Reflections on Forgiveness in the Wake of Charleston

“You took something precious away from me . . . I will never talk to her again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you and have mercy on your soul. You hurt me and you hurt a lot of people. But I forgive you.” The gracious words from the daughter of Ethel Lance to Lance’s murderer, Dylann Roof, are enough to make one gasp in awe, or perhaps even horror.

Roof stood motionless in a video bail hearing as family members of his victims addressed him. “We welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible Study with open arms,” Felicia Sanders, mother of 26-year-old Tywanzaa Sanders, reminded Roof;”You have killed some of the beautifullest people that I know. Every fiber of my body hurts—and I will never be the same. But as we said in Bible Study, we enjoyed you. But may God have mercy on your soul.” And Reverend Anthony Thompson, husband of Myra Thompson, spoke on behalf of his family: “We would like you to take this opportunity to repent. Repent. Confess. Give your life over to the one who matters most, Christ, so he can change it and change your ways, and no matter what happened to you, you’ll be okay.”

The anguished generosity of their expression elicited strong, immediate responses. Among those praising the words of forgiveness was Dr. Anthony Bradley, Professor of Religious Studies at The King’s College in New York, who declared: “By publicly forgiving Roof at the outset, the families of Emanuel AME oriented Charleston and the whole country toward love, peace, and justice. Their act was a pre-emptive strike against social unrest, more violence, and greater racial division. Forgiveness provided an opportunity for lamentation. The families of Emanuel set the tone for how the rest of us should respond.”

An alternative perspective was offered by author Roxane Gay in her New York Times piece, “Why I Can’t Forgive Dylann Roof,” and in a subsequent interview with NPR. Locating the Charleston murders in the historical narrative of unrelenting violence (with official sanction) against Black people, she declares, “I don’t think it is our job to forgive any more.” Gay does not criticize the families but takes issue with the way the media “began packaging a narrative about forgiveness.” “White people embrace narratives about forgiveness so they can pretend the world is a fairer place than it actually is, and that racism is merely the vestige of a painful past instead of this indelible part of our present.”

Taking Gay seriously, we must ask: What does forgiveness even mean in the context of such murderous evil and historical injustice? It cannot mean excusal, or turning a blind eye to the unrepentant web of violence that hatches such horror. Gay touches directly on this:
“Mr. Roof’s racism was blunt and raggedly formed. it was bred by a culture in which we have to shout “Black lives matter!” because there is so much evidence to the contrary. The terrorist was raised in this culture.He made racist jokes to his friends. He shared his plans with his roommate. It’s much easier to introduce forgiveness into the conversation that to sit with the reality and consider all who are complicit.”

The families responded in the midst of overwhelming grief, and their articulation was itself heart-rending. There is nothing cheap about what they offered. And their expressions of mercy were given without conditions. In one case the loving embrace of the Bible Study was invoked. In another, with Reverend Thompson, a hope that this awful juncture might still become a space for repentance, turning, new life. This is core Christian belief in practice, and is truly reason for awe. The families call to God for mercy upon Dylann Roof, in the spirit of Jesus’ call from the cross. They intercede for Dylann Roof. They pray for his redemption, while in no way denying their own pain.

Maurice Charles gives sensitive witness:
“As I watched those families struggle to offer a costly forgiveness, I beheld people with their backs against the wall (here he is referencing Howard Thurman)–faced with the hellish choice of lashing out in a destructive rage or freeing themselves from the power of hell by reaching out their ravaged souls and finding a shred of forgiveness. I applaud them for choosing life when their backs are against the wall.”

Amen. And I respectfully suggest there may be even more. The family members recognize and affirm Roof’s humanity in the midst of the hell he has unleashed upon them. The Apostle Paul’s declaration, “Nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord,” is claimed not only for themselves but for Roof as well. Their action is, as Anthony Bradley suggests, an interruption in the dominant power of violence, which this blog has long contended is a key characteristic of forgiveness. This break in the cycle has provided valuable space for lamentation. The richness of this period of “sit(ting) with the reality” is revealed in the writings cited in this blog post, and in subsequent developments in South Carolina. Contrast all this with the lack of considered lamentation and reflection in the wake of 9/11, and the disastrous results of such omission.

The problem with taking Bradley’s insight as exclusively definitive would be that it would threaten to deny the victims the fullness of their experience, the need (in the context of their faith) to also join with Jesus in their anger and in their articulation of unvarnished truth. It would threaten to place the primary burden for healing upon the families and victimized community themselves rather than upon the perpetrator(s) and the nation as a whole. I hear both Gay and Charles saying that if the expressions of forgiveness are coerced in any way, by religious demand and social location, they may yet become another violence done to the families and the community. Gay writes:
“Black people forgive because we need to survive. We have to forgive time and time again while racism and white silence in the face of racism continue to thrive. We have had to forgive slavery, Jim Crow laws, lynching,inequity in every realm, mass incarceration, voter disenfranchisement, inadequate representation in popular culture, microaggressions, and more. We forgive and forgive and forgive and those who trespass against us continue to trespass against us.”

What Gay brings into focus is yet another key quality in any process of forgiveness that can point the way to healing: fidelity to the truth. While forgiveness breaks cycles of violence and retribution, it also testifies to the truth and shines light on that which has been shrouded in darkness. Both are essential. While the families are embodying a costly love that opens a way out of no way, their calls for mercy are but the beginning of a larger process. For peace and justice to prevail, repentance must be insisted upon, and not just from Dylann Roof. “Preventing social unrest” is hardly the job of the family–“social unrest” is appropriate and necessary in this landscape of compounded trauma and injustice!

“Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing,” Jesus calls out from the cross. In Jerusalem, Jesus brings the agape love of God into direct engagement with the powers of death wielded by religious, political, and economic forces. The power of boundless grace confronts the ultimate force the world has to offer. Jesus’ offering of life is not passive; he enters the realm of death manifesting God’s power for life.

Still, the question has always been: Didn’t the people who took Jesus’life, and those who engineered the outcome, “know” what they were doing? Of course they did, even as Dylann Roof calculatedly knew what he was doing in planning the murders, entering the Bible Study, sitting among the Beloved for an hour, and then methodically shooting them.

And did not many of us in the dominant culture realize, deep within ourselves, what we were doing when we excused the actions of police officers who strangled Eric Garner before our eyes? Or what our rationalizations were really about when we saw Michael Brown’s dead body lying in the street for four hours, half-a-football-field away from Darren Wilson’s police car?

So what, then, could Jesus mean? Geiko Muller-Fahrenholz writes: “The victimized Son intercedes for the world to the victim-God, pleading for forgiveness for we, the human race, do not know how our violence–our sin–is breaking the heart of God and tearing the world apart.” Jesus is calling out for the only power that can save us. His prayer is not one for absolution, but for deliverance and transformation: “Father, forgive them, for they are under the spell of death.” And it is that spell that God will confront!

Reverend Clementa Pinckney was an inspiring example of this Jesus-attitude. Earlier this year, in the wake of Charleston’s Walter Scott being shot in the back by Officer Michael Slager, Reverend Pinckney very clearly labeled what happened as “murder,” advocating for a law requiring police to wear body cameras. He called everyone to see the truth clearly, to behold the wounds and believe, invoking the Biblical example of Thomas. At the very same time he humanized police officers, and when calling for prayer for the Scott family, called for prayer for the Slager family as well. He pointed to the promise of a just and shared future, but not at the cost of denial.

Forgiveness, in a biblical sense, can look very different than we might imagine. Three Saturdays ago, Bree Newsome climbed the flagpole in front of the South Carolina Statehouse and took down the Confederate battle flag. She resisted heated demands from police to stop. Deliberately removing the flag, she spoke as if to the idol itself: “You come against me with hatred and oppression and violence. I come against you in the name of God.” She descended the pole, flag in hand, and submitted to arrest. As she was taken into custody, she recited both Psalm 27 and Psalm 23. Newsome’s actions acknowledged the scope of the injury and embraced the necessity of an assertive response to injustice. She was fore-giving in that her prophetic action gave new definition and revelation to the shared reality of the situation, an alternative interpretation of history still unfolding, quite apart from “official” action or approval. She would not wait for a compromised legislature to produce its definition of justice. Political entities will never have the final say on who is or is not fully human.

In her brilliant essay, “On the Pole for Freedom “, Dr. Brittney Cooper writes: “The clear Christian framing of her (Newsome’s) act of civil disobedience matters for a number of reasons. As the families of the nine slain offered forgiveness to Roof for his heinous acts, I was incensed by what felt like a premature move to forgiveness. While I feel compelled to honor the right of those families to grieve and to process this loss in a way that makes sense for them–after all this is first and foremost their loss–I also wonder about whether churches have done a disservice to making Black people feel in particular that forgiveness must show up pretty much on the same day as our grief and trauma and demand a hearing . . . Bree Newsome was a reminder to me that forgiveness is not the only thing faith can look like in person.”

Dr. Cooper’s desire to examine the role churches play in teaching and calling for forgiveness is relevant for all of us in the Christian church. Impoverished or underdeveloped understandings of forgiveness –and its source– can become damaging impediments to healing, true repentance, and justice. She is calling out versions of forgiveness that would have victims courageously assume the full weight of injustice in a context devoid of hope, or insist that we “move on” or “put these things behind us” without righteous reckoning and a commitment to change. Yes, in a gospel sense, forgiveness is unilateral in declaring a freedom from deathly retributive cycles while practicing the liberation of assertive love. It is about recognizing the image of God somewhere in even the worst offender. But this love is committed to dignity, to re-membering all that has been dis-membered, to truth-telling, to the fullness and care of mourning, to manifesting a jaw-dropping and embodied hope, to repentance and atonement, and to an emerging transformed narrative that promises deliverance. I am not insisting here on a “Christian” understanding of forgiveness for everyone, but I am asserting that this deeper “for-giveness” holds within it some powerful resources.

I perceive Bree Newsome’s actions as having a clear kinship with the actions of the families. I see the passionate, thoughtful, even searing reflections of voices like Cooper, Gay, and Charles (among many others) as essential in testifying to truth, insisting on accountability,opening space, and pointing the way. I behold the necessity of tending to the wounded families and community, humbly and deliberately, beyond the immediate crisis.

Dr. Bradley wrote that in the wake of the forgiveness offered by the families:
“There were protests, but they were shrouded in prayer and singing. There was rage but no riots. There was despair and confusion but no retaliation. The victims’ families ushered in a spirit of unity and racial solidarity. Black and white people across South Carolina came together. Multiethnic prayer vigils were held across the country. Many dominoes are falling as the Confederate battle flag is finally being viewed from an African-American perspective.”

These developments would be most hopeful only if they open the way to real and costly change rather than restoring a sense of equilibrium. Stories need to be received, their truth and their implications honored. Those of us entrenched in white privilege need to learn the meanings of accountability, repentance, and atonement. Then, perhaps, terms like “unity,’ “solidarity,” and “coming together” can take on real and lasting substance. Walter Scott, Tamir Rice, and Sandra Bland need to be mourned in company with Reverend Clementa Pinckney. The pastor would see that as an answer to prayer.

In the Christian tradition, forgiveness is at the heart of the gospel. Christians believe that we all need forgiveness; it is inextricably joined with our deliverance. Time will tell what impact forgiveness has had on Dylann Roof. One of the most powerful manifestations of contemporary forgiveness will be when White America, led by the church, will allow ourselves to be forgiven and will embrace the life to come. We need to hear Reverend Thompson speaking to all of us. Then forgiveness will be “unpackaged.”


Muller-Fahrenholz, Geiko. The Art of Forgiveness. Geneva: WCC Publications, 1997, p. 7.