Costly Forgiveness v. Cheap Grace

justice-scales-300x273Now that the perpetrator of the Emanuel Church massacre has been apprehended and charged, the media is ablaze with heart rending images of family members struggling through their grief to offer forgiveness to Dylann Storm Roof.  Many  colleagues in ministry, most of whom are faithful allies in mainline churches like my own, the Episcopal Church, where people of color are few and far between, are waxing poetic about the power of forgiveness.  I do not doubt the sincerity of my friends and colleagues.  But I have to admit, even as a man who works so hard to lead with thoughtful compassion and introspection–much to the consternation of my more pointed and eloquent black colleagues–the readiness to laud forgiveness too early and too often horrifies me.

I suspect my feelings, in part, are due to the timing of events.  Now that I have written as a priest charged with building community about the need to face the monster as a nation, now that I have tried to encourage my friends of many nationalities, who are drawn once again into a great vortex of racist commentary, thoughtless at best, to keep their balance with a bit of humor, I am left with myself:  a black man who has witnessed yet another act of war against his people while they were at prayer.  When my gut instinct first said to me, “This is clearly an act of war,” as soon as I learned what happened at Emanuel Church, I was startled.  I do not use that word “war” casually, particularly since I am not a pacifist.  

As a just war Christian from a family of Navy men and at least one Air Force woman, whose mixed-race grandfather gave his very sanity to protect a thankless nation during World War I, I know too well that war is a horrible thing.  I understand that my fellow just war Christians all too readily abandon the first principle of “last resort” and rush headlong into battle without first counting the cost.  Likewise I understand that when one crosses the line and uses force even with the noblest of intenions, one is never immune from the distorting effects of violence and the potential for deep and lasting moral injury.  

When my instinct says, “This is an act of war,” my conscience counsels immediate restraint.  I had to ask myself, “Who then is the enemy?” The ambiguous answer to the question is the source of terror’s power.  Refusing to strike out indiscriminately is a spiritual discipline.  White folks have asked this black man more than once, “Where is your rage?”  My answer, especially since I am not a pacifist: “On a leash where it ought to be.”  Confronting the sobering reality of an enemy who wishes harm to you and your people requires, above all, discipline.

If my colleagues who rarely have known the reality of facing an enemy combatant in their own country vex me with their ready calls for peace, I am all the more horrified by their readiness to praise forgiveness offered entirely too soon.  My take on the  families whose loved ones were slaughtered by a man whose momentary humanity in the face of a generous hospitality failed to restrain him, is that they are a people with their backs against the wall.  

Howard Thurman, in his classic text, Jesus and the Disinherited (Abington Press, 1949), used this eloquent phrase, “masses… living with their backs against the wall” to describe those who lived under the constant threat of violence, in his case, African Americans in the Jim Crow South.  His work formed, in part, the intellectual backbone of the black Civil Rights movement, providing a stringent moral code of non-violent action before the face of a dignifying, compassionate God, in order to counter the corrosive effects of hatred and rage.  Many African Americans today do not live with the constant threat of terror to the degree that we once did in the Jim Crow South. But from time to time that terror belches forth from the deepest recesses of a nation’s racist hell as it did on 17 June 2015.  

As I watched those families struggle to offer a costly forgiveness, I beheld a people with their backs against the wall–faced with the hellish choice of lashing out in a destructive rage or freeing themselves from the power of hell by reaching into their ravaged souls and finding there a shred of forgiveness.  I applaud them for choosing life when their backs are against the walI. But I do not walk away from such a horrible sight filled with pious sentimentality or especially the inclination to make of them a moral example.  The kumbaya moment has not yet arrived for those who do not have their backs against the wall.

Insofar as this young man made war on my people, without following his conscience when treated with compassion and hospitality, and insofar as he has not sought forgiveness, but spoken of his mission, he has apparently identified himself as an enemy combatant.  And at this juncture, I have no inclination to offer cheap grace.  As the blood of my people calls out from the ground, my inclination, from a position of privilege and strength, is to support those who examine him, investigate how he became radicalized, and see to it that he answers for his crimes. I am livid that the families of the martyrs have their backs to the wall.  

My back, however, is not against the wall. A man has made war on my people, and while I will not lash out with unrestrained rage, I also will not shower him or anyone like him with cheap grace, to use Dietrich Bonhöffer’s pointed phrase in The Cost of Discipleship (SCM Press 1959), in the name of Christianity, even less so to mollify my mainline Christian colleagues.*  

When the time comes, I stand ready to forgive.  But for now, I pray that God will have mercy on Dylann Storm Roof–for he cannot fathom the extent of his crime.  And may God have mercy on us all.


*Bonhöffer borrowed this term from Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem.

©2015. D. Maurice Charles.  All rights reserved.

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About D. Maurice Charles

Maurice is an Episcopal priest and historian of Christianity who reflects on religion and violence, having received his M.Div. and Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. Most of his ministry has focused on higher education, having previously served as Associate Dean for Religious Life at Stanford University. In 2015 he was appointed Chaplain of the Colleges and Assistant Professor of Religious Studies (by courtesy) at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, NY. Maurice contributes to this blog with his Chicago friends in the hope that personal reflection and heartfelt discussion lead to building beloved community.