I can’t stop thinking about the community of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. Their witness to the power of love overcoming fear has filled me with awe.
First, because to the great shame of our nation, and as recent events in other parts of the United States have shown, racism against Black Americans continues to rear its poisonous and malformed face in deadly ways. A fearful, self-protective stance would be the expected response, and yet, this is not what occured. Second, in this beautiful witness to the power of love I perceive the transformative, life-giving movement of the Spirit of God actively mending their brokenness.
This community, victims of racial terrorism that took the lives of nine members of their congregation, has every reason to become fearful and guarded, angry and vengeful. The details of this story have probably been reported thousands of times since it happened on the evening of June 17, 2015, and they should continue to be repeated, talked about, reflected upon, and remembered. Six women and three men were murdered by white supremacist Dylann Roof, who just moments before opening fire on them had joined the small group for Bible study. Yet, days later at Roof’s hearing, we heard the victim’s family members speaking words of forgiveness to him, and offering prayers for his soul. At that point, my husband turned to me and suggested that the real story is not the one about Dylann Roof. Rather, the real story is the way members of this community have chosen to push back from violence in the most counter-cultural way. Instead of falling into the abyss of fear they seem to be rising up through the pain—indeed, an historic pain—as a new creation that is stronger, more loving, and clearly a reflection of the merciful and forgiving God whom they worship.
“I forgive you.” These words hold all the power. But the ability to forgive the cold-blooded murderer of a loved one is incomprehensible to many. Forgiveness takes time, and healing and courage, and usually requires some sense that the other party is remorseful. Some things, it would seem, simply cannot be forgiven. But the inability to forgive can also perpetuate a sense of powerlessness, of being held hostage by the past. Forgiveness is not forgetting. It is not done to relieve the other party. It does not signify coming to terms or pushing one’s suffering to the side. It does not mean the systemic causes leading to the injury escape without correction. In many cases, its strength emerges from the victim’s desire to be free from the prison of hate that caused the pain. Incomprehensible as it seems in cases like this, Nadine Collier, daughter of Ethel Lance, Felicia Sanders, mother of Tywanza Sanders, and Bethane Middleton-Brown, sister of DePayne Middleton-Doctor tell us it is possible to forgive. Unburdened, the one who forgives takes on the healing power of love, which is the basis of forgiveness.
The Christian spiritual practice of forgiveness is an expression of God’s love. I sense that for the members of Emanuel AME Church, forgiveness is as foundational a spiritual practice as regular Sunday worship; it nourishes their understanding of the God who saves and who is love. Further, this community’s witness to the power of love overcoming fear seems to point to a particular awareness of the Mystery of God which can be summed up in the words of Cardinal Walter Kasper, “Everywhere that life breaks forth and comes into being, everywhere that new life as it were seethes and bubbles, and even, in the form of hope, everywhere that life is violently devastated, throttled, gagged and slain — wherever true life exists, there the Spirit of God is at work.” [Kasper, God of Jesus Christ (ch 2 n. 11)]
Because love is—and always be—greater than fear.