News of the massacre at the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston S.C. spread like wildfire on social media Wednesday evening, before the mainstream media picked it up. Twitter immediately recognized the significance of the murder of nine black churchgoers; we relived the grief of associated with the deaths of Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, four little black girls killed when white supremacists bombed the basement of a Birmingham, Alabama church. Emmanuel AME was also the church of Denmark Vessey, a free black man who planned what would have been one of the largest slave revolts, had it not been thwarted.
As we learned the details, the similarities between the two attacks became even more apparent. Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old white supremacist, chose a Wednesday evening prayer meeting, where he was welcomed and prayed over for an hour before boldly standing and declaring that black people had taken over the country and were raping white women. He then aimed a semi-automatic gun and shot dead eight black prayer warriors, plus another that died at the hospital. Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, The Honorable Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr., Rev. Sharonda Singleton and Myra Thompson lost their lives.
A day later, Roof was captured, apparently “without incidence.” Unlike the treatment that black people without weapons that have captivated the news in the last year, Roof did not appear to have a scratch on him as he was transported from the site of his arrest to his bail hearing. However, what was more surprising was the reaction of the victims’ family.
Family member after family member spoke to Roof as he attended his bail hearing via closed-circuit television. While they expressed their deepest grief and unbearable pain, they also did what many of us thought impossible: they expressed their forgiveness.
A daughter of one of the victims said, ”I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul. You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people but God forgives you, and I forgive you.”
Their graciousness and love was expressed not just to Dylan Roof, but was witnessed by the whole country via national television. The media immediately seized on their actions, as newspeople commended the families for their saint-like response to this unspeakable tragedy.
I can’t say whether I would have been able, if I were in the families’ shoes, to forgive the shooter so soon after he murdered my family. But I’m almost positive I would not be able to forgive on national television. Nor would I want to.
Let me be clear that I do not at all disparage these families for handling their grief in their way. Forgiving him may be the only way they can move forward in a healthy manner. That is their choice, and I respect it.
I do believe Jesus calls upon us to forgive each other. In Matthew 18:21-35 (MSG), Peter asks Jesus how many times we are to forgive each other for the hurt we inflict. Peter asks if seven times is enough, to which Jesus replied, “Seven! Hardly. Try seventy times seven.”
This statement was made in conjunction with a parable about mercy. A servant was shown mercy by the king when he should have been punished for failing to pay a large debt. Jesus said, “The poor wretch threw himself at the king’s feet and begged, ‘Give me a chance and I’ll pay it all back.’ Touched by his plea, the king let him off, erasing the debt.”
Soon afterward, the servant ran into someone who owed him a fraction of what he owed the king. Rather than showing the mercy the king bestowed up him, the servant refused to forgive the debt and instead had the man arrested and put in jail. When the king heard of this, he chastised the servant, saying, “You evil servant! I forgave your entire debt when you begged me for mercy. Shouldn’t you be compelled to be merciful to your fellow servant who asked for mercy?” Jesus ended the teaching by saying, “The king was furious and put the screws to the man until he paid back his entire debt. And that’s exactly what my Father in heaven is going to do to each one of you who doesn’t forgive unconditionally anyone who asks for mercy.”
I am not a theologian, but two things strike me about this story. First, Jesus instructs us to forgive “anyone who asks for mercy.”
Dylann Roof did a very evil thing. Dylann Roof has not asked for mercy.
Second, Jesus clearly ties forgiveness and mercy within a private relationship between two people.
The families uttered their words of forgiveness not just to Dylann, but for the world to see and hear. Their forgiveness set a tone for how we are supposed to think about this tragedy, where good black Christians are praised for having the moral strength to forgive, while the blacks who hold the anger and the pain are warned to not let this event “divide” us, and are implored to “stay calm.”
What I fear is that Black people’s never-ending unconditional forgiveness of those who commit atrocities against us, even when they have not sought it, has not served us well. Black forgiveness gives us the moral high ground, but also keeps us oppressed. For no matter what is done to us, we are always expected to forgive.
We have been forgiving the wielders of white supremacy for centuries. We were taught to forgive the slave catcher and the slave masters. We were taught to forgive when whites terrorized our communities and set fire to our houses. We were taught to forgive the police officers who sic’d dogs on our children. We are taught to forgive the police officers who kill our unarmed children.
We have been taught to forgive racism. We are expected to do so. How many times has a black person been told to “get over it?” As if “it” — racism — is over. But when we do, what has that forgiveness gotten us here, in this lifetime?
Dylann Roof did not just kill nine black Christians. He perpetuated an act of terrorism and a hate crime against the black people of Charleston and the every black person in this country. This young white man, cloaked in the armor of white supremacy and racism, in the name of protecting his country and white women, entered into God’s house, prayed with God’s people, proceeded to kill God’s children, and left an entire people to mourn both the dead and our sense of safety and security.
God may forgive Dylann Roof, and that’s God’s business. He’s God, and He is undeniably better than me.
But Black people need to hold out for the cries of mercy from the system of white supremacy before we can do anymore forgiving. We need to wait.