Nobody would ever confuse yours truly for a good Christian, and the long services at most black churches fail utterly to move me. Yet if I were anywhere near Charleston, South Carolina, last weekend or next, I would march straight into Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and carve out a pew.
I wish I could be there for two reasons — for solidarity and, frankly, for awe.
As most people know by now, last Wednesday a deranged young man with a Dumb and Dumber haircut named Dylann Roof marched into that church and asked a Bible study group for their help. Parishioners of Emanuel attempted to do what they could for him. He repaid their gracious efforts with gunfire, shooting ten and killing nine of them.
Roof wrote and said that he did this to provoke a race war in America. According to the Washington Post, Roof told police that he “almost didn’t go through with it” because they were “so nice to him.” But, he shrugged, “I had to complete my mission.”
He did so by murdering nine people in a church, instantly making martyrs of them.
For that reason alone, I would like to go stand with my brothers and sisters in the faith, as they remember the fallen in this unbelievably sad time.
But what came next really stunned me. The families of the victims confronted Roof at the bond hearing and… forgave him.
Nadine Collier, daughter of Ethel Lance, a 70-year old woman Roof had shot at point blank range, said, “I forgive you. You took something very precious away from me. I will never get to talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you and have mercy on your soul.”
A relative of victim Myra Thompson agreed: “I would just like him to know that, to say the same thing that was just said: I forgive him and my family forgives him. But we would like him to take this opportunity to repent. Repent. Confess. Give your life to the one who matters most: Christ. So that He can change him and change your ways, so no matter what happens, you’ll be OK.”
And on and on it went.
Michael Brendan Dougherty, friend and columnist for the Week, wrote: “While everyone in the media, understandably, rushed to talk about policy and symbolism, the Church rushed to save their persecutor’s soul.”
Dougherty called this, “Easily the most astounding Christian witness I’ve seen from a single faith community in America.”
The closest thing that I can recall to it happened in 1983. Pope John Paul II went to the jail cell of Mehmet Ali Agca, who two years earlier had put a bullet in him. The pontiff took his hand and forgave his Turkish would-have-been assassin.
“I saw a man, he was holding the hand that had fired a gun at his heart… I saw the eyes and the look of surprise, as he left an indelible mark,” went the opening lines of a song by the evangelical Christian musician Steve Taylor.
Taylor turned out to be prophetic about the “indelible mark” part. Forgiveness befuddled and changed Agca. He converted to Christianity in prison. Last year, he turned up at the Vatican to lay roses on John Paul II’s tomb. He wanted to meet with Francis, but the current Pope’s Swiss Guard wouldn’t have it.
But even in that extraordinary case, it was only a near-run thing. Having survived, John Paul II was still around to be gracious. That the families of Emanuel’s fallen could bring themselves to forgive Roof when the hurt and the feelings were so raw is almost otherworldly.
If anything, it shows how deeply they committed they are to Jesus Christ’s commandment that his followers “turn the other cheek” and the broader Biblical warning never to “repay evil for evil.”
No sane person would have blamed Emanuel’s families if they had blown off some steam and simply damned the young man for his vile and cowardly act. Yet they did something wholly unexpected and undeserved, and therefore amazing, instead.
Roof will never be a free man to visit the graves of his victims. Given the laws of South Carolina and the sympathies of its residents, he will almost certainly die for his crimes.
That these things should happen is right and proper and fairly predictable. But if our latest domestic terrorist cracks, the pundits will not know quite what to say about it. The members of Emanuel AME will shout “amen!”