'I forgive you.”
That was the powerful message the relatives of those slain in the June 17 killings at Mother Emanuel AME Church had for the accused killer when they first confronted him at a bond hearing.
The judge explained the case against 21-year-old Dylann Roof, who is charged with nine counts of murder in what authorities say was a racially motivated attack. Roof is white and all of his victims were black. The judge then asked if anyone wanted to speak on behalf of the victims.
Nadine Collier, a daughter of 70-year-old shooting victim Ethel Lance, went first.
“To you, I forgive you,” Collier said as she turned toward Roof's image on the closed-circuit video screen.
“You took something very precious away from me,” Collier said, punctuating her sentences with heavy sobs. “I will never talk to her, ever again. 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 forgive you, and I forgive you.”
Next to speak was Anthony Thompson, son of Myra Thompson, 59.
“I forgive you and my family forgives you,” he said. “But we would like you to take this opportunity to repent. Repent, and pass, give, your life to the one who matters most, Christ. So he can change it, and change your ways no matter what happens to you.”
One by one it continued. Those who spoke on behalf of the victims expressed their anger and pain, but they also offered forgiveness.
That poignant example of forgiveness was a message heard around the world. Network news anchors expressed surprise and disbelief as the story was told and retold. Not since the October 2006 fatal shootings in a one-room Amish schoolhouse in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, has the act of forgiveness figured so prominently in a news story.
Around water coolers, dinner tables and Bible studies in the days following the bond hearing, conversations often centered around this singular question: Would you have been able to say “I forgive you,” to someone accused of killing a loved one in such a fashion?
The Post and Courier posed that question to a number of local religious leaders and asked them to talk about forgiveness.
Here's how they responded:
The Rev. Cress Darwin
Pastor, Second Presbyterian Church
Whenever we are hurt by someone, we have a choice: Will we focus on retaliation or resolution?
The Bible minces no words about settling the score: “Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always try to be kind to each other — and everyone else.” (I Thess. 5:15)
But for God's people, not seeking payback isn't enough. We have to press into the very heart of the matter: “forgiving each other just as in Christ God forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:32)
Often times, I find it helpful to identify what something is not in order to understand what it is.
Forgiveness is not:
Thinking that what happened was OK.
Condoning the unkind, inconsiderate, hateful, or selfish behavior of someone who hurt you.
So what is it?
Forgiveness is the experience of peace and understanding in the present moment.
Forgiveness does not change the past, but changes the present.
Forgiveness means that though you are wounded you choose to hurt and suffer less.
Forgiveness is becoming part of the solution.
Because of what it isn't, and what it is, and who we are, we must forgive.
“Hate is a cancer that is capable of destroying the person who hates. Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.”
— The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The Rev. Isaac Holt Jr.
Senior Pastor, Royal Missionary Baptist Church
Forgiveness is done as soon as humanly possible by those who know the toxic consequences of not forgiving.
In forgiveness, the benefit is greater for the forgiver than for the forgiven. Forgiveness begins emotional healing. It releases you from the poisonous thoughts of personal revenge and the prison of hatred.
Forgiveness is not forgetting, neither is it ignoring what was done to you, or washing away the responsibility of the one who hurt you from facing the legal consequences of their action.
It's not even about them, it's about you.
Complete forgiveness takes time, but the sooner you decide it's the best thing to do, the sooner God can begin to heal you.
Some will ask, Why should I let them off the hook? That is precisely the problem: Until you forgive, you stay hooked to them and under the control of what they did. You don't forgive someone for their sake; you do it for your sake, so you can be free.
Your need to forgive isn't an issue between you and the offender; it's between you and your God.
The Rev. Rob Dewey
Founder and senior chaplain, Coastal Crisis Chaplaincy
At the Coastal Crisis Chaplaincy, we attempt to offer support and to minister to all persons, no matter their faith, or even if they do not have a faith. The person whose life is seeking God is the person who is able to forgive those who have brought hurt upon them.
Some who have been hurt are able to say they forgive quicker than others. There are some who have been hurt who are never able to forgive.
Jesus quickly forgave those who betrayed him; I am not as quick to forgive as was demonstrated by my Lord; I wish, however, I were quicker. Because to be quicker on the forgiveness means there is less room for the poison of evil.
Scripture reflects in many places that the sooner we can even utter the word “forgiveness,” the quicker we will know God's peace.
I applaud those who have recently offered forgiveness. ... But for them and for us, it is a process. A process of continuing to surround ourselves with godly people, so that we may have the best godly response that is possible. Some days our response on forgiving will be more reflective of God, and other days it will be more ungodly; showing such things as anger.
A challenge that we all face is that we live in the world. The natural worldly reaction when we are hurt is not to forgive. But the quicker we can forgive those who have hurt us, we will then know “The peace of God that passes all understanding.” God desires to be our support and comforter as we traverse the world.
The Rev. Dr. Don Flowers Jr.
Pastor, Providence Baptist Church
At the bond hearing, the families of the victims of the shooting at Mother Emanuel voiced their forgiveness to the alleged killer. It was a sentiment that reverberated across the land! How can you do such a thing? Is it too soon? Is it even possible?
The question posed, “Could you do such a thing?” is a tough one, because deep in my heart and soul, I know that is the faith that I profess. It is the prayer we pray so often, “Forgive us our trespasses in the same way we forgive those who trespass against us.” That is what I am supposed to do!
But could I? I can only hope! Because I know that is the only way that healing is possible. But it isn't easy to do.
Lewis Smedes says that the only way we can get beyond that, the only way that we can truly forgive others, is to perform “spiritual surgery.” He writes:
“When you forgive someone, you slice away the wrong from the person who did it. You disengage that person from his hurtful act. You re-create him. At one moment you identify him ineradicably as the person who did you wrong. The next moment, you change that identity. He is remade in your memory. You think of him now not as the person who hurt you, but a person who needs you. You feel him now not as the person who alienated you, but as the person who belongs to you. Once you branded him as a person powerful in evil, but now you see him as a person weak in his needs. You re-created your past by re-creating the person whose wrong made your past painful.”
The forgiveness offered by the families wasn't a sign of weakness, a sign of resignation. Rather it may be the most powerful thing they could do as they remake their future.
I pray we might do the same.
The Rev. Joseph Darby
Presiding elder, Beaufort District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church
Would I be willing to forgive if the same horror was visited upon my family? Yes — in the knowledge that my doing so would not get in the way of the perpetrator's criminal trial and appropriate punishment. Personal forgiveness does not eliminate legal liability.
I'd have to forgive, because I'm a follower of the Christ who prayed for the forgiveness of his murderers. I was raised to believe that Christianity is not about dogmatic exclusion, petty and human-inspired doctrinal arguments or fanatical vengeance, but about love.
Forgiveness is also “hard wired” into the African-American church tradition. Slaves, who were forced to interact with those who could rape, maim and torture them — knowing that they had no option but to either flee if possible or face probable death if they rebelled, learned to forgive and to cope.
The Most Reverend Robert E. Guglielmone
Bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charleston
What does it take to forgive? We Christians pray daily in the words Jesus gave us that we ask forgiveness of the Lord as we forgive one another. This is quite a challenge and for me quite difficult to achieve, although for all of us it is certainly a goal to strive for.
So many of the families and friends of the victims of the recent shootings in Charleston have voiced sincere words of forgiveness. ... I do not know how I might react to such a horror in my own family. My only experience in coming to forgiveness for a serious hurt inflicted by another was a fraudulent attack on my reputation. While I understood the Christian call to forgiveness, it took years and much prayer and reflection to come to the point of true forgiveness. I am deeply moved by the quick response of these holy Christian people and am appreciative of their witness.
The Rev. Allen Bergstrazer
Pastor, Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
I would forgive Dylann Roof.
Whether it was being picked on in school, or terrorists killing my friends, the question I have had to answer is the same, “How do I react?”
We are all faced with this question, and without forgiveness, we will let anger and bitterness poison our lives. When we forgive, we surrender the right for vengeance, and are set free.
Forgiveness is the essential element to human interaction; we cannot survive long as society without it. We as Christians know that forgiveness is not just something we do, it is who we are.
Colossians 3:13b says “as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”
Because of the undeserved forgiveness of Christ given to us, we, like the families of the slain members of Emanuel, are able to give forgiveness to the undeserving ... and so Christ's love prevails over hate.
Rabbi Yossi Refson
Chabad of Charleston and the Low Country
As a Jew and as a grandson of a woman who witnessed the extermination of her entire family at the hands of the Nazis, the issue of forgiveness has long occupied a prominent place in my moral and spiritual consciousness.
Freeing ourselves of grudges and resentments against those who have wronged us, I was taught, is right up there on the ethical charts with the gravity of seeking the forgiveness of those we have wronged.
As a wise man once said, “Walking around with resentment is allowing some of your least favorite people to live inside your head rent free!”
Granting forgiveness is often essential to our own mental and emotional well-being.
And yet, as powerful and liberating as forgiveness may be, and as magnanimous as we may choose to be in granting it, we are mindful that there are limitations to its reach. No cleansing of our own hearts and souls can absolve a perpetrator of his misdeeds, lest he take the necessary steps to make restitution, achieve penitence and correct his ways.
Furthermore, while we can grant forgiveness for pain and suffering inflicted upon ourselves, we are powerless to offer any such relief for that which was done to others.
Every year, Jews assemble in houses of worship on the Day of Atonement, to seek divine forgiveness for the errors of their ways. And yet, “The Day of Atonement brings no forgiveness until one has become reconciled with one's neighbor,” says the Talmud. In other words, the almighty himself does not forgive those he “cannot” forgive; only the one who was wronged can right, only he against whom a crime has been committed is entitled to forgive, if he so desires.
While I don't know if my grandmother was ever able to forgive the Nazi monsters for the unspeakable pain they caused her, I am absolutely certain that she did not, would not and could not forgive them for what they did to the six million innocents deprived of the ability of even being asked the question.
The Venerable Calhoun Walpole
Vicar, Grace Episcopal Church
I should pray for such grace. People who have the capacity to forgive recognize that one forgives in order to be free — free from hatred, bitterness, and anger — free to love and to be loved. We forgive because we are forgiven.
Forgiveness is, of course, distinct from reconciliation. Archbishop Tutu has taught us that there can be no reconciliation without a proper confrontation — a proper confrontation — not a violent one. We have seen such fruits evidenced in the sweeping calls to furl the Confederate battle flag.
Forgiveness requires empathy, and the ability to see ourselves and others as members — together — of the human race. When we separate ourselves, forgiveness becomes more difficult. At times, forgiveness may need to be as much or more an act of the will as of the heart, which is why it may be necessary to forgive more than once, perhaps even 70 times seven.
The Rev. Thulie Beresford
Pastor, St. Barnabas Lutheran Church, interim youth and campus pastor at St. Matthew's Lutheran Church and part-time chaplain at Medical University Hospital
I would be able to forgive, but I don't know how quickly that would be. I mean, two days later, many of them were talking about forgiving ...
I've had to face days like that. My father was murdered, I was stabbed, almost to death on Christmas Eve in 1980, in South Africa. My brother was murdered, too. All were victims of crime.
I came face to face with the people that had done all this. And there was not an ounce in my spirit that wanted revenge.
I had compassion for them because they were the ones who had violated me and my family. They were the ones who would have to go the rest of their lives with that tainted spirit in their heart. They had done me wrong.