There’s power, mighty power, in the declarations of forgiveness made by the relatives and friends of Dylann Roof’s murder victims. Less than forty-eight hours after Roof opened fire in a Wednesday night prayer meeting at the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC killing nine, he heard, “I forgive you, my family forgives you” from the grandson of one of the victims. It was the echo of Jesus’ words spoken on the cross resounding two thousand years later.
One national network news broadcaster struggled to describe the day’s happenings. Twenty-one year old Dylann Roof, flanked by two heavily armed security guards, listened without expression to the sorrow and pain of those with emotional holes in their hearts. Their family members lay in the morgue with physical holes where his bullets shattered their bodies, and via video they let Roof know he had killed beautiful people. They were loving, generous, welcoming people, not merely black faces–they had names.
In the bond hearing, a setting where words of vengeance, anger, pain, outrage, bitterness, and retaliation were expected, the watching world heard words of compassion and forgiveness intermingled with the grief. The vocabulary of prayer meetings, religious sanctuaries, and the Bible invaded the courtroom. That was the point when confusion flowed across the broadcaster’s face, and justifiably so.
When every inch of your being screams in agony, when there are no more tears because the weeping has moved to the soul, who can think of forgiveness? Who in the midst of profound pain and sorrow can look beyond themselves and offer forgiveness to the very one that caused the heartache? The kind of people who go to prayer meetings and welcome strangers. They’re the ones who know they have been forgiven by God and can extend that forgiveness to others. They are living reverberations of the Lord’s Prayer, “And forgive us our trespasses as we have forgiven those who trespass against us.”
This isn’t the “forgive and forget” type of forgiveness; it’s questionable whether that is even possible. Those who claim remembering misdeeds means we haven’t forgiven probably haven’t experienced hard-core injustice. The abused child or woman, the college student drugged and raped, the wrongfully convicted inmate, the friends and family of a murder victim can’t and shouldn’t forget. Without a memory of the hurt, you can’t celebrate the healing.
No, this is the “forgive and let go” type of forgiveness; the kind that frees the anger within and prevents bitterness from taking root. It’s the kind that knows refusing to forgive hurts the one with the white-knuckle grip the most. It means letting go of the right to “repay evil for evil” or to “take revenge”; it means feeding our enemies and giving them something to drink. It means not letting evil win, but overcoming it with good (Romans 12:17-21). It’s a forgiveness that costs, like Jesus choosing to lay down his life for the forgiveness of sins (Romans 5:6-8).
Those who spoke words of forgiveness within days of a senseless tragedy demonstrated the power of the gospel in a deeply tangible way. This act of hatred will soon fade from the news headlines, but may we long remember that it is the healing balm of forgiveness that overcomes evil with good.