Some acts are so terrible, it seems wrong to even talk about them. Some acts, however, are so gracious, we marvel at them and must talk about them.
Today, I felt compelled to talk about the events of last week, the horrific killing of nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
Why you might ask. The reason is that in that tragic event, we are seeing how light can overcome darkness. How love can overcome hate.
As most of you already know, on June 17th, a man described as “white, with sandy-blond hair, around 21 years old and 5 feet 9 inches in height, wearing a gray sweatshirt and jeans” entered Emanuel and participated in a Bible study led by the Church’s pastor, Clementa C. Pinckney. At about 9 pm, the man, subsequently identified as Dylann Roof, opened fire killing nine people, including Pastor Pinckney.
Almost as quickly as the reports came out, the political pundits, both liberal and conservative, started using the shooting to further their pet causes, from banning the Confederate flag to the need to permit people to carry guns in church. I guess that is to be expected in our society.
What is not what you would expect in today’s society, was the fact that the people of Emanuel church wanted to talk about something far more important: grace and forgiveness.
In an interview with the BBC, the children of Sharonda Singleton, one of the victims, told the reporter, “We already forgive (Dylann Roof) and there’s nothing but love from our side of the family.”
They weren’t alone. Stephen Singleton, Emanuel’s former pastor, told NPR that “we’re people of faith, and people of faith know that we heal. God helps us heal. This doesn’t drive us away from God. This drives us to God, and that’s why I’m here now.” When asked what his former parishioners had told him, he continued, “There are a lot of broken hearts, a lot of sorrow and a lot of healing to be done. And that’s what we’re going to work on, and that’s what we’re going to focus on because if we get bitter and angry, we just make a bad situation worse.”
A relative of another victim, Myra Thompson, said “I forgive him and family forgives him. But we would like him to take this opportunity to repent” and “give your life to the One who matters most: Christ.”
Senator Tim Scott, appearing on Face the Nation said that while Roof may have intended to ignite a war between the races, he brought the people of Charleston closer together.
I think the apostle Paul may have said it best in the books of Galatians and Ephesians:
Galatians 3:28 (NIV)
28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Ephesians 2:14-16 (NIV)
14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.
Ephesians 2:18 (NIV)
18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
We are all one in the eyes of God. All nations, all races, all sexes are God’s children. He created us, He loves us beyond our comprehension, and He wants to have a close relationship with each and every one of us. We have come a long way since the last century, but do not be fooled; racism still exists and it is still a problem. As long as there is sin in this world, it will always be a problem. Racism is cowardly and hateful and is so far away from God and His plans for our lives.
But the people of Emanuel have responded in a way that is distinctly, if not uniquely, Christian: loving those who hate you, forgiving those who sin against you, and blessing those who would persecute you. The way they are handling this goes against what our culture would say to do. Their responses shine out like a great beacon in the world around them that is filled with darkness and hate. Through these people and their responses, we see that Jesus does still live among us, in the souls of these brave victims.
Christian ideas may no longer have the same power in our culture that they once had. But they are not completely absent. Against the kind of grace on display in Charleston, there is no argument that God does exist and He is evident through people who are willing to respond with love and forgiveness instead of hate.
We even saw this on display in Roof’s capture. A North Carolina woman, at great personal risk, followed Roof’s car until she was sure it was him and then called the police. When asked why, she replied, “I had been praying for those people on my way to work … I was in the right place at the right time that the Lord puts you.”
I think that this tragedy is reminiscent of the horrific event from years ago, the murder of five Amish girls in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. The members of the Amish community forgave the murderer. The families of the victims reached out to the widow of the perpetrator. At that time, Chuck Colson asked these key questions: “How are we working, in our own communities, to build cultures of grace? Are we teaching our children to forgive? Are we actively working to restore offenders and reach out in aid to victims? Are we overcoming evil in the world by good, as we are commanded to do?”
In this case my question to all of us is: If evil and tragedy come our way, are we ready to respond in love the same way our brothers and sisters in Charleston have?
I think it is important that we pray for those who are suffering from this painful event, but I also think it is important that we find it in our hearts to pray for the person who caused this. We need to pray that through this event he can come to find God in his life and develop a relationship with Him. If we can do that, then we are demonstrating God’s love and forgiveness in our own hearts and we are helping those who are suffering to heal. If we are not able to do that, then we are letting the darkness win. We are letting the evil associated with this tragic event win and that would be an even bigger tragedy.
Prayer is great, but we need to go beyond prayer. We need to relate to these victims and use their response as a model for how we react to evil. We all have the power within us to diffuse the effects of evil, but we have to make the choice within our own hearts, and choose how we respond, and if we can respond with love and forgiveness, know that we can make a difference in our world, even if it is a small one.
What happened in Charleston is a tragic reminder of the great darkness in the world. But in the aftermath we see the truth that the “light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.”