Forgiving–and Remembering–Dylann Roof

Put up with each other, and forgive anyone who does you wrong, just as Christ has forgiven you.”  Colossians 3:13 CEV

In the immediate aftermath of last week’s Charleston shootings, families of the nine victims declared their forgiveness for Dylann Roof , the alleged shooter. Public reaction included

  • Admiration–“Glad they can do it. I couldn’t.”
  • Affirmation–“Tremendous testimony to their faith…”
  • Skepticism–“Really? Easy to say it now. But how long before the pain and anger overwhelm them ?”
  • Outright resistance–“How can you forgive the coldblooded murder of nine people?” “Isn’t there a limit? Aren’t some crimes just too evil to forgive?”

Roxane Gay is one of the resisters. The author and Purdue University English professor wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed: “I do not forgive Dylann Roof…I do not foresee ever forgiving his crimes, and I am wholly at ease with that choice…some acts…are so terrible that we should recognize them as …beyond forgiving.” She affirms and respects the faith of the victims’ families: “I cannot fathom how they are capable of such eloquent mercy, such grace under such duress.” But she harshly criticizes the way “…the dominant media narrative vigorously embraced that notion of forgiveness…” 

“Forgive and forget” is a platitude we mouth almost automatically when somebody mentions forgiveness. Like many platitudes, it’s true as far as it goes. But it doesn’t always go far enough. Unforgettable evil requires a deeper understanding of forgiveness. We can’t forget the Charleston shootings, Nazi concentration camps, expressions of racism in this country and elsewhere, and so much more. “Forgive and forget” can become a recipe for perpetuating an unjust status quo and ensuring that you’ll get kicked harder every time you’re knocked down. No wonder Ms. Gay, an African-American woman, writes that “White people embrace narratives about forgiveness so they can pretend the world is a fairer place than it actually is…Black people forgive because we need to survive…We forgive and forgive and forgive and those who trespass against us continue to trespass against us.”

Can we forgive without forgetting? Pastor and Christian ethicist Lewis Smedes thought so. So he wrote a book entitled—you guessed it—Forgive and ForgetSmedes says that when I forgive you, I help myself at least as much as I help you. Releasing my claim against you liberates me: “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.”  A grudge is a heavy burden. Carrying one requires enormous emotional and spiritual effort. The families and others who loved those nine folks understand that. Carrying a grudge traps us in that terrible past and slams the door on the future God has for them.

Forgiving a significant hurt doesn’t happen quickly or easily. The process  takes months, years, a lifetime. Forgiving Dylann Roof will evolve as people move through their grief. For most the journey will include missteps, false starts, and significant relapses. “You will know that forgiveness has begun,” Smedes writes, “when you recall those who hurt you and feel the power to wish them well.” Forgiving Dylann Roof clearly doesn’t mean we wish he could just skip all this legal stuff and hang out with us at Starbucks. It does mean praying for him even though we don’t know how. He is, after all, God’s child, admittedly a child gone terribly wrong. Forgiving Dylann Roof also means lifting up his family in prayer as they live through the future they never asked for or anticipated.

Smedes rejects any notion that forgiveness means accepting, whitewashing, or tolerating evil: “When we forgive evil, we do not excuse it, we do not tolerate it, we do not smother it. We look the evil full in the face, call it what it is, let its horror shock and stun and enrage us, and only then do we forgive it.” A cheating spouse cannot be truly forgiven until the unfaithfulness has been fully exposed, the wronged person in the relationship has felt the full weight of the damage, and has shared the extent of his/her pain. Forgiveness ultimately may or may not include reconciliation and restoration of the marriage relationship. We forgive the other. We don’t hold the misdeed against him/her forever. But that person’s past behavior is part of who he/she is. We need to see a consistent pattern of changed  behavior before we trust him/her as before.

Roxane Gay and others rightly point out that “[Black people] have to forgive time and time again while racism or white silence in the face of racism continues to thrive.” Forgiving Dylann Roof doesn’t mean forgetting what he did. Forgiving Dylann Roof doesn’t mean pretending nothing happened. Forgiving Dylann Roof doesn’t mean covering our eyes and closing our ears to the racist/white supremacist ideology that infected him along with so many others. Forgiving Dylann Roof does mean remembering how many people like ourselves missed the signs of trouble as he grew—teachers, friends, family, church. Forgiving Dylann Roof does mean remembering how many people like ourselves could have made a healing, life-saving difference—but nobody did. Forgiving Dylann Roof does mean boldly naming the fear- and-hate-based ideology that poisoned him and assertively offering a grace- and love-based incarnational alternative. (In English, that means we embody the extravagantly welcoming love of God in Christ for all within our reach.)

Forgiving is an essential practice for transforming our polarized and fragmented society. Who better to practice and model it than followers of Jesus?  Listen once more to Lewis Smedes:

“Forgiveness is God’s invention for coming to terms with a world in which people are unfair to each other and hurt each other deeply. He began by forgiving us. And he invites us all to forgive each other.”

“The Holy Spirit, thank God, often enables people to forgive even though they are not sure how they did it.”

2 Responses to “Forgiving–and Remembering–Dylann Roof”


  1. 1 Randa June 28, 2015 at 9:31 AM

    For me forgiveness is a gift I give myself so I don’t have to harbor negative feelings. I have been known to say something like I am going to wallow in self pity for x number of days and then let it go. I don’t have room for hatred because it will eat me up but I do need some time to process the situation.

    Thanks Mike


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