Last night, I attended the screening of Emanuel, a documentary about the horrific massacre of nine black parishioners at the Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina - one of the oldest African American churches in the entire country. I am still processing the film and the events that occurred on that hot night of June 17, 2015.
Members of the church were attending a Bible study on that evening when Dylann Roof, a 21 year-old white supremacist looking to start a race war, walked into the study and was warmly welcomed by the congregants. He sat through the entire Bible study and waited until prayers at the very end to start his slaughter. Eight members of Emanuel died in that room, and another victim died in the hospital later that night.
An eerie security video outside the church shows Dylann calmly walking out the front door after the rampage, getting into his car, and driving off as if nothing had happened. The next day, police in North Carolina arrested Dylann (in a much calmer manner, it must be said, than if he had been a black man who had just murdered nine white people). During his confession, he nonchalantly admitted to the murders as if it was just one more thing on his to-do list for the previous day.
At the bond hearing, within 48 hours after Roof's arrest, many of the family members of the victims offered forgiveness in the midst of their pain. In the documentary, many of those who forgave Dylann so soon after the tragedy mention that something holy and sacred came over them during that hearing, so as to empower the forgiveness they offered.
As a white man, I want to be extremely careful how I react to this and how I write about it. In the documentary, other members of the church tell how they are not able to yet forgive, and may never be able to do so. Others caution that forgiveness should not be used as an end to giving deep consideration to the root causes of Dylann's actions - mainly, the American original sin of slavery and the continuation of its effects among black individuals and communities. Racism is still very much alive in American society. In no way do I want to avoid these issues.
What struck me, though, about those who were able to offer forgiveness is the why. What motivated them to forgive? What story compelled them to offer their forgiveness to someone who was not even repentant of his transgression? What Reality within them urged that grace?
One of the commentators in the documentary made a comment that stuck with me and answers the questions above. He said that Christianity is the only religion in which God himself, in human flesh, is abused and beaten and killed, and in that suffering, says, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34). Everything in me wants to buck against that. Every impulse wants to object. This kind of forgiveness is not only unnatural. It is dangerous. It is masochistic. It is suicidal.
And it's also the central message of the gospel. Turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:38-40). Forgive endlessly (Matthew 18:22). The forgiveness God offers is connected to the forgiveness we offer (Matthew 6:14-15). There are so many more instructions to forgive in scripture, and the point is that healing and peace come through forgiveness. I don't know what to do with these instructions. I do know they don't mean to stay in abusive or oppressive situations if you have the ability to escape (see the entire book of Philemon). I also know they do not mean God is not focused on justice for the oppressed (Luke 4:18). In some way, this forgiveness seems to be tied to liberation. It seems to be part of the holy equation of freedom and justice. And it certainly is not something any of us can do on our own, because it is not natural.
Those families who had loved ones snatched from them at Emanuel, yet were somehow able to forgive, show me a supernatural charism. They literally embody Christ. This is not at all to judge those who are not yet able to forgive, or who may never be able to. It is only to recognize the work of the Spirit where it blows, and I sit in awe of it.