During Dylann Roof’s first court appearance after the June 17 murder of nine worshippers at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, several families of the victims offered forgiveness to the man, who did not deserve it.
Why were they so quick to forgive? The families were simply exercising a fundamental Christian virtue. In so doing, they possibly changed the South forever in the process as Confederate flags and symbols are removed from state buildings across the South.
When we suffer injustice, the human heart craves revenge, vindication and retaliation. These are also desires Christ came to save us from. Christians are commanded to respond to injustice with forgiveness. This principle is central to Jesus’ teaching in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” (Matt 6:12). Immediately after this prayer, Jesus tells his disciples, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:14–15)
Later in the Gospel of Matthew, Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answers, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” (Matthew 18:21–22) In other words, you cannot forgive someone enough.
The swift forgiveness offered by the victims’ families, as hard as that must have been, is what Christianity is all about. Forgiveness is an extension of love. Christians extend forgiving love to those who have wronged them — including their enemies — because this is God’s disposition toward them. God is love, and he calls his people to love. God forgives first and expects his people to do the same.
The grace of forgiveness, in turn, empowers forgiven people to forgive others. The irony, of course, is that the very act of Emanuel AME members welcoming a white man into their Bible study showed their deep orientation toward love, given that the AME denomination was birthed from white Christians committing unloving and unwelcoming acts against African-Americans in majority-white congregations.
By publicly forgiving Roof at the outset, the families at Emanuel AME oriented Charleston and the whole country toward love, peace and justice. Their act was a pre-emptive strike against social unrest, more violence and greater racial division. Forgiveness provided an opportunity of lament.
The families at Emanuel set the tone for how the rest of us should respond. There were protests, but they were shrouded in prayer and singing. There was rage and mourning but no riots. There was despair and confusion but no retaliation. The victim’s families ushered in spirit of unity and racial solidarity. Black and white people across South Carolina came together. Multiethnic prayer vigils were held across the country.
Moreover, the dominoes are falling as the Confederate battle flag is finally being viewed from an African-American perspective. Politicians are responding to African-Americans’ concerns about that symbol of white supremacism in communities across the country. The flag is being removed from the grounds of the state Capitol in South Carolina. Virginia’s governor is ordering the removal of the Confederate flag from the state’s license plates. Amazon, Walmart, Sears, Kmart and eBay are no longer selling Confederate flag merchandise. These are all reactions to a rise in social consciousness about how these symbols serve as difficult reminders for African-Americans about a past not characterized by love and human dignity.
Because the Emanuel AME families chose forgiveness first, the entire country is better off. If they had remained silent and extended forgiveness only in prayer, it may have given an opportunity for less productive responses to prevail. Moreover, expressing forgiveness publicly does not grant freedom from the consequences of transgressions. Forgiveness is not a substitute for justice. Christianity teaches that we all must give an account for our transgressions. Roof must still stand trial for the crimes he committed.
The families of the victims are now free, however, from the snare of hate and vengeance and instead are empowered by love. At the funeral of shooting victim Ethan Lance, a grandmother of seven and a sexton at Emanuel AME, her granddaughter Aja Risher said, “I want my grandmother’s legacy to be what she stood for, and that’s love.” Risher wants her death to be viewed as not in vain but as “a catalyst for this country to change.” Forgiveness bestowed on Roof a type of love that he may have never experienced in his life and set Charleston on a course of grace, love and unity, which time and again have proved to change the world for the better.