I understand not living with hatred. I understand how that can be corrupting, I got that. I don’t understand how you gun down my wife, my mother, my father, my child, and when I see you three days later I say that I forgive you – I don’t understand that …
Forgiveness is a big part of – especially post-civil rights movement – is a big part of African-American Christianity, and I wasn’t raised within the Christian church, I wasn’t raised within any church. Forgiveness is a huge, huge part of it, coming out of the civil rights movement, but I can’t access that at all.
– Ta-Nehisi Coates, speaking to Terry Gross on WHYY’s Fresh Air, July 13, 2015
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If my readers will permit me for the moment to slip into the first person, I have a confession to make. Sorry as I am to have to admit it, I haven’t always found it easy to speak in complimentary terms of some of my fellow Christians.
Perhaps it would be more accurate — and more to the point — to say that I haven’t always found it easy to forgive them. Especially American Christians. Especially contemporary American Christians. I haven’t found it easy to forgive them for the glitz and the glamour. For the success schemes and the motivational hype. For the patriotism and jingoism, the conformism and materialism, the politicizing power-plays and downright lack of compassion. To put it another way, I’ve been hard pressed to reconcile their version of the faith with my own understanding of the Pilgrim Path. (Just for the record, I haven’t found it easy to forgive myself, either.)
Now that that’s out in the open, I have another confession to make. Over the past several years, a number of incidents have been played out on the national and international stage that have caused me to re-evaluate. Shocking and terrible things. Dreadful things that have happened to Christian people, to which those same Christian people have responded in such a meek, humble, unassuming, and Christ-like way that I’ve been forced, in spite of my innate cantankerousness and cynicism, to feel unabashedly proud of their witness. These believers have shown themselves to be true Pilgrims in the earth. I can only hope to be worthy of their example someday.
The first of these tragic incidents took place nearly a decade ago. On October 2, 2006, Charles Carl Roberts IV, a milk truck driver deeply embittered over the death of his own infant daughter, walked into a one-room Amish schoolhouse in West Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, and told all the girls – ten of them – to lie down facing the blackboard. After ordering the boys and the adults to leave, Roberts apologized for what he was about to do, explaining, “I’m angry at God, and I need to punish some Christian girls to get even with Him.” Then he raised his shotgun and started shooting. By the time the state police arrived, Roberts himself and two of the girls were dead. Three more died later that night.
The Amish community’s response? Incredibly, in the midst of their shock and grief, they extended grace and compassion to the killer’s family. On the very afternoon of the shooting, the grandfather of one of the slain girls said he forgave Charles Roberts. Later the same day, Amish neighbors visited the Roberts family to comfort them in their sorrow and pain. As a result, the hundreds of reporters who descended upon Lancaster County to cover the brutal murder came away with a very different story – a story of forgiveness and suffering love.
The second incident occurred earlier this year. On Sunday, February 15, 2015, the Libyan branch of ISIS released a video depicting their brutal murder of twenty-one Coptic Christians. These men, who were drawn from among the poorest of Egypt’s poor, had been working as day-laborers in Libya when they were kidnapped by Islamic State forces. They were their families’ sole support. They had literally nothing except the thing for which they died – their belief in Jesus – and they died because they would not let it go.
The thirty-five days following the initial kidnapping were days of fear and silent torment for the families back at home. When the news came that their sons, brothers, and fathers had been executed, they were shattered. But that’s where this story takes an unexpected turn. As these Egyptian Christians tell it, it was only a matter of hours before their grief gave way to rejoicing. Somehow or other, they found themselves praising God for the martyrs’ homegoing. Some of them actually felt a sense of gratitude towards ISIS for ushering their loved ones into Christ’s presence. What’s more, they repeatedly expressed an earnest desire to pray for the terrorists’ spiritual enlightenment and salvation. Their deepest wish was that the members of ISIS might also come to know the love and forgiveness of the Lord Jesus.
That leads us to Charleston.
On the evening of June 17, 2015, Dylann Roof, a twenty-one-year-old white supremacist, walked into a Bible Study at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina. Concealed in his fanny pack he carried a Glock 41. 45-caliber handgun. After receiving a warm welcome from the members of the church, Roof sat listening to Pastor Clementa Pinckney expounding the Scriptures for a full hour before producing his weapon and opening fire, killing nine of the fourteen people in attendance. Pastor Pinckney was one of the first to die. The motive for Roof’s unspeakable crime? Pure, unmitigated racial hatred. “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country,” he told his victims (six of whom were women themselves). “You have to go.”
What can be done about this kind of senseless violence? Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, one of the most notorious of all high-profile mainstream American establishment Christians, has the obvious answer: more guns. Things like this wouldn’t happen, insists Huckabee, if instead of welcoming strangers into the church with open arms, Christians would simply take the initiative to arm themselves against them. “Frankly,” he maintains, “the best way to stop a bad person with a gun is to have a good person with a weapon that is equal or superior to the one he’s using.”
There’s sound worldly wisdom in what Huckabee says, of course. Unfortunately, that wisdom is at complete odds with the way of the Pilgrim. The Christians at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church took a different tack. From beginning to end they responded to the hater with love. As a matter of fact, Roof has admitted that he nearly abandoned his insidious plan because the church members were “so nice to him.” And their “niceness” didn’t stop there. When Roof appeared in Charleston County court via video conference at a bond hearing following his arrest, survivors of the shooting and relatives of five of the victims spoke to him directly, telling him that they forgave him and that they were praying for his soul. Guns were the last thing on their mind.
Is this hard to understand? Ta-Nehisi Coates, national correspondent for The Atlantic, thinks so. On the July 13 edition of NPR’s Fresh Air, Coates told interviewer Terry Gross that he “can’t access” this kind of forgiveness. And who can blame him? From a certain perspective, what he says makes perfect sense. After all, Coates, like Huckabee, is operating on the basis of the categories, assumptions, and parameters of the kosmos. Like any self-respecting American, he takes it for granted that it’s sheer stupidity to be weak and vulnerable, to let people walk all over you, to endure pain, insult, offense, or loss without seeking revenge, to give love in exchange for hate. As a stranger to the Pilgrim life, he is incapable of perceiving the in-breaking reality of the topsy-turvy invisible Kingdom of God, nor can he comprehend what it means to follow the Suffering Servant who said, “Forgive, and you will be forgiven.”
Meanwhile, the Pilgrims at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church are working from an entirely different frame of reference.