The survivors and family members of those slain in the Charleston shooting astonished the nation last week, when they spoke to the murderer, “You hurt me…but God forgive you, and I forgive you.” “I forgive you and my family forgive you…Repent, and give your life to Christ.” “Every fiber in my body hurts…May God have mercy on you.”
Why would someone choose to forgive such horrific evil? And how could they find the strength to do so?
Forgiveness is central to the Christian religion. Although, I haven’t always understood it. One of the biggest questions I had growing up as a preacher’s kid was this: “Why did Jesus have to die, just so we could be forgiven? Sure, we’ve all sinned and done bad stuff but . . . God is God. All he had to do was say, ‘No big deal,’ and let it go. No one had to suffer and die for that to happen.” But I didn’t even understand what forgiveness was at that point in my life, and for one primary reason—I had not yet experienced real injustice or heartbreak.
What Forgiveness Is
When someone wrongs us, our first and most natural reaction is typically to desire for them to be punished. If it is within our power to do so, we often take delight in punishing them ourselves. We say cutting things to people whose words have hurt us. We withhold love and affection from those who’ve withheld it from us. We hit back. They need to know what it feels like.
They must pay for what they’ve done.
If it is not within our power to punish the guilty party, we sometimes punish innocent bystanders. We are short and cold with our spouse because our boss was a real jerk today. Or, we act distant with our friends, because they get everything they want, and we don’t. Or we lose our temper with someone in the parking lot, because our partner cheated on us.
Someone has to pay.
In his book, The Reason For God, Tim Keller defines forgiveness as “costly suffering.” He explains:
“Forgiveness means refusing to make them pay for what they did. However, to refrain from lashing out at someone when you want to do so with all your being is agony. It is a form of suffering. You not only suffer the original loss of happiness, reputation, and opportunity [that the offense caused], but now you forgo the consolation of inflicting the same on them. You are absorbing the debt, taking the cost of it completely on yourself instead of taking it out of the other person. It hurts terribly. Many people would say it feels like a kind of death.”
What I didn’t understand as a young boy is that, when someone wrongs you, forgiving them means you choose to bear the pain that they deserve by taking it on yourself, so that relationship and social harmony can be restored.
Forgiveness can be a one-time act, or (more often the case) a daily process. But there can be no forgiveness without suffering.
The Power to Forgive
What about when the injustice is so atrocious that it defies human understanding, such as in the case of the Charleston shooting? Where does the power to forgive horrific evil like that come from? How does one gain the strength to bear that kind of suffering?
I’m convinced the power to forgive in cases like this is supernatural.
Scientists have a theory: forgiveness evolved as a survival mechanism to prevent exploitation and restore social relationships. When the value of a relationship is high (such as between spouses, or neighboring countries), and the risk of further exploitation is low (the perpetrator isn’t likely to choose to hurt you anymore), then a person (or group) is more likely to forgive, but usually after some form of reconciliation has already occurred. The scientists admit that forgiveness is almost never unconditional.
How then do we explain cases like the Charleston shooting in which the victims’ families did offer forgiveness unconditionally, when no reconciliation had taken place, to a white supremacist who seems like he’d be happy to do it again? Something more than survival instincts must be at work.
I’m convinced the power to forgive in cases like this is supernatural.
Only a person whose soul is truly free can forgive horrible injustice committed against them. The type of strength and freedom needed to genuinely forgive an atrocity of this magnitude does not come solely from within the human spirit by sheer will power, nor does it come merely from instinct. It must be bestowed on us externally.
It is only the deep knowledge (in both heart and mind) that you have been forgiven, when you did not deserve it, at great cost and pain to the One who forgave, which gives us the power and freedom to forgive others like this. One must first be shown mercy (and accept it), before he can be merciful to someone else.
That is why the survivors and relatives of the Charleston shooting victims, and the family of the Coptic martyrs slain by ISIS, and the Amish community that was attacked a few years ago, can all say, “I forgive you.”
One must first be shown mercy (and accept it), before he can be merciful to someone else.
These communities did not choose to forgive because it is the most rational thing to do (it isn’t). They did not choose to forgive because a nonviolent response is the best way to uphold a peaceful society (that’s debatable). Nor did they forgive solely to save themselves from years of festering bitterness and hatred, although that may be part of it. They chose to forgive because they have been supernaturally empowered and set free by the grace and love of their Creator.
As different as these communities are from each other (African-American, Coptic, Amish—all targeted for different reasons), they are part of a much larger, diverse community of believers who share the conviction that Jesus’ suffering and forgiveness has saved them and set them free.
They can forgive because they have been forgiven.
Forgiveness and America
This article is not a call to forgiveness over the Charleston shooting. I am not telling anyone that they ought to forgive anyone for anything. Nor would I, in a case like this. Indeed, I don’t know if I could forgive such atrocities. Neither am I saying anything about what ought to happen to the terrorist who committed these crimes. How a victim of oppression personally chooses to deal with injustice, and how a government should deal with it are two different things. And Christians have different opinions on capital punishment anyway. Nor am I assuming that every quick, public proclamation of forgiveness is genuine, or even the best practice politically or socially. I honestly don’t know.
What I do know is that witnessing these acts of mercy has deeply and profoundly affected me. I believe there are many reasons to accept Christianity as rational and true. But seeing these Christians do the inexplicable and forgive in the face of such horrific evil, also confirms my faith existentially. In each case mentioned earlier, hearing the survivors and relatives of the victims say, “I forgive you,” moved me to tears, and caused me to whisper to myself, “This is real.”
I praise the courage, strength, and prodigious faith of the members of Emanuel AME Church of Charleston—true Saints—for their choice to forgive. They are a true light to the world.
I hope their act of mercy will provoke all of us, every American, to weep bitterly in repentance, to seek reconciliation for the injustice and racism we’ve allowed to grow and fester within our society, and to look to the Cross of the One whose costly suffering is sufficient to forgive us all.