We’ve heard the story. The scene was the bond hearing for Charleston murderer Dylann Roof one week ago today. The Washington Post put it this way: “I forgive you,” Nadine Collier, the daughter of 70-year-old Ethel Lance, said at the hearing, her voice breaking with emotion. “You took something very precious from me. I will never talk to her again. I will never, ever hold her again. But I forgive you.” Family members of some of the other victims added similar words.
We don’t know what to do with forgiveness. As the story of the forgiving families spread, most response was of admiration if not a little bit of confusion. On Saturday the editor of The New Yorker wrote saying that he found the forgiveness to be “superhuman” and “unfathomable.” He pondered aloud about the source of this forgiveness and concluded that it must have something to do with the incredible power of the Civil Rights movement. He never once considered the Christian faith that empowered those who struggled so mightily. This is an opportunity and responsibility we have in times such as ours. We have a story to tell, the story upon which the story of the forgiveness of the murderer of the nine in Charleston rests.
As a new week began, the stunned and grieving nation tried to understand what had happened at Emmanuel AME the previous Wednesday evening and on the streets of Charleston on Sunday morning. At first quietly, a voice questioning the value, the place, the meaning of forgiveness began to be heard. Day by day that voice became stronger, sometimes strident.
On Monday, a Washington Post writer questioned whether forgiveness on the part of the black community was appropriate.
On Tuesday, New York Times columnist Roxane Gay said that as a black woman she could not forgive Dylann Roof and that any call to forgiveness was oppressive; whites asking for absolution. Others have added their support to the “no forgiveness” cause.
Yesterday Michael Wear, a young evangelical and Obama White House and campaign aide, responded to the misunderstanding and rejection of forgiveness in a Christianity Today article. “Stop Explaining Away Black Christian Forgiveness.”
What, then, is the meaning of forgiveness? Is it impossible? Is a call for forgiveness oppressive? Is it rooted in one of the greatest movements in American history or somewhere else? What is the meaning of forgiveness?
Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig is a staff writer at The New Republic. She is helpful in her descriptions of three different ways that we may understand forgiveness. The first is a therapeutic understanding. We forgive because it helps us. We heal and move on more successfully. We hear of that therapeutic value of forgiveness all the time. Especially in the church. Bruenig calls such forgiveness “thin.” I agree.
The second understanding of forgiveness is political. It is a strategy for gaining position or power. Granting or withholding forgiveness is a weapon used in a larger war – or a greater cause. At its best political forgiveness helps restore justice. But the political use of forgiveness may victimize the victim and keep the oppressor in power. That seems to be the point of the Washington Post and New York Times columns.
Frankly, on second and third reads the Times and Post columns make more and more sense to me. Demanding, even expecting forgiveness, especially in the public square, can postpone justice one more time. I once had a friend who demanded forgiveness at the slightest hint that she may have done wrong. She did not want to do the hard work of repentance and change. Our friendship collapsed under the weight of the burden she placed on me and so many others in her life.
So, what of Christian forgiveness? It is as simple as it is deep. It is, in fact, superhuman and unfathomable.
Our Presbyterian “Brief Statement of Faith” puts it this way:
We rebel against God; we hide from our Creator.
Ignoring God’s commandments.
we violate the image of God in others and ourselves,
accept lies as truth,
exploit neighbor and nature,
and threaten death to the planet entrusted to our care.
We deserve God’s condemnation.
Yet God acts with justice and mercy to redeem creation.
In everlasting love,
the God of Abraham and Sarah chose a covenant people
to bless all families of the earth.
Hearing their cry,
God delivered the children of Israel
from the house of bondage.
Loving us still,
God makes us heirs with Christ of the covenant.
Like a mother who will not forsake her nursing child,
like a father who runs to welcome the prodigal home,
God is faithful still.
Nadine Collier forgave Dylann Roof because she knows that she is forgiven. She knows that her own sin has been forgiven by a faithful God. Often unwilling and always unable to forgive of our own volition and strength, God, who always gives grace to help in time of need, gives us the grace to forgive. In Nadine Collier we are allowed to see amazing grace.
A final thought – Tuesday’s prayer walk was interrupted by the weather; we did not hear all the voices we thought we might hear, and for some of us not all the voices we heard were appropriate or helpful voices. It was the voice of our African American pastors, however, that we needed to hear and who spoke God’s truth into our hearts. Those who have known the painful sting of racism and have borne its still heavy weight spoke to us, gave witness, to the power of forgiveness – in Jesus’ name.
See you Sunday