Americans may believe genuine events of biblical proportion are rare in their lifetime - that they aren't witnesses to epic moments of astonishing faith like those described in Scripture.
But what happened in the rural Amish community around Lancaster, Pa., on Oct. 2, 2006, is seen as a profound teaching moment for humankind.
In the hours after a gunman invaded a one-room schoolhouse and lined up and shot 11 girls - five fatally - and killed himself, the girls' parents and other members of the Amish community went to the gunman's home to express forgiveness. In a show of compassion and reconciliation, they also went to the funeral of shooter Charles Roberts.
Their grace and amnesty seemed wholly out of step with a culture that condemns evildoers.
The massacre is the centerpiece of a documentary, "The Big Question," shown at the 2008 Sedona International Film Festival. The 63-minute film by three-time Academy Award-nominated director Vince DiPersio is especially notable for the six famous voices in the cast. They include retired South African Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu; health and well-being guru Dr. Deepak Chopra; "Dead Man Walking" author Sister Helen Prejean; the Rev. Joseph Lowery, co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh, Zen Buddhist monk and popular writer; and His Holiness Sri Sri Ravi Shankar of the Art of Living Foundation.
It was a Catholic priest and the president of Paulist Productions, the Rev. Frank Desiderio, who took the film idea to DiPersio, a 25-year documentary director. "The Templeton Foundation was sponsoring a lot of scientific research on forgiveness," Desiderio said. They took a look at the work of scientists, psychologists, biologists, neurobiologists, geneticists and others about how the brain functions and responds in anger and in times of forgiveness, for example.
"We started finding dramatic stories, and then we started to interview spiritual leaders. That is how we kind of pieced it all together," said Desiderio, who is also president of the Human Family Educational and Cultural Institute, which gives out the annual Humanitas Prize to writers.
"If you forgive, then you are living more at peace in your own skin, and you actually are extending your life," Desiderio, executive producer, said in a phone interview from Sedona. The film includes a scientist discussing the "evolution of forgiveness in the brain," he said. "He discusses it as a sulfa drug for the brain so that it can get over anger, and, tribally, it has kept us from killing each other."
Desiderio said eliminating stubborn grudges and bitterness lowers stress and its impact on health. "If you are chronically angry, then your system is operating under a high level of stress. Your adrenals are pumping out adrenalin and you shorten your life because you are stressing your body," he said.
So much of action films are what he called "revenge flicks" in which a kind of "vigilantism" prevails. "Revenge drives so much in culture," he said.
"So many people are eaten up by old hurts," he said, noting how one priest explained to him that the difference between one person or another getting well may have to do with bitterness they harbor. "He told me, 'Often there is a lack of forgiveness in their lives. The healing is blocked because there is still resentment and anger and they can't let in the healing grace.' "
Idea to jump at
DiPersio, who has been directing award-winning documentaries since 1983 for HBO, CBS, PBS' "Frontline," Showtime, Turner Television and others, said he jumped at the opportunity to do the film. "To get a chance in life to examine the whole question of forgiveness, I just jumped," he said. "It sounded like such a wonderful project."
He wanted to avoid making a film that would "preach to the converted and wind up being a lecture about forgiveness for people who were already in that space."
Lessons from the 2006 Amish tragedy should not be lost, the filmmakers said. "They are just an amazing people," DiPersio said. "To show up a the killer's house the night of the slaughter and to be there with the family is astonishing.
"You can actually feel it in the community, what those simple acts had done," he said. For example, "We would get behind a buggy going 10 mph in a long line of cars, and no one would honk their horns. There was just a new kind of tolerance."
DiPersio chose to find "tough stories where people had to make a Herculean effort" to forgive. The director said he told friends about the project, and all of them had their own stories related to forgiveness. "I come from a big Italian family, so the vendetta is part of my heritage," said DiPersio, whose previous project was the film "Semper Fi - One Marine's Journey," which aired last year on Showtime and won best-documentary award at three film festivals.
Voice of peace
He found Tutu, the Nobel Prize-winning theologian, to be a key voice in "The Big Question," mostly "because of what he did - he changed a nation."
The Buddhist writer Thich Nhat Hanh brought "revelations to me," DiPersio said. "It's a very simple, grounded approach - just looking at things the way they are."
The stories compiled for the film slowly helped DiPersio understand what makes it possible to forgive. "Meeting them on the road, visiting the sites of their private pain, living with their astonishing acts of courage and will, day after day in the editing room, has been the kind of education we all deserve at least once in our lives," DiPersio explained in his film notes.
"The Big Question," he argues, is whether each person can forgive.
"I feel that religion across the board, in general, but especially Christianity somehow, has forgotten the Sermon on the Mount," he said.
The filmmakers said they want to keep taking "The Big Question" to film festivals and see it reach theaters and TV.