It's hard to know where to start in praising the Time magazine cover on the legacies of the nine believers lost at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. This story sets out to let readers meet all of them, using the voices of those who survived and others touched by the glimpses of hell, and heaven, during that nine-minute massacre.
It's true that the reporting team that produced "What it Takes to Forgive a Killer" -- David Von Drehle, with Jay Newton-Small and Maya Rhodan -- were given an extraordinary amount of space in which to paint this masterwork. When you start reading this, close the door for privacy and have some tissues ready -- especially if you watch the YouTube at the top of this post, which is referenced in the article.
In a way, the size of this article only raises the stakes. You see, forgiveness is a massive personal and theological subject and the goal of the article was to show that people are complex and that grace works in different lives at different paces. There are several theological perspectives to consider, and tons of biblical material to reference, with many places to stumble in handling the facts and the background. In a way, this article seems short, when one considers its ambition.
For me, as the son of a pastor in a Bible-driven tradition, the key is that this story focuses on a small circle of "Wednesday night" people, the ultra-faithful folks who end a long, long day by gathering with their shepherds for Bible study. This is not the Sunday morning crowd. If you were looking for the true believers, Wednesday night Bible study in Mother Emanuel is where you are going to find them.
At the heart of the story are three words, spoken by Nadine Collier, daughter of the fallen Ethel Lance, to gunman Dylann Storm Roof. Sharon Risher is her sister. This is long, but essential:
“I forgive you.” Those three words reverberated through the courtroom and across the cable wires, down the fiber-optic lines, carried by invisible storms of ones and zeros that fill the air from cell tower to cell tower and magically cohere in the palms of our hands. They took the world by surprise.
They took Collier’s own family by surprise. “When she said that, I was just shocked,” says Risher. “I was like, Who in the hell is she talking for? Because she’s not talking for me.”
The question of forgiveness is as old as human sin. In the Western religious traditions that loom large over Charleston -- which calls itself the Holy City in honor of its many congregations—it goes all the way back to Adam and Eve. Forgiveness is a riddle to theologians, psychologists, sociologists and philosophers. Often, two people can be talking about forgiveness without realizing that they have very different concepts in mind. For some, forgiveness speaks to the condition of the offender: whatever was done wrong will be forgotten and all penalties erased. A debt can be forgiven; a crime can be pardoned. The slate is wiped clean and the sinner writes a new future.
For others, forgiveness describes the state of mind of the forgiver: you have harmed me, but I refuse to respond in kind. Forgiveness is a kind of purifier that absorbs injury and returns love. It’s not really about the offender at all. There might be a hope attached that forgiveness will inspire a radical change for the better, but the offender is still culpable, still faces legal jeopardy and, ultimately, still faces Judgment Day.
Despite Risher’s strong reaction, she and her sister were on roughly the same page in speaking of forgiveness. As children they surely heard the parable preached from Emanuel’s pulpit of a servant who begs his master to forgive a large debt. After his plea is granted, the servant refuses to do the same for someone else. “Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?” the angry master demands. And they surely heard Jesus’ teaching that a person struck on one cheek should offer the other to be struck as well. Forgiveness is to be poured out not once, nor seven times, but “seventy times seven.”
What came between the sisters may have been the question of who has the power to forgive. In Judaism, only the person who has been hurt has that power. Thus, many rabbis hold that the crime of murder is literally unforgivable because the victim is gone. “No one can forgive crimes committed against other people,” Rabbi Abraham Heschel, the philosopher and civil rights activist, once wrote. “Even God himself can only forgive sins committed against himself, not against man.”
That principle helps illuminate Collier’s improvised statement at the bond hearing. She appears to be forgiving the pain and loss that she endured when her mother was murdered, not necessarily the murder itself. But the extraordinary reaction to her words suggests that many people heard something more sweeping than a personal statement about private grief.
And what about the stunningly complex history of the city of Charleston, with its journey from slave traders to the new South? That background is in here too.
The people who were striving to forgive this modern killer were walking in the footsteps of others who had faced big questions, both in their church pews, in their families and in the deep and twisted roots of this community.
At what point does one forgive? It's hard to think of a more relevant question in many American communities today. Start here:
Prisoners and slaves are forced to reckon with the guttering candle of their freedom. Multiplied through centuries of enslaved and degraded generations, the reckoning becomes a cultural heritage. The forgivers of Charleston trace their beliefs to a communion of forebears stripped of all liberty -- except its essence. This culture has been nurtured in churches that promise, someday, the vindication of the just, the liberation of the captive and the exaltation of the downtrodden. They worship a teacher who forgave those who crucified him even as he was dying on the Cross.
This notion of forgiveness has little to do with the offender. Indeed, it says little about the future paths and attitudes of the forgiver. It is the choice made by Anthony Thompson, who says emphatically that he wants nothing ever to do with Roof. But it is also the path of Polly Sheppard, who hopes someday to minister to Roof in prison and lead him to Christ.
Because it says little or nothing about future actions or the demands of justice, this philosophy has always attracted critics who condemn it as a form of surrender or acquiescence to oppression. The world is admirably arranged for racists and tyrants when their victims acknowledge the limits of their own control.
But it need not be surrender. Many have found strength in these ideas. By stripping away illusions of control and focusing on what actually can be achieved, one is free to steel one’s courage and sharpen one’s determination.
Take the time to read it all. And I'd like to ask religious leaders who read this to go further.
It is important, to attempt to dialogue with journalists when they don't "get it" when covering religion. But it is also crucial to let them know when they get it right. This is an opportunity to do that. I hope the Time magazine team receives praise for this piece early and often.
Religion story of the year?