland can do to settle that account? We grieve for Bishop Cook and the Palermo family, for we know that she cannot make it right, the diocese cannot make it right, and we cannot make it right.

But over and above our despair, there is good news, for we are not alone. God has refused to allow grief to be the final word in human calamity. On the Cross, Jesus Christ has taken the full weight of human brokenness upon himself and defeated sin and death, once for all upon the cross. He was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried. “He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities” (Isaiah 53:5).

But that is not the end. He is risen! And Christ’s resurrection from the dead has opened a new chapter in human history. “For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him” (Romans 6:9). “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Romans 6:5).

In our darkest hour, when we cannot escape the wretchedness of our own condition, Jesus Christ is with us. He has gone before us in all things even “unto the end of the world.” And nothing, nothing can in the end separate us from the loving purposes of God which are in Christ. “For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38).

This is the Good News itself, and we are never more in need of it than when hopeless tragedy stares us in the face. We may be small, we may be weak, but all is not lost. We cannot offer redemption, we cannot make it right, but we have faith in a God who has treated us, in the most comforting words in all the Prayer Book, “not weighing our merits, but pardoning our offences.” “Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23).

And so for the Palermo family, and indeed for Heather Cook as well, we will do what we can. We can investigate the tragedy, and we can revise our policies, and we can pay greater care to those whom we entrust with responsibility in the church. But we have faith in God who has acted through Jesus Christ to rectify the world, the God who knows us each of us individually, personally, and fully, and who has given us hope through the Cross of true and final redemption.

I AM the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me, shall never die.

I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: and though this body be destroyed, yet shall I see God: whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not as a stranger.


1. Fleming Rutledge, Help My Unbelief (Grand Rapids: William B. Erdmans, 2000), 144.
2. John Philpot Curran, “Speech upon the Right of Election for Lord Mayor of Dublin,” 1790 (Speeches, Dublin, 1808), in Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (London: Oxford University Press, 1953), 167.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Heath H permalink
    January 26, 2015 12:54

    Thanks for the post–the recent writing I’ve seen on the incident is much more useful than most of the immediate reactions. I do not have ready access to any of the German etymological dictionaries, but Ernout /Meillet’s “Dictionnaire Etymologique de la Langue Latine” claims no connection between pater (whence patria and compatriot) and patior/passus–I do not know that it is correct, then, to say that compassion is from the same root as compatriot.

    • January 26, 2015 12:59

      Thank you for the note on this. And you’re right: patior and patriot are of course different. This is what happens when you write without checking yourself. I appreciate the correction.

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