The Power of Forgiveness
I know all members of the Renew Network share my shock, dismay and grief over the killing of 9 innocent men and women of the Emanuel AME Church on June 17, 2015 in Charleston, South Carolina. The shooting was particularly shocking because it happened in a church, during a Bible study. It was one more incident in a string of incidents where loss of life occurred in the African American community.
In the last ten months or so, it appeared to me that we were going backward, not forward, in the struggle to eliminate racism. Demonstrations have occurred in Ferguson, New York, Baltimore and other cities. The strides we had made in eliminating racism, seemed to be slipping away. But that perception was turned on its head by the truly Christian reaction and witness of the victims’ family members and the church family of Emanuel AME Church. What happened in Charleston was an example to the world that when we live out the love of Christ and His teaching on forgiveness, it brings triumph out of tragedy.
After his arrest, the shooter was arraigned in court. He turned out to be a white male in his early twenties. Usually in such cases, the victims’ families are not allowed to speak until the sentencing phase. But for some reason, the presiding judge allowed the nine victims’ families to speak directly to the alleged shooter at the bond hearing. Some people present did not speak, but five relatives chose to do so.
What they said to the shooter was truly Christ-like, for each that spoke forgave the shooter and asked for mercy on his soul. The grandson of one victim urged him to repent and turn his life over to Jesus Christ. A granddaughter of another victim said that the pleas for the shooter’s soul were proof that “Hate won’t win.” She went on to say that God’s mercy is even there for him, and she prayed that at some point he would find God’s mercy. Then she said, “I am ready to forgive him. I have to, because that (unforgiveness) would block so many blessings. Nothing grows positive out of hate.”
And hate did not win! There was no denial of the pain and loss by those who spoke, but there was testimony to a higher reality. The reality that love and forgiveness will do more to eliminate racial hatred than all the laws we pass, all the demonstrations, and all the blaming of the other side or the blaming of our system that so often accompanies these tragedies.
The judge at the bond hearing called attention to the family of the shooter. He reminded us all, that they too are grieving the actions of the young man. They too will suffer loss. They too need our prayers, our forgiveness and the love of Christ showered on them.
I could not help but think of the passage in Hebrews 10 where the writer exhorts true believers to draw near with a true heart of faith and hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering. The writer goes on asking us to “…consider one another in order to stir up love and good works…” Indeed the members of Emanuel AME Church held fast their confession as they spoke to the young man who took from them their beloved family members.
But their demonstration of love and forgiveness was not confined to the shooter.
These families stirred up much love and good works in their community and even beyond. Large banners appeared on some buildings urging racial harmony, and many churches hosted prayer vigils. When Sunday came, Emanuel AME Church held church as usual. Their faith was not shaken. Worship that morning was particularly vigorous as those gathered danced, sang hymns and shook tambourines.
The Rev. Norvell Goff brought the sermon. He too reached out with words of hope, love, and thankfulness. Early in the sermon he said, “We still believe that prayer changes things. Can I get a witness?” The congregation responded with a rousing, “Yes.” “But prayer not only changes things, it changes us,” he continued.
He thanked law enforcement specifically, and the city for responding with love and compassion. Pastor Goff put it really well in his sermon when he said, “A lot of people expected us to do something strange and break out into a riot… Well they just don’t know us. They don’t know us because we are a people of faith…What was meant to divide us has united us.” And how true those words proved to be.
As the Emanuel Church goers left the service, outside on the sidewalks, they were greeted by a large crowd of mostly white people singing Amazing Grace. Many were moved to tears as the love of Christ which the families had extended to the shooter was extended to them.
That same Sunday, some 20,000 people of various races walked across Charleston’s Ravenel bridge, some arm in arm, to show the world that blacks and whites stood in solidarity.
Of course there were the detractors who seized upon this situation with the hopes of pushing through their agendas. There were those who bemoaned that racism was embedded in the heart of our system. But far more powerful was the witness throughout the weekend following the shooting that demonstrated the power of Christ when He is embedded in the hearts of men and women.
Can there be justice without repentance and forgiveness? If we learn anything from this evil, racist, senseless shooting of nine innocent blacks gathered to study God’s Word, it should be that the power of forgiveness brings about real change. Change can be mandated; it can be legislated; but unless it is written on the hearts of us all, it can never be truly experienced.