As weeks have passed since the massacre of nine Americans at Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC, I have been reading and listening to the victims’ funeral services and their families’ comments about their loved ones. The families, amazingly, have all offered repeated statements of forgiveness and love to the alleged murderer . . . something that I find astounding and heart wrenching.
While suffering the greatest sadness and loss, these friends and relatives have offered sincerest forgiveness to the one who brought so much suffering! I am reminded of Jesus’ word on the cross:
- “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)
Truly people of the Mother Emmanuel AME Church are living the greatest teachings of Jesus.
Nine dead at the Mother Emanuel AME Church. The horror of it – the useless loss of life – of devoutly religious and good people studying the Bible on a Wednesday. . . nine kind and gentle people who invited a young white male in to study and pray with them. A young man, it turned out, who was so deeply troubled and influenced by an environment of ignorance and bigotry, that he felt it was his duty to right some of the ‘wrongs’ of the world. . . to murder a group of people he had been indoctrinated to believe were evil and a threat to America as he felt it should be.
When the relatives of these people slain inside that historic African American church in Charleston, S.C., were able to speak directly to the accused gunman at his first court appearance, one-by-one, they did not turn to anger, but instead they offered him forgiveness and their prays for his soul. And in so doing, they stopped cold any mass demonstrations, violent recriminations, or weeks-long expressions of anger and bitterness that other like murders have produced in other locations.
In the midst of what was probably the most devastating thing that had happened in their lives, the faith and belief in the true teachings of Jesus about forgiveness was so strong with these Christians that they had the love and fortitude to say:
- “I forgive you”.
They witnessed that their lives and families were built on love; they had no room for hating so they had to forgive, and pray for this tormented youth’s soul.
Personally I am still struggling with whether, if I were in their place, I could be so forgiving. I am not sure that I could live out Jesus’ teachings and example if that were my wife or my aunt or my child. And I’ll bet that many of you question whether you could be so forgiving also. Forgiveness is not easy to do; it runs counter to our culture and human nature. When we are hurt or injured or angered, our instinct is to hurt back, to take revenge.
Where do we turn to gain some understanding, some solace, some relief from the grief of the horrific and cruel things that happen to us? We might turn to the words of Mark 11:25,
- if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you
Yet, how can I truly follow these teachings in the face of so much evil and meanness in the world? From the school shooting in Columbine, or the movie theater in Colorado, or the Sandy Hook School shooting, and the senseless killings of so many black young men and women by our police, how can one believe it possible for the Kingdom of God to ever come on this earth?
How can one hope to believe that God’s will can ever be done ‘on earth as it is in heaven’?
As we seem surrounded (and are participants in) daily murder, violence, and cruelty throughout the Middle East and in much of Africa, how can one believe it possible for the Kingdom of God to ever come on this earth?
In personal as well as public concerns, I wonder how I can come to learn and live true forgiveness in my heart. It is not easy; we may desire to forgive in our heads, yet forgiveness must come from our hearts.
There are several steps we can take to work toward forgiveness:
- We must be able to articulate clearly what happened and why it is wrong. . . to ourselves . . . to our children . . . to our friends and neighbors
- We must find the right perspective in our hearts about what is happening in the world.
- We must realize that the act of forgiveness does more for us, than for those we are forgiving; the act of truly forgiving wipes away the anger, resentment, and soul-destroying hate from us and bring peace where there was chaos.
- We must not only forgive but forget. We must truly ‘move on’. Carrying any remainder of the wrong allows it to continue to fester in our hearts and poison our lives, and the lives of those around us.
It involves letting go in a way that frees both parties from grudges and guilt. True forgiveness involves more than saying the words. The phrase “forgive and forget” is often used because without forgetting, there is no true forgiveness.
Practicing full forgiveness has been shown to reduce anger, hurt, depression and stress and leads to greater feelings of hope, peace, compassion and empathy. Practicing forgiveness also leads to healthy relationships as well as physical health and brings us to an attitude that opens the heart to kindness, beauty, and love.
Still, I have to admit, I am not there yet. I am trying to follow the examples of the families of the saints massacred at the Mother Emmanuel AME Church and offer forgiveness to that misguided young man, and to all who do evil and violence, but I am not completely there yet. My heart still feels grief and a desire for some punishment and revenge. That is not the answer! Just like some of you, I must continue to remember Jesus’ instructions and empty my heart of anger and hatred, and forgive this tortured soul who felt compelled to murder the very people who had offered to him only love and acceptance.
In this world torn apart with racism, violence, hatred and bigotry, we as a people have no other means but forgiveness to change the world. Forgiveness is a concept that takes power away from the those who hate and harm and invites them into right relationship. We have no future except for forgiveness. This is true not only for large public acts of violence and hate, but for all the small, tedious, and spirit crushing acts of cruelty and unkindness that occur in our lives on a daily basis.
We must remember the example of our Lord Jesus, who on the cross, asked forgiveness for those who crucified him:
- “Father, forgive them” (Luke 23:34)
Make no mistake. . . we are called daily to usher in the realm of God through one phrase, “I Forgive You.”