Charleston and the Price of Forgiveness

I’m continuing a sermon series on the scripture themes from VBS this year. This Sunday, I’ll focus on one of the last sayings of Jesus from the cross. He said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23.34 NIV).

He could have been referring to those Roman soldiers who were carrying out their orders. They were the ones to actually nail him to the cross, and that would certainly be an obvious choice. Maybe he was talking about the religious leaders who put him in that position in the first place. They accused him of being a revolutionary, telling people not to pay their taxes to Ceasar, and claiming to be a King. Along the way  they accused Jesus of “stirring up the people.”

Well, that is what Jesus does.

The timing of the passage comes at a good time, for obvious reasons. We’ve all seen and heard the stories of horror and hatred that were aimed at those nine persons in a Bible Study last Wednesday night. The gunman sat among them for about an hour, received their hospitality, and then proceeded to stand up and start shooting them. He said he wanted to start “a race war.”

What is even more startling than the act of violence has been the reactions of the Emmanuel AME church, especially the families of the victims. They confronted the killer, not with words of hatred, but with words of forgiveness. One person said, “You’ve hurt me. But, I forgive you.”

Forgiveness. You’ve hurt me, but I forgive you.

With all the racial unrest that has been present in our country, it wouldn’t have been a surprise if there had been violence in the streets of Charleston. Many people may have expected it and were disappointed. During his Father’s Day message, Rev. Norvel Goff said, “Lot’s of folks expected us to do something strange and break out in a riot. Well, they just don’t know us. We have shown the world how we as a group of people can come together and pray and work out things that need to be worked out.”

The only thing more striking than the actions of that gunman has been the reactions of that community and congregation. And, what is also notable is how surprising their response has been, especially when we are conditioned to see violence breed violence. The racial tensions that have been on display in Ferguson and Baltimore could have been evidenced with similar behavior in Charleston.

Forgiveness is a powerful thing. It requires an acknowledgment of pain, and a decision to give up the right to get even. It is absorbing all the pain and hurt, and making an intentional effort to respond in love. These families are responding as Jesus would have them (and us) to do. Many unbelievers do not understand how these victims could respond in this way. The sad thing is that many Christians are also surprised at this. We are taught to forgive one another, but when forgiveness is actually extended, we can become angry at the idea. It’s one thing to talk about forgiveness in theory, another to put it into practice.

I have returned from a Baptist gathering last week, and was challenged along with other participants to “build bridges.” The importance of creating avenues of service into our communities, discovering meaningful ministries, loving our neighbors of differing ethic and social backgrounds, and extending hospitality to those who need it. These are not new concepts. In fact, they have been around a very long time. Yet, it’s important for the church to be reminded of our purpose, which is to share Christ with those around us. Sometimes that requires words. Sometimes it requires actions.

One of the actions I think needs to occur is the removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina state house. I realize that politicians will use the shooting as an opportunity for political posturing, which can result in great form but little substance. And, while the flag itself did not kill anyone, it has become a symbol of hatred and divisiveness. I can appreciate the history aspect of the “stars and bars” and agree that following generations need to be educated about what happened over 150 years ago. Let the stories be told. But, let the flag be shown in a museum rather than flying over the state capitol. Removal of this symbol would be a good step forward in bridging the racial divide for the state and the nation.

The Emmanuel AME church has shown the nation how to respond when hatred strikes at those who are most loved. Their pastor was killed doing what he usually did on Wednesday nights, and what many pastors do at that time: leading Bible Study and showing hospitality to a stranger. That’s what he was supposed to do. That’s what we’re supposed to do also.

It’s one thing to forgive someone when they say something to hurt your feelings. These occasions can make it hard to move on with our lives, we can become “stuck” at some moment in the past. We can feel like hanging on to our pain and feel justified at harboring grudges toward the offending persons. It’s natural to desire revenge for injustice. But, this kind of response doesn’t cause our world to sit up and take notice like the actions of that congregation in South Carolina. The world needs to know there is an alternative to violence. And, it isn’t more violence. It isn’t burning down buildings or looting stores. It isn’t in forgetting about what has happened either. It should result in incorporating that narrative of pain into our lives today. It should help us be sympathetic to those who are oppressed and hurting as well.

Jesus offered words of forgiveness because “they don’t know what they are doing.” I wonder how that resonates with those of us who do know what we are doing. Forgiveness is costly. It cost Jesus his own life, and that example of forgiveness should stir us as his people to do the same to those who hurt us. Besides, there are times when we’ve all done things to hurt someone else.

Forgiveness is a wonderful topic to talk about on a Sunday morning. It’s even more beautiful when it is demonstrated for the entire world to see. Justice needs to be done, to be sure. As pastor Goff said, “there is a time and place for everything.” Justice and forgiveness aren’t mutually exclusive. There are consequences to behavior. However, let this season of forgiveness which has been ushered in by our Charleston friends be entered into by all of us who claim the name of Christ. I cannot imagine the depth of pain and grief these families are going through right now. Soon, the media attention will go away and they will be left to go through holidays and birthdays without their loved ones. Let us grieve with them and pray for them. Let us also remember honor their example in our own communities. The world is watching to see what we’re going to do.

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