As Dylann Roof appeared in court last week to be charged with the murder of nine people during a Bible study class at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) in South Carolina, the daughter of one of the victims said: “I forgive you and have mercy on your soul.” Several other members of the families of the victims expressed similar sentiments. The sister of one described the church’s teaching: “Emanuel does not harbor hate in her heart. That’s not the God we serve. It’s important for us to know that the young man is a mother’s son, a father’s son. If he can earnestly repent, God will hear him.”
While there have been severe criticisms of the Confederate flag flying over the Capitol in South Carolina, not enough attention has been given to the history of religion and its role in the South, especially within the black community. Emanuel AME is almost 200 years old, the oldest African Methodist Episcopal Church in the American South and one of historical importance. In 1822, one of its founders, Denmark Vesey, was suspected of starting a slave rebellion. Thirty-five people, including Vesey, were executed and the Church burned down. Between 1834 and 1865 the all-black institution was shut and its congregation forced to meet in secret.
For those familiar with American history, analogies have been drawn to the 1963 bombing of an African-American church in Birmingham, Alabama. Four members of the white, racist Ku Klux Klan were responsible for planting at least 15 sticks of dynamite under the front steps of the church. The subsequent explosion killed four girls and injured 22 others. None of the Klansmen was prosecuted until 1977. Two were convicted in 2001 and 2002. The bombing has been described as “a turning point in the 1960s civil rights movement” and contributed to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
AME is often referred to as Mother Emanuel. It is more than just a church to its members. The teachings of the church go beyond ritual prayers. “We have been taught forgiveness,” said one of the victims’ relatives. A social media campaign called “Hate Won’t Win,” asking people to “commit an act of love” and post it on Facebook or Instagram, has been started by the granddaughter of the slain Reverend Daniel Lee Simmons Sr. “We are here to combat hate-filled actions with love-filled actions,” said Ms. Simmons.
As Leon Alston, the steward of the church, said about many of the relatives of the victims who had been attending the church for years, “These people were taught very well about right and wrong, about the loving and the teaching of the holy word. For them to forgive in such a short period of time speaks volumes to who they are and who their loved ones were.”
Dylann Roof has not asked for forgiveness. Nor has he apologized for his actions. Those who have spoken of forgiveness are not proposing acceptance. “Do we want justice done? Yes. Do we want hatred to stop? Yes. Do we want him to pay for his crime? Yes,” said Mr. Alston.
At the same time the victims of Dylann Roof^s horrendous act startle with their forgiveness, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev apologized for the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. After two years of silence, and after being sentenced to death, the young Kyrgyz rose in the courtroom and mumbled, “I am sorry for the lives that I’ve taken, for the suffering that I’ve caused you, for the damage that I’ve done – irreparable damage,” he said, referring to the four people killed, 17 who lost limbs and the 250 more who were injured.
Many of the victims also addressed the court. Their remarks were divided, some angry, others saying they forgave him. At the sentencing, Judge George A. O’Toole confirmed the death penalty by saying, “The evil that men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones. So it will be for Dzokhar Tsarnaev.” The final word after Tsarnaev’s apology was also with the judge; “Whenever your name is mentioned, what will be remembered is the evil you have done. Surely someone who believes God smiles on and rewards the deliberate killing and maiming of innocents believes in a cruel god. This is not, it cannot be, the God of Islam.”
How to react to horrendous acts? How to deal with those who have inflicted pain and loss on you or loved ones? How to break a cycle of vengeance? These are simple questions with no simple answers. The forgiveness by the relatives of some of the Charleston victims is a noble reflection of devout religious beliefs. It is a bold attempt to overcome centuries of hatred, racism and violence in spite of the heinous crime and despicable attitude of Roof.
The reaction to Tsarnaev by Judge O’Toole is a legal reasoning backed by a profound belief in “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” There is a different religious reading here. Even if Roof gets the death sentence, the forgiveness expressed by the relatives of the victims is an extraordinary testimony to the positive power of belief. One can only admire their words. As for Judge O’Toole, while one may agree with his comments, it is hard to see how they will get us out of the cycle of hatred.