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Forgiveness Under Fire

June 24, 2015

Who would have thought that one person forgiving another for the wrongs he has committed would be controversial?  Yet this is exactly what has happened in the aftermath of the heart-breaking expressions of mercy and forgiveness given to Dylann Roof from the families of those he ruthlessly gunned down.  They are being told that they should never have forgiven such a horrible racist who showed no evidence of repentance and, even if he had, this would send the wrong message to other horrible racists.

Why they made such tear-filled statement of mercy was clear – because they are followers of Jesus, who, from the cross, forgave those who crucified him.  Even more, they are from the faith tradition of people like Dr. Martin Luther King and the non-violent ethic of the civil rights movement.  As a Christian I admire them because I know that their theology of radical forgiveness reflects what I see in the teaching of Jesus.  I admire them because I am by no means certain that, were I in their shoes, I would be able to do the same.

For those outside the faith the concept of radical forgiveness is incomprehensible.  The idea of turning the other cheek seems idiotic, particularly in the face of those who would be quite willing, even happy, to slap that cheek too.  It seems to invite punishment and accomplish nothing.  It is quite possible that Roof is so far gone in his racist hatred that the offers of forgiveness and mercy didn’t touch him at all.

Yet there is no promise in the Bible that forgiveness will accomplish anything in an earthly sense.  While there are cases where that does indeed happen; where cruel people see grace for the first time; that was never Jesus’ point, let along his promise.  We should have no expectation that people outside the faith will understand or approve.

I think that all of us, whether we share their faith or not, need to respect this radical forgiveness.  From personal experience and years of observation I’ve also seen that, early in a grief situation, we tend to say what we think ought to or, to the contrary, what our emotions are making us say.  Grace in a time of weeping requires us to listen and not correct.  Few things infuriate me more than Christians who correct the “flawed” theology of our grief expressions.  When my wife’s father died minutes after I’d taken off on a cross-country flight and she told a friend that it couldn’t have happened at a worse time she did not need to be told that “God’s timing is perfect.”

One lesson we white Christians need to take from this forgiveness is the reality that we may be engaging in a selective appreciation of forgiveness.  When black Christians forgive a white racist we are appreciative.  While we do not share Roof’s racism, we do share his whiteness.  He makes us uneasy because he looks too much like us.  So we applaud, rightfully, the forgiveness he was shown.

But today is the final sentencing of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston bomber who is to be formally sentenced to death.  I’ve not seen any widespread calls for radical forgiveness for him among my fellow evangelicals.  When people like us were the victims and the perpetrator was the one who was different forgiveness seems harder.  (Please understand I am talking about forgiveness here, not whether he should be excused from his just punishment.)

This is what makes the forgiveness in Charleston so amazing.  People who have endured the impact of racism for their entire lives expressed forgiveness to the worst example of racism they could ever experience.  I saw a well-written editorial  by Peggy Noonan honoring the families of Charleston.  In it she made this statement:

“What a country that makes such people. Do you ever despair about America? If they are America we are going to be just fine.”

She is wrong.  This forgiveness doesn’t come from being an American; it comes from being a true follower of Christ.  We honor those families by committing ourselves to actively stand with them both in their grief and in the continued struggle against hate.

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From → Christianity

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