On the evening of 17th June 2015, Dylann Roof attended a Bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, where, by all accounts, he shot dead nine Christians as they were praying to their Lord. He is white; they were black. The motive is black and white. According to a (developing) summary account:
..He then began to disagree when they began speaking about Scripture. After a while, the shooter then stood up and pulled out a gun.. aiming it at 87-year-old Susie Jackson. Jackson’s nephew, 26-year-old Tywanza Sanders, tried to talk him down and asked him why he was attacking churchgoers, to which the shooter responded, “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.” When he expressed his intention to shoot everyone, Sanders dove in front of Jackson and was shot first. The suspect then shot the other victims, all the while shouting racial epithets. He also reportedly said, “Y’all want something to pray about? I’ll give you something to pray about.” He reloaded his gun five times. Sanders’ mother and his five-year-old niece, who were both attending the study, survived the shooting by pretending to be dead. Dot Scott, president of the local branch of the NAACP, said she had heard from victims’ relatives that the shooter spared one woman (Sanders’ mother) so she could, according to him, tell other people what happened. Before leaving the church, he reportedly “uttered a racially inflammatory statement” over the victims’ bodies.
He disputed their interpretation of Scripture, and then proceeded to shoot them dead, one by one, sparing a woman in order that she might bear witness of the terror to the world. And the world has heard about the evil, the pain and the grief. But it has also heard of the boundless grace and mercy of God as, one by one, members of the victims’ families told Dylann Roof that they forgave him. He wanted a single witness to his hate; instead, he got a church full of witnesses to the counter-intuitive love and selfless sacrifice of Christ.
In a remarkable moment in court during the bond hearing, relatives of the nine spoke directly to Dylann Roof. He tried to stir up hate and foment division: they simply forgive him, over and over again.
Nadine Collier (daughter of 70-year-old Ethel Lance): “I just want everybody to know, to you, I forgive you. You took something very precious away from me. I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul. You hurt me, you hurt a lot of people, but God forgive you, and I forgive you.”
Anthony Thompson (husband of Myra Thompson): “I forgive you and my family forgives you, but we would like you to take this opportunity to repent. Repent, confess, give your life to the one who matters the most, Christ, so he can change it, and change your ways no matter what happened to you, and you’ll be okay through that. And you’ll be better off than how you are right now.”
Felecia Sanders (mother of Tywanza Sanders): “We welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible study with open arms. You have killed some of the most beautiful-est people that I have known. Every fibre in my body hurts., and I will never be the same. Tywanza Sanders is my son but Tywanza was my hero; Tywanza was my hero. But as we say in the Bible study, we enjoyed you, but may God have mercy on you.”
Alana Simmons (granddaughter of Rev’d Daniel Simmons): “Although my grandfather and the other victims died at the hands of hate, this is proof, everyone’s plea for your soul is proof that they lived and loved and their legacies will live in love. So hate won’t win, and I just want to thank the courts for making sure that hate doesn’t win.”
Bethane Middleton-Brown (sister of Rev’d Depayne Middleton-Doctor): “Depayne Doctor was my sister. And I too thank you (the judge), on the behalf of my family, for not allowing hate to win. For me, I’m a work in progress, and I acknowledge that I am very angry. But one thing Depayne has always joined in our family with, is that she taught me that we are the family that love built. We have no room for hate so we have to forgive. I pray God on your soul, and I also thank God that I won’t be around when your judgement day comes with him. May God bless you.”
‘Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven‘ (Mt 18:18). These Christians bear witness to the world of the unmerited love of God. There is holiness in forgiveness: it challenges the legalistic inclination toward an eye for an eye. The unrepentant sinner has no place in the community of God, but the vilest crime is no bar to the mercy of Jesus. The Church’s response to those who murder and hate must be missionary; not rejection. When we rebuke or expel offenders, we are exhorted to leave the 99 sheep and minister to the one who went astray, because ‘..it is not the will of your Father which is in heaven, that one of these little ones should perish‘ (v14).
The Church has been given authority by God to bind and loose, and it may do so where two or three believers are gathered because Christ is there among them. Jesus instructed His disciples to forgive, and the Holy Spirit aids us to contend against the hate, hurt, resentment and yearning for vengeance. The extent to which we forgive is the measure of our incarnation of God’s mercy. We can forgive, but we cannot force those who trespass against us to accept that forgiveness, for that requires humility, honesty and their acknowledgment of sin. Those who will not hear cannot learn. Their future judgment belongs to God.