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For the Week of June 22, 2015
by Rubel Shelly
“Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing’ ” (Luke 23:34). What must people around his cross have thought?
Hatred seems to come so easily to human beings. In a tit-for-tat world, forgiveness seems to make no sense. Why should I turn the other cheek after an insult, if I can match his – and go him one better? Why should you overlook her slight, if you can tell someone about it – and damage her reputation? Why should we not burn down your store and house, if you harm someone of my race or faith group – even destroy our entire community? I’m sure you get the point.
The top half of the front page of USA Today carried the headline “Hate in America.” A syndicated columnist wrote of how he was “filled with hatred” over the event. And a radio commentator said, “I’m not a religious person, so I don’t get what these people are saying. I just don’t understand.”
What the man was talking about – and what stands in such stark contrast to the screaming headlines and commentary – was this comment from Ethel Lance’s daughter: “I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you.”
“Lord,” prayed Christianity’s first martyr, “do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60). Saul of Tarsus was an onlooker as Stephen offered that prayer.
Ethel Lance was one of nine people murdered last Wednesday at the end of a Bible study at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. Her 21-year-old killer wanted to “start a race war” by his rampage. Saying that black people were “raping our women” and “taking over” the country, he opened fire with his pistol.
Caught 14 hours later and returned to Charleston, the murderer appeared at his initial bond hearing. He stood motionless as Ethel Lance’s daughter said she was forgiving him. His reaction? Blank face. No reaction. Flat affect.
To forgive someone is, in simplest terms, to forego hatred and to release one’s assumed right to retaliate in kind. It is to say that one has been wronged and abused but refuses payback in order to give the offender a new beginning.
If the murder had occurred on the street or in a department store, it might have generated riots. But the would-be provocateur chose – of all places – a church. He killed people who had Bibles in their laps. He murdered a pastor and a grandmother and a college student. Their commitment to the Prince of Peace and the reaction of their faith community made retaliation inappropriate. Instead of raw rage, there were hugs and tears, prayers and laments. Forgiveness!
If an evil soul meant to launch a race war, he instead generated evidence that light can conquer darkness. He chose the wrong target. He encountered some people who still believe in following the Bible’s astonishing call to forgive. And they are giving a clearer message than TV’s talking heads or our politicians.
“Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children …” (Ephesians 4:32-5:1).