A Time to Forgive?

By Joy J. Moore –

It is too soon.

That was the feeling for some. It had only been two days since a young man killed nine persons who had welcomed him to join in their study of the Bible. Two days. And yet, family members of the victims extended forgiveness to the perpetrator. The media covered the murder, the arrest of the murderer, and the response of the community at large. But how do you cover forgiveness?

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Incredible images captured the current ritual of acknowledging death by laying flowers, balloons, notes, candles, crosses, and ribbons at the site of the casualty. But how do you picture forgiveness?

Blogs, Twitter, and Facebook disclosed assorted views as the wider public of mourners, observers, and media assimilated the news: anger, rage, disbelief, frustration, resignation, indifference, scorn, disrespect, exhaustion. The only constant throughout the tragedy would be a persistent confusion. What is a reasonable response?

Unforeseeable responses exacerbated the disorientation. Who would have expected an attempt by a 21 year old to ignite a race war would instead result in the removal of a symbol of racial tension? Who could have anticipated the President of the United States taking the world to witness the church in worship? Who should have predicted the reaction evoked when Christians experience an unspeakable violation?

With lessons of forgiveness, mercy, and reconciliation staring them in the face, they, too, will have to decide between the option of their own words or the words from the mouth of Job’s wife: the choice between walking the talk or to curse God and die.

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United Methodists joined AME members in prayer following the deadly shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. UMNS photo by Lekisa Coleman-Smalls.

We have seen it before, though not often. Receiving the most coverage was the spirit of forgiveness demonstrated by the Amish community in response to the West Nickel Mines School shooting in 2006. Then, a classroom of Amish girls, ages 6 to 13, were taken hostage and murdered by a non-Amish man, and their parents and the Pennsylvania Amish community immediately forgave their killer.

Then, the convergence of the three nouns – Amish, School, and Shooting – shocked the public as a space of safety became a place of horror. More jolting than the intrusion of evil was the expression of grace. But as Donald B. Kraybill, Steven M. Nolt, and David L. Weaver-Zercher note in their book Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy, this community was uncommonly prepared to respond to evil with graciousness, forbearance, and love. The habits of the Amish culture enabled their reaction.

Nearly two centuries after the reformers sought to create Christian communities marked by an ethic of loving neighbor as taught by Jesus, a distinct Anabaptist group emerged in Switzerland that would become known as Amish. Generations later, having been taught peculiar practices of love and forgiveness, the response to forgive was not a calculated act, but an uncontrived response. To this day, descendants of the radical Christian movement that arose as Anabaptists in 16th Century Europe continue displays of pacifism and compassion baffling to those outside their communities. Society at large will no more comprehend the generosity and hospitality of Christ on display than white Americans will comprehend black Americans.

Though by no means a phenomenon new to the 21st Century, this past decade highlighted the growing disparity between the perspectives of Americans labeled white from their fellow citizens labeled black. Called attention to at the death of Trayvon Martin, emphasized when portraying President Obama, maintained in discussions of law enforcement practices, illuminated by discourse regarding the Confederate flag, and promoted with statistics of crime and punishment, a dividing line of opinions exists in the racial subjectivity of our culture.

If you have ever noticed contradictory opinions, felt frustrated by opposing rhetoric, or baffled by inconsistent ideologies, you may appreciate the predicament of faith-based forgiveness.

Despite seeming popularity, aggressive police officers, Donald Trump and the Kardashians are no more representative of white America, than gang violence, Al Sharpton’s rhetoric, or Beyonce’s fame are representative of black America. What are characteristic are the peculiar practices of the followers of Christ, regardless of their race.

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People pray outside Morris Brown AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, after deadly shooting at “Mother Emanuel,” the oldest AME church in the South. UMNS photo by Lekisa Coleman-Smalls.

Nearly 150 years after being granted the freedom of U.S. citizenship, the convergence of the three nouns – Black, Church, and Violence – does not shock the public when a sanctuary becomes a site of racial violence. Yet, as common as this intrusion of evil is the expression of grace. When officials at St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in 1787, lifted black worshippers from their knees during prayer to enforce racial segregation in the church, the response of Richard Allen, Absalom Jones and other African American neither discarded Wesleyan practices of scriptural holiness nor dehumanized persons of European descent. In the face of the death of four little girls during the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, African Americans did not abandon Christianity or their Anglo-American collaborators in the Civil Rights Movement. And when their pastor and several members were murdered while honoring Jesus’ teaching to love your neighbor (and pray for those who persecute you), the families of the Emmanuel 9 did not hesitate to perform the forgiveness their pastor had taught. The habits of that congregation’s culture enabled their reaction.

You see, forgiveness is not merely an act. It is an attitude, a way of life. So, one should not expect a person to move immediately to offer forgiveness after an act of cruelty. One doesn’t just forgive a rapist after being violated. You do not simply forgive the violence of an assault. A prompt granting of forgiveness is not to be assumed following a transgression. Forgiveness is not a gesture extended or an expression offered. Forgiveness is a function of grace. Wesleyans should understand that.

I learned it from a Baptist. Speaking among an international gathering of persons who lived through the violence of genocide, war, and civil unrest, Célestin Musekura is a powerful witness. “Without the practice of forgiveness in a new life that we receive from Jesus Christ, we have no hope for the future,” he writes in Forgiving As We’ve Been Forgiven, a book co-written with L. Gregory Jones (IVP 2010).

Musekura teaches forgiveness through the African Leadership and Reconciliation Ministries (ALARM), established after the nearly 100-day genocide of Tutsi’s and moderate Hutu by the Hutu majority in Rwanda. The veracity of his teaching was challenged when Musekura learned that his family had been killed in December 1997, during the revenge killings that continued after the 1994 Rwandan massacre.

Belief in the techniques of forgiveness was insufficient to prevent his bitterness or resentment. It did not avert his questioning God’s presence or God’s goodness. He had to go deeper than the abstract idea of forgiveness to the heart of Christian faith. To walk humbly before God obligated Musekura to allow the Spirit of God to answer the prayer, “Forgive us for the ways we have wronged you, just as we also forgive those who have wronged us” (Matthew 6:12, CEB). To practice justice required refusing to become like those who killed his family. To favor kindness demanded he remember the perpetrators as human beings in need of the transforming power of God. This is what the Lord requires if forgiveness is to be possible.

The healing enabled by forgiveness interrupts the control the perpetrator gains in our imagination by hindering the power of the oppressor to continue inflicting harm. Forgiveness demonstrates the transforming power of the gospel to enable us to follow the moral requirements stitched by God into the fabric of our humanity.

Musekura’s mother had been presumed dead. Months later, Musekura would find out she survived the massacre of their village. Today, as he travels the world teaching forgiveness, his mother remains in Rwanda – cared for by a man whose family killed Musekura’s father and neighbors. Who would have thought survival would facilitate such an example of reconciliation?

The families of the members of Mother Emmanuel AME Church will not be grieved by their oppressor’s indifference, malice, or lunacy. They may not experience reconciliation, but they can be whole because of Christ. Even within the church, many will be amazed. Given the on-going brutality in this fallen world, it’s never too soon for this conspicuous demonstration of God’s transforming healing through forgiveness.

Screen Shot 2015-08-27 at 9.37.14 AMJoy J. Moore serves as an assistant professor of preaching and academic liaison to the William E. Pannell Center for African American Church Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. Dr. Moore (Ph.D. Brunel University) is an ordained elder in the West Michigan Conference of the United Methodist Church.

 

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Trackbacks

  1. […] to the print version I commend it to your reading. [Correction: It is online! You can access it here. Thanks, Beth Ann Cook!] Along the same lines, I came across this quote from […]

  2. […] The families of the members of Mother Emmanuel AME Church will not be grieved by their oppressor’s indifference, malice, or lunacy. They may not experience reconciliation, but they can be whole because of Christ. Even within the church, many will be amazed. Given the on-going brutality in this fallen world, it’s never too soon for this conspicuous demonstration of God’s transforming healing through forgiveness. – Joy J. Moore, “A Time To Forgive?”, Good News, August 27, 2015 […]

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