"Christianity", a long-term atheist friend of mine says, "has
something distinctive to say about forgiveness." Her words came
into my mind as I watched the TV footage in which some of the
bereaved victims of last week's Charleston shooting offered
forgiveness to the man charged with the crime, Dylann Roof.
The 21-year-old white supremacist has been arrested after the
shooting of nine people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal
Church on Wednesday of last week. Mr Roof seems to have been
convinced that black people were "taking over the world"; he said
he wanted to "do something for the white race". In his first court
appearance last Friday, Mr Roof showed no signs of remorse. He was
emotionless, sullenly compliant, and deeply pathetic.
In contrast, the victims were dignified, even in their grief.
This well-known community church, with its long links to the Civil
Rights movement, has nurtured a kind of Christianity which is deep
and multifaceted; rooted in the gospel in such a way as to make the
paradoxes of the faith live afresh for all of us. This is a place
in which it is possible to rejoice and mourn at the same time; to
feel anger and outrage, and yet to have compassion for those who
"know not what they do".
Christianity is not the only faith tradition to recognise the
importance of forgiveness, but it does so in a very particular way.
There is no blurring of the boundaries between right and wrong; no
accommodation of evil as a necessary aspect of the wholeness of
things. The triumph of goodness comes in the recognition that even
the most depraved killer or pervert is a person with a soul, a
being ultimately capable of receiving salvation. Goodness lies at
the root of things, not evil; and to forgive is to bear witness to
this fundamental truth.
It looks as if Mr Roof had an experience of ordinary human
goodness when he was welcomed by members of the prayer group on his
arrival at the church. He sat with them for an hour, apparently
touched by their "niceness". Perhaps at that moment he knew what he
was up against, and hesitated. But, eventually, the evil demons
appear to have won.
Although the bereaved may forgive, the State does not. South
Carolina upholds the death penalty, and the Governor has already
said that prosecutors will press for it in this case. But perhaps
the spontaneous Christian attitude of the victims will have a
long-term effect on a society that is still in thrall to its gun
lobby, and still executes too many pathetic misfits.