“There is hope in forgiveness.”—John Piper
The myriad responses to the Charleston church shooting and subsequent, tragic deaths of nine people last week range from outraged to horrified, saddened, and disgusted. Immediately political ramifications ensued. We are mostly a nation of people who are quick to react and push for further reactions, to politicize and proliferate every violent event, to judge and be judged. Yet Charleston—specifically, the people of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church—has shown us a different way to handle the most unimaginable of all tragedies.
1. Evil Exists and Can’t Always Be Stopped
The day after the shootings, President Obama took the opportunity to offer his condolences along with a policy speech, and “took a hard rhetorical shift” linking the shooting directly to the availability of guns. It’s a normal and unsurprising reaction many have, particularly liberal politicians. It’s okay to have a debate about gun control, although I’m not convinced guns are the main problem here.
As we have learned more about Dylann Storm Roof, it’s became increasingly clear he is a white supremacist, a supporter of the old Confederate South and Adolf Hitler. On his website, he proclaimed, “I have no choice I am not in the position to, alone, go into the ghetto and fight […] We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the internet. Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me.” Roof was ballsy, deranged, and diabolical enough to enter a Wednesday evening Bible study and patiently sit through the entire hour before going on his killing spree.
The Charleston shooting should be analyzed. We should evaluate what can be done to eliminate racism, protect innocent people, and eradicate evil. But evil will always be present. Who would have thought, in a state like South Carolina, with all of its political advances, with a female, Indian-American governor and a black president at its helm (although yes, a Confederate flag flew outside the state Capitol until recently) a white teenager would gun down nine black people solely because they are black? Evil permeates and destroys. Try as we might, it will always lurk among us.
2. You Can’t Choose What Happens to You, Only How You React
Our society has become averse to accepting responsibility and eager to shift blame. We are always the victims, never the perpetrators. In the case of the Charleston tragedy, this couldn’t be more literally true. The families of the nine people killed were innocent—their only “crime” the color of their skin. Anyone could understand if these families wanted to lash out, loot, riot, tear their clothes in mourning, or allow themselves to succumb to grief and be overcome in despair.
Unlike Ferguson, and other similar tragic events made more so when communities rioted or reacted in a rage, the Charleston community, particularly the churches, seem to have pulled together in solidarity. Instead of tearing apart their churches, vandalizing their community, or wreaking havoc, they have remained calm and unified. During a packed vigil at Morris Brown AME Church, attendees mourned and cried, but they did not shout and riot. One pastor proclaimed that Roof had messed with the wrong place. The church Roof shot up a few days ago already held services again Sunday. During the prayers, Rev. Norvel Goff said, “The doors of the church are open. No evildoer, no demon in hell or on Earth can close the doors of God’s church.”
Sunday, Charleston’s Post and Courier dedicated its front page to honoring the lives of the victims. In reading the description under each name, it’s clear Roof’s hate made no discrimination among gender, age, or occupation, as they all varied. The common denominator among them? Their robust faith. “Model of endurance and service,” “builder of faith,” “found strength in a gospel song” were just a few of the many phrases summing up the lives of those who were killed.
3. Forgiveness Can Triumph Over Evil
Most people take a while to forgive an offense, especially big ones like cheating, stealing, abuse, and murder. But many family members of those killed Wednesday offered that to Roof without so much as a trial, an explanation, an apology, any reasoning whatsoever.
At Roof’s bond hearing, the victims’ families were allowed to address him via video conference. The daughter of Ethel Lance, one of the victims who was killed, addressed Roof and said, “I just want you to know, I forgive you. You took something very precious from me, and I forgive you.” Anthony Thompson, a relation of one of the victims, urged Roof to “repent, to give his life to the one who matters the most.” How can a young man whose mom Roof allegedly gunned down stand in front of his friends and a microphone and tell a crowd of people he forgives Roof and that love will win?
Of course, psychologists tell us forgiveness is healthy for us physically, mentally, and spiritually. But it’s hard to do, even if we know it’s good for us. The only, and most powerful, common denominator in how the victim’s families are responding to this tragedy is their strong faith. This isn’t to say people without faith fail to forgive or always act calm in crisis, but such powerful displays of unity, forgiveness, and strength seem beyond what the human spirit is capable of on its own—especially given the abominable racism of the killer and his calculated display of terror. This is a display of God-given grace during a horror-filled week.
If the mere possibility of forgiveness, not to mention the even-more-amazing ability to extend it, comes from God’s hand, what other unfathomable graces must God extend when he grants such grace-filled moments when evil attempts to sway? The victims’ families will continue to face many more hurdles of grief, loss, and suffering, but from what they have shown us already, and what we have already learned, we can know without a doubt, they will move forward with grace and hope.