We have witnessed an extraordinary demonstration of the power of the the Gospel in the past week. A rabid racist named Dylann Roof slaughtered nine people who were participating in a Bible study group at the Emanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The shooter had hoped to ignite a race war between blacks and whites, but the families and friends of Roof’s innocent victims had a different idea. Faithful to their Lord who said “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44), they spoke movingly at Roof’s bond hearing about the unfathomable pain the shooting had caused them, but also expressed forgiveness for the shooter.
Their bold act of forgiveness has drawn a lot of positive commentary, but it has also led to some confusion and bemusement. Dennis Prager, for instance, in his column on the subject, disagrees with the families’ reaction, saying: “I am not aware of Roof’s having repented. And even God Himself doesn’t forgive those who never repent.”
Prager’s statement reveals some fairly common misunderstandings of Christian forgiveness. For the Christian forgiveness is a decision of the will on the part of an aggrieved party to let go of anger and resentment at the person who has wronged him or her. In the passage from Matthew’s Gospel above, Jesus tells us to love our enemies and pray for our persecutors; he doesn’t say that the the other parties need to first cease their enmity or their persecution. Nor does forgiveness mean releasing a wrongdoer from the requirements of justice: innocent people need to be protected from further harm on the part of the perpetrator, other potential offenders must be deterred by seeing the consequences of his misdeeds, and objective wrongs he has committed need to be righted. When we forgive, we are not freeing the transgressor from the consequences of his actions, we are freeing ourselves from enslavement to the passions his transgression has provoked. God likewise offers His forgiveness to all, and we only remain in unforgiveness if we refuse it (hence the Catholic belief that Hell is something that we choose for ourselves, not something imposed upon us); our repentance, if we do repent, is a response to His prior forgiveness, not a prerequisite for it.
The events in Charleston are also a vivid reminder of St. Paul’s words to the Romans:
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord." No, "if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head." Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:19-21)
The decision of the relatives of the victims to turn to the Lord and to Love instead of to Hatred and Anger has completely frustrated Roof's plan. Instead of racial strife, it has led to an unprecedented show of unity and mutual support in the city that was the birthplace of the Confederacy a century and a half ago. By refusing to be overcome by evil, they have indeed overcome evil with good.
Finally, as has often happened throughout history, the loving, peaceful response of persecuted Christians has given a beautiful testimony to the beauty and efficacy of Christ’s Gospel, which has been broadcast throughout the United States and the rest of the world. And all because some terribly wronged Christians in South Carolina turned to the Lord and his message of forgiveness, instead of giving in to the temptation to anger and vengeance.