“Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” Luke 6:36-37
The family members of those slain in June of 2015 in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Charleston, South Carolina, sent a message to the man who shot dead nine of their loved ones: Love is stronger than hate. You want to start a race war, but that will not happen.
It could be confusing to some that the family members of the nine people killed in a Bible study would talk about forgiveness at a time like that. But forgiveness does not mean calling an evil thing good. It does not subvert justice. Forgiveness is not hiding from reality. It holds no moral ambiguity.
Forgiveness in the New Testament simply means “to release.” This is what the family members were doing. They refused to hold the perpetrator of the evil act accountable to them personally. The killer will be subject to the judgment of the court, and the judgment of God. But the local victims rose above vindictiveness. Their character held strong. Evil was being put in its place: its pitiful, pathetic, weak place.
Forgiveness is not calling someone else’s immoral or destructive act “okay.” It is not turning a blind eye toward injustice. Forgiveness simply means that you choose to release somebody from personal obligation to you—even though that person will have to face the justice of God.
Forgiveness is a new way of looking at others. It is a radical and countercultural perspective on life. If you believe in forgiveness—that God forgives even though he is not obligated to, and that we’ll have the best kind of life if we hold other people in our lives with a loose grip—then you will see people for what they can be and what they were intended to be, rather than simply as they are.
Forgiveness means looking at people who have wronged you and deciding that you’d like to set things right—but in the end, you’re not going to play God. Forgiveness is both a decision and a process. You can release someone from obligation to you personally, even though the smoldering fires of resentment may only gradually die down with the passage of time.
PONDER: Are you dealing with resentment or bitterness toward someone at this time? What is the first step in releasing that person?
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Forgiveness in Charleston
Forgiveness is not the same as legal accountability, which is a function of the state. That is one difference between the personal acts of forgiveness in Charleston and the state as enforcer of the law. Lawbreakers often harm individuals, but they also incur a debt to society by breaking its laws. In rare instances, the state can absolve that debt through something akin to “legal forgiveness”—a pardon or some other act of leniency. But in most cases, and certainly in this one, the state properly pursues legal accountability.
The family members in Charleston knew this difference between personal forgiveness and legal accountability. When they addressed Roof, they said: “Repent, confess, give your life to the one that matters the most, Christ. So that he can change it, and change your ways no matter what happens to you.” “May God have mercy on you.” “I pray God on your soul and I also thank God that I won’t be around when your judgment day comes with him.”
Nor is forgiveness reconciliation. Reconciliation is only possible when forgiveness meets repentance. And meaningful social change requires the kind of social reconciliation that can only emerge through aggregated instances of both forgiveness and repentance. In South Africa, during the process of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the failure of widespread repentance among whites to match widespread forgiveness among blacks constrained the possibilities for meaningful change. The United States now confronts a similar challenge: Awe-inspiring forgiveness without repentance will not bring reconciliation.
Excerpt from John Inazu, “The Incomprehensible Witness of Forgiveness,” The Hedgehog Review (June 2015)
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