Vail Daily column: Take the high road of forgiveness in low times
July 6, 2015
Relatives of massacred members in Charleston's Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church forgave the killer. Forgave the shooter, mind you, less than 48 hours after the rampage!
Such mercies left commentators flabbergast. Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal called such forgiveness a "miracle," which defied normal get-even reactions. She described relatives showing mercy as "amazing, other-worldly forgiveness" at the killer's bail hearing. Commentator Charles Krauthammer usually reins in emotions when he scores right-wing points. He emotively wrote of the relatives' "astonishingly moving expression of Christian charity."
Relatives of those slain acted on what Jesus taught them in the Lord's Prayer: "Our Father … forgive us our trespasses [sins], as we have forgiven those who trespass [sin] against us" (Matthew 6:12). Their faith exemplified the definition of a Christian: forgiven and forgiving. When mercy isn't tried in trying times, critics find Christianity wanting. But when mercy is extended to the unmerciful, people perk up.
After relatives chose the high road of mercy in contrast to the mass murderer's low road, reporters were at a loss for words. Not knowing how to respond, they turned to flashier headlines to sell copy. Attention shifted from the forgiving relatives to the perpetrator. From a dorky haircut to his fascination with white supremacists groups, we got sensationalized news of the carnage.
Soon after the killings, the Confederate battle flag controversy clogged the Internet. The killer posted pictures in cyberspace with a Confederate flag slung over his shoulder. Cameras zeroed in on vanity license plates showing a Confederate flag on the killer's car. South Carolina's legislature debated whether the Confederate flag that flies outside the statehouse should be lowered once and for good.
Alongside this commotion, President Obama's direct language in an interview about how easy it is to purchase guns in the U.S. riled the Second Amendment's protectors. Critics pounced on the president's anti-gun convictions, twisting his words to say the president naively believes mass violence doesn't occur in European countries that restrict guns. What he accurately declared is that rampages occur less frequently in Europe than in the U.S., where guns are easier to buy.
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Reporters lost focus. They got sidetracked from the forgiving relatives. The press proved the adage about "not seeing the forest because of the trees."
"The forest" stands for relatives who practiced Christ's forgiveness under the most ungodly of circumstances. Would we be able to show such mercy if a white racist murdered our loved one?
The forgiveness petition in the Lord's Prayer asks Christians to cultivate an attitude, not toward God, but toward those who hurt us. Even a racist murderer is part of the human family.
Relatives didn't give the killer a free pass. They never said his murderous action didn't count; but it did not matter, in the sense of being an excuse to get even or hold a grudge. These relatives didn't issue a blanket pardon. The killer must pay for his heinous crimes in a court of law.
"I forgive you, my family forgives you," said Anthony Thompson, whose relative Myra Thompson was gunned down. He put into practice what core Christianity is about — forgiveness. "We would like you to take this opportunity to repent. … Do that and you'll be better off than you are right now," urged Thompson at the bail hearing.
These forgiving Christians were back at worship the Sunday following the murders. They forged ahead. That's how forgiving Christians act who extend Jesus' influence in the world. They have their down days. They weep. Some would exchange their lives to spare those killed.
Today, we seek revenge if life doesn't give us what is decent, fair and good. These Christians in Charleston practice Jesus' ethic. A week after the shootings, their interim pastor Norvel Goff declared, "Because of our faith we have shown up once more again to declare that Jesus lives. And because he lives, we can face tomorrow."
Jesus didn't promise sweet lives if we forgive our enemies.
"You don't ask, 'What do I want from life?'" writes New York Times columnist David Brooks. "You ask a different set of questions: 'What does life want from me?' 'What are my circumstances calling me to do?' In this scheme of things we don't create our lives; we are summoned by life."
Summoned to forgive those who kill our loved ones. Christianity isn't finding shelter from the storm in a safe harbor. It's leaving the harbor and facing the storm. Life sometimes makes us seasick. But Christians move into choppy seas with what Martin Luther called "confident despair." That's what it takes for Christians who are forgiven and keep on forgiving.
Around Fourth of July, we remember colonial patriots whose independent spirit King George III hated. They held on and finally won the war at Yorktown. And then they forged a new nation.
That's how Christians in Charleston reacted, too. They went ahead of sidebars about the killer, the flag and presidential remarks. They remembered the lead story:
Forgiven, they forgave.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com).