Devon Dick : Forgive them, though they know what they do
The killing of nine persons at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina in the United States, including the 41-year-old senior pastor and state senator Clementa C. Pinckney, has spurred debate about whether the families of the victims and the church community should forgive Dylann Roof for his multiple murders.
The horror of the crime is heightened when it is remembered that Pinckney was an outstanding individual who has been a pastor since 18 and a senator since 21. In addition, he leaves behind a wife and two children. Similar stories can be told about other victims, whether from the pastoral team or members of the church.
The story of the Bible is about a God who forgives sinful humanity. Human beings have sinned by falling short of God's standards despite our best efforts. Sometimes we leave undone good things we ought to have done and so miss the mark of God's expectations of us. In addition, we rebel against God's known will and engage in our own selfish and wicked desires. Nevertheless, while we were sinners, Jesus died, on our behalf, for our sins. God forgave us even before we ever asked for forgiveness.
Therefore, following the example of God, we ought to forgive. The families of victims and the church community should forgive Roof, although his act was premeditated, ungrateful and cold. It is normal and natural to want revenge. One often feels that vigilante justice is justified, especially when the crimes are brutal and despicable. There might even be a desire to get even with Roof, his family, his dog and puss, but we need to remember that violence tends to beget more violence.
Furthermore, forgiving is good and it is in the self-interest of the one who has been offended. It is often the case that the one who stores hatred and bitterness does more damage to the self than to the object on which the hatred or bitterness is poured. Forgiveness does not require the assent of the offender. It opens one to the possibility of reconciliation, but it does not have to lead to that.
For reconciliation to take place, Roof would have to repent of his sins and seek forgiveness from the Emanuel Church community. In addition, the church community would have to accept his repentance as genuine. In any case, they might forgive him, having no desire for him to become a member of their congregation.
Additionally, forgiving Roof does not exclude the families of the victims pursuing justice through the legal system. Forgiveness does not exclude them wanting an adequate punishment which shows the disgust of the community to
the murderous intentions and actions of Roof. Wanting justice and expressing forgiveness are not mutually exclusive. The punishment should show that the lives of the nine were special and sacred and should not be snuffed out, except in the case of self-defence.
Forgiveness is not a sign of weakness, but rather strength, because it is trying to get to the ideal of not allowing the act to continually negatively impact the victims' families. It is to get to the stage where the memory, though hurtful, can lead to perceiving some good as is promised in the Scriptures, that God works all things together for good for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.
Whether the perpetrators know or do not know what they are doing, let us exercise forgiveness and prevent the self-inflicted ills caused by harbouring hatred and bitterness.
- Rev Devon Dick is pastor of the Boulevard Baptist Church in St Andrew. He is author of 'The Cross and the Machete', and 'Rebellion to Riot'.
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