It was a warm June night and like most Wednesday nights at numerous churches across the country people were gathering for prayer and bible study. For years, this gathering was uneventful but, on this night, a white man named Dylann Roof entered the church and sat quietly pondering his next move. He was welcomed by those in attendance and even claimed because of their kindness he was reconsidering his violent intentions. Unfortunately, the evening didn’t end in peace, Dylann pulled out his gun and killed nine people including the pastor Clementa Pinckney. Dylann killed without discrimination in regard to gender or age, he was only interested in killing people because they were black. His disdain for African Americans and feelings of hatred motivated him to pull the trigger on his weapon again and again. Among the dead were Sharonda Coleman-Singleton a 45-year-old mother of three and a high school track coach. Cynthia Hurd age 54, a librarian at the public library for 31 years. Tywanza Sanders, a young 26-year-old graduate of Allen University in Columbia. Tywanza died trying to save his 87-year-old aunt Susie Jackson who was also killed that evening. He told Dylann to shoot him and leave his aunt alone but reports say Dylann said it didn’t matter he was going to kill everyone anyway. After he killed Tywanza he eventually shot Susie Jackson. Tywanza was the youngest victim to die that night and his aunt the oldest. This story is beyond tragic and unfortunately not the only of its kind.
The question is if any of these events happened to you or someone you love could you forgive the perpetrator? The answer has to be yes. Why does it have to be yes? Because if it’s no, then we’re trapped in a cycle of hatred and self-defeat giving the demons in hell something to celebrate. They rejoice with every act of vengeance and self-loathing that terror and violence inflict on the survivors of trauma. If we can’t forgive people, we’re forever held captive by the traumatic experiences they’ve inflicted upon us.
The most moving words of forgiveness I’ve ever read came from the families of the victims killed that night at Mother Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. The Washington Post published an article on June 19th by Elahe Izadi called “The Powerful Words of Forgiveness Delivered to Dylann Roof by Victims’ Relatives” which captured the exemplary Christian spirit of forgiveness this community incarnationally represented to Charleston and the world. Here are some of the things these hurting wounded people had to say to the man who killed those they loved simply because of the color of their skin:
“We welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible study with welcome arms. You have killed some of the most beautiful people that I know. Every fiber in my body hurts and I’ll, I’ll never be the same. Tywanza Sanders was my son. But Tywanza Sanders was my hero. Tywanza was my hero. … May God have mercy on you.” – Felicia Sanders, mother of Tywanza Sanders.
“I forgive you. You took something very precious away from me. I will never get to talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you and have mercy on your soul. … You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. If God forgives you, I forgive you”. – Nadine Collier, daughter of victim Ethel Lance.
If you’re like me you hear these words and say to yourself, “I’m not sure I could be that forgiving.” I understand. Forgiving someone appears to be a monumental task when someone killed a person you love through a senseless act of violence. But believe me, you can forgive people who do these terrible things. The surviving relatives of these victims aren’t superhuman, they’re superheroes of forgiveness. These are men and women just like you and me. That’s comforting and scary at the same time. It’s comforting because it means you and I can choose to be forgiving people. It’s scary because it means just like these ordinary people we might find ourselves needing to forgive someone who acted in the same way as Dylann Roof. The important lesson to learn from these brave families is we can be forgiving because forgiveness is a choice. Like love, forgiveness is more about choices than feelings. When we choose to forgive someone, we must learn to behave and think in a particular way that impacts how we feel about the situation. Thinking, feeling, and behaving are intimately connected. I know many of you reading this are saying, “Just choosing to forgive someone doesn’t make me feel like I forgave them. Because I don’t feel like I’ve forgiven them I must not be a forgiving person.” Yet, this first choice to forgive is indeed an important step in the process. The choice to forgive and then acting in a forgiving way leads to feelings that come with being a forgiving person.
If we are to develop communities of peace, we must first discover how to be communities of forgiveness. Leaders of communities set that tone and example. My challenge to you as a community leader is to do that very thing. Lead your community into the experience of forgiveness and watch it grow and flourish.
(The above is taken from Dr. Hankle’s book “The Christian Vocation of Forgiveness” that can be purchased here.)