When the accused killer of the nine martyrs of Emanuel AME in Charleston, South Carolina was arraigned in court, much was made in the mainstream media about how the loved ones of the murdered forgave him. This forgiveness was seen as marvelous, simplistic, premature, Christian—it garnered attention and commentary.
This narrative of African Americans forgiving a white murderer and terrorist fits neatly—too neatly—into a larger framework that diminishes the injustices inflicted upon Black people. Somehow the misdeeds of white people magically evaporate in the face of the wonderful “spiritual” and “soulful” presence of African Americans.
This isn’t right. And I mean by this not only that this narrative, and these assumptions, are morally wrong, they are also incorrect.
In confronting him, the loved ones of the slain worshippers did indeed forgive him and in the same breath told him this was his opportunity to repent.
It is this challenge to repent that deserves to be widely disseminated and discussed.
Demonstrating the powerful, all-inclusive mercy of God is the fruit of profound faith and spiritual discipline. God’s unrelenting and universal love is a core message of the Christian life as I understand it (steeped as I am in the Universalist witness).
The community of survivors that held and holds that killer in prayer, offering him forgiveness, demonstrating for him the nature of God, bathing him in the light of divine love are not weak. They are not meek and mild.
Forgiving him does not mean exonerating him. It doesn’t mean declaring him “not guilty.” It doesn’t mean not holding him accountable.
The point of bringing that murderer the light of God is to illuminate the evil he has done.
To make him see it. To make him acknowledge it. God’s light illumines the space where evil lurks, showing it to you. Making it visible to you. Being compelled to see what you have done—and to see it through the eyes of the ones who bear the consequences of what you did—is meant to awaken remorse, contrition, confession.
People have a tendency to cover up our mistakes, our missteps, our—let’s just say it—our sins through denial. We deny we have done anything wrong, or we deny that our actions were wrong, finding ways to justify or rationalize.
The unrelenting soul-force of those who would hold us accountable blow that all away. Look at what you’ve done, they say, see it here in the light. Acknowledge it.
The humane response to being shown clearly the nature of our wrongs is to regret them, be sorry for them, to repent of them and ask forgiveness to those who we wronged.
The German theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonheoffer speaks of “cheap grace,” like being given the “get out of jail free” card easily and quickly. Cheap grace is, in his words, “the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance.”
I don’t think what we’re seeing here is cheap grace. The Christian witness of forgiveness manifested by the loved ones of the nine martyrs of Charleston was one that required repentance.
And some kind of repentance is required if we are to ever have racial justice.
I have so few answers on what this might look like for all of us trying to live through the continuing legacy of slavery and colonialism on this continent. Except that the evil that white people have inflicted on Black and Native peoples will not magically evaporate.
And that without repentance, without the public confession of wrongdoing and without official apology, without a thorough examination of conscience by every person who benefits in the racial system of advantage and disadvantage, there can be no reconciliation, no justice, no peace.
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