The above video shows the families of the victims of Dylann Roof, one after the other, forgiving the murderer of their loved ones.
By chance, I met today a friend of one of the victims, appropriately enough at the end of a service at St Bartholomew's Church. We spoke a little; I listened, really. What could I say, but to offer to pray for her and her late friend, Ethel Lance? Seemingly Quixotic, as God already has her soul in His keeping, but that's on the plane of logic. That's not where prayer works. Every little flame of prayer, flickering candles though they be, staves off the darkness. We pray not because Ethel Lance needs my intercession, but because by her friend's touching my heart, she herself has become more real to me than a story in a newspaper. And so, even in this temporal plane, her life echoes a little more, in a different direction.
And my prayers, added to all the prayers of other strangers become brothers by having been touched by Ethel Lance's life, well--as one note in that symphony, will effect all of us who pray, and those our lives touch.
What becomes of all that prayerful energy and intent, I'll leave to God.
But one more thing: Today, I was present when my friend the Rev. Matthew Moretz preached eloquently on two intertwining themes: the harm that results when we fear to name evil, and the importance of confronting it, so as to be prepared to counter it, with love and forgiveness. The whole sermon is worth your time, but here's a piece that especially resonated with me:
On the radio, I heard the President call the forgiveness of the victim’s families “unimaginable.” This may be an idiom, but it just isn’t that helpful. What they did is part of a web of life that is not only imaginable, but has been lived out successfully for untold centuries, since at least the patriarch Joseph. You can see in the stone of this church the moment when he forgave his brothers who had nearly killed him. Placing the “Unimaginable” label on something so real and historical ends up blinding us to the Way of True Life that is accessible to anyone.Listening to Matthew, I remembered my classmate Theresa Gorski, murdered two and a half years ago. And the difficulty of the restorative justice ministry I am beginning to research and envision. It's a big one, and daunting. But those nine families in Charleston just showed me how it's done, and Ethel Lance, Theresa Gorski, and untold myriads of others deserve to be the impetus for something worthwhile.
And like calling the murders “unspeakable,” it places these very real things, things that could help us, in a world of shadows. We have to learn how to speak about evil, yes, but it doesn’t end there in despair. Our honesty is a doorway, not a corner. Like the saints before us, we are charged with not only imagining but living out the very real and well worn path of mercy and forgiveness that will lead us out of the dark.
Can we get to the point where our surprise is not so pronounced? The people of Emanuel weren’t caught off guard. They were deeply wounded, yes. But they were ready. After generations of enduring the legacy of slavery and racism, and somehow continuing to pray and live and love, they were ready. They had been scouring the Scriptures and their hearts for the life of God under an ever-present post-slavery terror and the often deadly indignities that come with that legacy. Our fellow Christians know that these violent storms of hate from their neighbor must be endured with mercy and forgiveness, not amplified by more revenge and violence. Rather than using some curse to find a way forward, even further into the dark, they resolutely chose to bless their way into the future. And so they forgave the perpetrator.
Heaven forbid something of this magnitude would ever happen to us. But if so, I hope that we might be prepared. Prepared to continue the new life that some have called “unimaginable.” Prepared to soak our anguish in mercy; to mend our broken hearts with grace; and be encouraged, like the panicked disciples in that wave-tossed boat with Jesus, to trust God to guide us through these storms of violence and hate, to the calm on the other side of it. So that we are not ultimately panicked or scattered or terrorized by what hits us.
As Alana Simmons said to the killer of her grandfather, "Hate won't win."