It’s the kind of video you watch with silent awe. There on your screen is Dylann Roof, clad in an orange jumpsuit, his stare cold and flat. As you watch, you soon hear the voices of the family members of the people he murdered at the Emanuel AME Church prayer meeting. They’re in a courtroom, speaking to him via closed-circuit video. The murders have happened only a few days earlier. Memorial services are still being planned. Pain and loss are clearly present as you hear the emotion in the voices of these family members.
But the words they speak to Dylann Roof are words of mercy and grace. Instead of anger and hate, they offer him forgiveness.
Many were amazed by what they witnessed from these family members. And it is amazing. But it most certainly was not easy. I fear that in our era of short video clips and changing Facebook and Twitter feeds we’re prone to quickly highlight a video like this yet fail to fully understand or appreciate all it represents.
We need to slow down long enough to consider what it takes to offer this type of forgiveness, and what it takes to continue in this spirit of forgiveness. Indeed, many of us have moved on from this story. Yet the family members and Emanuel AME community cannot. The tragedy will always feel near in their memory.
They have chosen the path of forgiveness, but let’s recognize that this path is costly, and this path is long and difficult.
Forgiveness Is Costly
Forgiveness doesn’t come cheaply or easily. It always comes at great expense to the one wronged. In some cases, it comes with permanent cost. The wronged parties must “take it on the chin,” allowing themselves to be physically, emotionally, or spiritually wounded by the offending party instead of seeking an equal measure of revenge. Christians do this in imitation of Jesus, who faced sinful rebels and yet still suffered and died so that we might be forgiven and reconciled to God.
We rightly celebrate what Jesus did, but let us remember that it resulted in him bearing permanent scars on his body. Within God himself, there is a constant memorial to the heavy cost of forgiving us.
It’s a bit trite, then, to point to Emanuel AME Church and tell those who have suffered a significant injustice that they need to “get over it,” to forgive instead of responding with anger.
Actually, anger is the natural, instinctive reaction to being sinned against. Think of your own reaction the last time you felt taken advantage of or misunderstood. The movie Taken is popular not because the main character decides to forgive and reconcile with those who kidnapped his daughter; it’s popular because he takes angry, bloody revenge on them. In many tragedies, such as the recent shooting of Marines in Chattanooga, Tennessee, we don’t blink an eye at the many outcries for immediate retribution against the perpetrators.
So it should shock us when we encounter a situation in which a victim doesn’t take revenge. When someone chooses to forgive, we are watching someone pay an enormously heavy and personal cost.
Historically, the black church has arguably paid this bill more than most other communities in America. We should never take this forgiveness for granted. We should marvel and thank God every time we see it.
Forgiveness Is Long and Difficult
Though Charleston has already faded from the news, it won’t ever fade from the view of those who personally experienced this tragedy. We applaud what they’ve done, share it on social media, then move on to the next thing. But Emanuel AME will have to live out the spirit of forgiveness every day. Forgiveness is neither easily offered nor easily lived. It requires daily “working out”—a daily willingness to look at the scars of injustice and choose to press deeper into grace instead of turning back toward anger and revenge. Over time, the land of anger and revenge will fade farther and farther from our view.
But we don’t get there quickly, especially when the wound is deep. This is why forgiveness is more like a marathon than a sprint. Some stretches are harder than others. At times we go uphill against strong winds. When loved ones vanish from your life because of racist hatred, the act of forgiveness will be continual and tiring. The cry How long, O Lord? by many African Americans arises out of the burden of trying to preserve and maintain faith in the Lord when the end of the race feels a long way off.
Our Bank Account
The example of Charleston victims’ families isn’t a “silver bullet” talking point for us to win arguments about whether racism really matters today or about the right view on the Confederate flag. Instead, their example should be honored with reverence and considered with care. It should encourage us to look first at ourselves, to count the heavy ongoing cost of showing grace to others—especially those who have hurt us most.
Thankfully, our bank account of grace is not empty but full, since someone was willing to pay the greatest cost before any of us ever could or would (2 Cor. 8:9). May this sacrifice lead to more thoughts, more words, and more actions of Christ-bought grace from us to the world around us.