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," she said. "It hurts me, it hurts a lot of people, but God forgive you and I forgive you."
A sister of one of the pastor's killed stated, "We have no room for hate. We have to forgive. I pray God on your soul. And I also thank God that I won't be around when your judgment day comes with him."
The way of Christ was seen in those moments on Friday through his grieving disciples. Anyone remotely familiar with the Gospels could hear in their words the voice of Jesus on the cross-- "Father, forgive them. They don't know what they are doing." Those moments on Friday were holy moments, when the way of the cross was demonstrated to be a real and viable way for the followers of Jesus to live. Many, including Christians, have expressed shock in the midst of their admiration, that forgiveness was the subject of their words to Roof, and not words of hatred. Most people wouldn't have blamed them if words of hatred were expressed. There is something sad about the fact that even Christians seem more accustomed to responding in hate than with love and forgiveness. I suppose that is because we have far more of the former and too little of the latter.
We Christians like to talk a good line about how important the Bible is to us. Many of us tout the fact that it is our central and final authority. But it seems to me that all too often we spend more time talking about the authority of Scripture than actually seeking to live it in our lives. We have reduced the Christian moral life to just being nice and decent. Our morals are more reflective of our culture than the Bible we claim to cherish, as several Pew studies have shown. We know what the Bible says about forgiveness, but how many of us really take that radical forgiveness and put it into practice in the way those family members did on Friday? How many of us Christians were focused more on revenge and hoping this twisted young man gets the death penalty, than even imagining that forgiveness is possible? What we witnessed last Friday was the followers of Jesus taking the Bible so seriously, that they had the strength and the courage to put its words into practice. The Wall Street Journal pundit, Peggy Noonan has written a fine editorial on this, but I take great exception to one thing she wrote-- "What a country that makes such people. Do you ever despair about America? If they are America we are going to be just fine."
I do not doubt that there are good and noble things about America and its values, but it wasn't America that made these people; it was Jesus Christ and the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. What we witnessed on Friday was not American, it was Christian, plain and simple. They embraced the way of Jesus Christ in all of its difficulty and did what seems so counter-intuitive to the way things work in the world and in America. They opted for forgiveness instead of revenge.
What makes their actions last Friday so powerful is that even Christians in America do not think in this way. As I said, we say how much the Bible means to us, but then we find ways to opt out of its demanding ethic. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek, to go two miles with the Roman soldier carrying his equipment instead of the one that Roman law allowed. Such demands make us uncomfortable, and since not even Jesus' followers can imagine how that might work in the ways of the world and in America, we water it down, we treat his words as metaphorical, or we put such restrictions on it, that turning the other cheek amounts to nothing more than not responding when someone insults us verbally. We take the punch out of such words making them easy to follow, which means we don't have to take them seriously either. Thus, actions like we witnessed on Friday are a surprise, even to most followers of Jesus. Noonan writes,
As I watched I felt I was witnessing something miraculous. I think I did. It was people looking into the eyes of evil, into the eyes of the sick and ignorant shooter who'd blasted a hole in their families, and explaining to him with the utmost forbearance that there is a better way.But there are those who disagree that this is a better way. The better way-- the answer to what happened in that church in Charleston, as some Christians have stated, is not to for Christians to offer the way of Christ-- the way of hospitality and forgiveness, but instead the way of the Zealot-- let's arm the pastors. Instead of treating strangers who come into our midst as friends, let's assume that first and foremost they are suspects to be watched. After all, the way of Christ results in the cross, while the way of the Zealot, fighting violence with violence, is the only thing that is effective in the ways of the world. Such zealotry is not the way of Christ, but all too often it seems to be the way of America, and Christians have unwittingly accepted that way and baptized it.
And until Christians take seriously the Scriptures they claim to cherish, radical forgiveness will always be be the exception and not the rule... because the way of the Zealot is easier to embrace than the way of Jesus Christ.
It would be good for us to remember that the way of Christ continues to this day; the way of the Zealot ended violently and in defeat in 70 A.D. in Jerusalem. Apparently, the latter turned out not to be the better way.