After expressions of forgiveness from the families of “The Beautiful Nine,” a few articles have been written that counter the dominant media narratives focusing on the beauty of the unconditional forgiveness offered Dylann Roof contrasted with the hatred and terror wrought on the community. As I mentioned earlier, I laud the family members for opening themselves to such extraordinary grace, particularly during a moment when the temptation to lash out with hatred and vengeance must have been barely resistible.
Now 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.
“Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?” (Matthew 18:33)
Jesus’ teachings about forgiveness are perhaps the most difficult bit to chew in the New Testament. After calling what he took to be Christianity’s teachings on sexuality its most unpopular, C.S. Lewis repented in a later chapter and wondered if it might be the commandment to forgive instead. Forgiveness is one of the most powerful possibilities afforded by Jesus, and also one of the most abused. And on the face of it, it is possibly incoherent. Can there really be an obligation to forgive? Is that what Jesus said or meant?