Before he was shot at an Aurora theater last Thursday night, Pierce O’Farrill was a proponent of the death penalty. After being hit by three bullets — and believing for awhile that he was dying — O’Farrill says he’s changed his mind. He doesn’t want the death penalty for the man who shot a theater full of people. What’s more, he says his faith leads him to forgive James Holmes.
In a radio interview with syndicated talk show host Todd Schnitt, O’Farrill described the importance of his faith in getting through the ordeal, and he said forgiveness is part of knowing Jesus.
“So the truth is I’m blessed — I’m truly blessed — to have forgiveness in my heart and I do forgive him completely for what he’s done,” O’Farrill said.
In the interview with Schnitt, O’Farrill describes his experience in great detail. It’s the most riveting account I’ve heard of exactly what it was like to be in the theater during the shooting. O’Farrill was hit by a bullet from each of the three weapons that Holmes used. When one bullet hit his arm and broke a bone, he ended up in tremendous pain and he bled a lot. He couldn’t figure out where he had been hit, and he says he thought he was dying. (You can listen to the entire interview in two segments at the end of this article.)
Although the entire interview is interesting, the part that stands out to me is O’Farrill’s lack of bitterness and his willingness to forgive. Most of the other victims (and the dead victims’ families) seem to be angry and eager for Holmes to receive that death penalty, which seems understandable. O’Farrill sees it very differently.
“This is going to be hard for people to understand, but I feel sorry for him,” O’Farrill said. “When I think what that soul must be like to have that much hatred and that much anger in his heart — what every day must be like — I can’t imagine getting out of bed every morning and having that much anger and hatred for people that he undoubtedly has. I’m not angry at him. I’ll pray for him.”
O’Farrill hasn’t been a Christian for many years, so it’s easier for him to have a sharper understanding of what it feels like to have been forgiven. He started attending a non-traditional startup Baptist church in Aurora called The Edge, and it was there that he came to know God.
His pastor believes O’Farrill’s willingness to forgive might spark a national discussion about forgiveness.
“Some of the other survivors have said that they can’t or won’t forgive [Holmes],” said Ryan Heller, pastor at the Edge Church. “Reporters are contrasting him against other survivors, so it is important to understand what Jesus says about forgiving.”
O’Farrill works for a non-profit group called the Denver Rescue Mission.
As I thought about O’Farrill’s willingness to forgive, it reminded me of the famous meeting between Roman Catholic Pope John Paul II and the man who shot him in an assassination attempt in 1981. Two years later, the pope met with Mehmet Ali Ağca — his would-be assassin — and he forgave the man. Although Ağca ended up in Turkish prison for killing another man years before the assassination attempt on the pope, the two remained in touch until John Paul’s death.
Christian singer Steve Taylor had a memorable 1985 song about the impact of the pope forgiving Ağca. The song struck me vividly at the time because it forced me to think about whether I could meet with the man who had tried to kill me — and offer him forgiveness. Here’s the way it starts:
I saw the eyes
And the look of surprise
As he left an indelible mark
Oh, will we live
Come, find release
Go, make your peace
How much different would the world be if we learned how to forgive each other? How much hatred could we shed if we could let go of the serious grievances we have with one another? And even if not everybody can forgive, what if more Christians would learn to be more like O’Farrill and Pope John Paul II in this respect?
Learning to forgive wouldn’t change the world all by itself, but it would be a great step for Christians who say they want to be more like Jesus. I’m grateful to Pierce O’Farrill for reminding me of this.
Note: Although the focus of this article is forgiveness, it’s worth pointing out that O’Farrill didn’t change his views on the Second Amendment. He mentions in the interview that he still supports the right for individuals to own guns.