Forgiveness is Hell

Forgiveness is Hell June 21, 2015

The BBC World Service recently featured some striking coverage of responses to Wednesday’s shooting at a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina, particularly from within the church community itself.  I was especially amazed by one attendee of a prayer vigil for the victims (speaking about 32 1/2 minutes into this radio program) who said of Dylann Roof, who shot and killed nine people at a Bible study:

What he was going to accomplish, he did the opposite.  And so we’re smiling and laughing at him, while yet praying for him.  And he can’t stop us from praying for him, and he can’t stop us from loving him.  So he’s got to live with black people loving white people, and white people loving black people.  And I think that is hell for him.

I heard several things at once in this brief yet potent statement.

It immediately brought to mind what Martin Luther King so powerfully said about nonviolent resistance formed by agape, which enables one to say to one’s “most violent opponent”,

We will match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. And do to us what you will, and we will still love you…. Bomb our homes and threaten our children and as difficult as it is, we will still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators and violence into our communities at the midnight hours and drag us out on some wayside road and beat us and leave us half-dead and we will still love you. But be assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. And one day we will win our freedom: but we will not only win freedom for ourselves. We will so appeal to your heart and your conscience that we will win you in the process and our victory will be a double victory.

The spirit of Reverend Dr. King is alive and well in that church, evidenced as well by representatives of the victims’ families at a court hearing, who spoke with both audible pain and resolute forgiveness to the young man who had killed their loved ones.

“And I think that is hell for him.”

This reflects at the same time a deep irony that exists as long as the victory King proclaimed remains a hope as yet unconsummated.  It is the same irony that St. Paul pointed to in his letter to the Romans (12:20, quoting Solomon in Proverbs 25:21-22): “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.”

I recall a similar response to another church shooting some years ago where the pastor, asked if he thought the shooter would go to hell, replied, “He’s probably been living in his own personal hell for years.”

Particularly apropos of this more recent tragedy is a sentence that stuck in my mind from Rob Bell’s book Love Wins (which has often been mistakenly described as an argument for universalism):

“A racist would be miserable in the world to come.”

Indeed, for someone repelled by the vast unity-in-diversity that is the communion of saints, heaven itself would be hell.  Already in this world, for someone who chooses to live in the hell of hatred, forgiveness is indeed the most burning response that can be offered – while always holding out the hope that, for him too, it can be a healing burn, if he allows it to be.

The church and the families that Dylann Roof wounded so horribly are leading the way in praying for him.  So let us do the same.

And may love finally have the last laugh.  Kyrie eleison.

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  • Tanco

    Thank you, Julia.

    The terrorist attack at Emanuel AME church has brought out in me prejudices of my own.

    Dylann Roof fit my prejudicial metrics of a potential young gun offender well: lower income, a dysfunctional family, drug abuse, social alienation, truancy, unemployment. Put a gun in his hand (which his father inexplicably did), and evil was nigh inevitable when sparked by an heinous ideology such as white supremacy. What could have stopped Roof? Could he have been stopped, given his extremely dysfunctional existence?

    And yet, the martyrs of Emanuel as well as the parishioners of the church, in their outpouring of forgiveness, indirectly admonish me for harboring my prejudice. The issue is not directly guns, or access to guns; the issue is not directly Roof’s dysfunctional life and attraction to white supremacist ideology. Yes, all of these contributed to the death of nine innocent people in what should be a place of fellowship and security. What I have learned from the families of the murdered and the parishioners of this church is that forgiveness not only requires the strength to overcome immediate hatred towards the person who has destroyed your life. Forgiveness also requires a leap far above personal prejudices that concern the person who has perpetuated evil towards you. The moral strength of the families affected and their fellow parishioners is amazing, even beatific. Even their call for Roof to repent is not for their own good, but for his. The eager wish of the bereaved is that Roof confess his sins and save his soul, not to wish for a speedy execution of the perpetrator. This level of forgiveness is evidence of Christ’s very action among his people and in the world.

    Rev. Clementa Pinckney and companions, pray for us.

  • Ross

    GREAT POST JULIA ! Thanks for sharing. I’ve been thinking about how some “white Christians” are struggling to respond to the shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. The current political context of this shooting got me thinking back to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s time in Harlem. Bonhoeffer seemed to fully embraced the culture of the African American church and then developed some of his ideas on social gospel from his time in the Black Church. (He was also aware of just how badly the church had dealt with integration) Bonhoeffer’s sense of discipleship and solidarity seemed to allow him to embrace what he calls “the preaching of the Black Christ”. Is this approach something to build on? Perhaps the model for how to respond correctly? Any thoughts? Not sure what others think.

  • chris

    So basically you “love him” because that is “hell for him”? well good for you. Do they call a spade a spade in heaven misses Smucker?

    • Julia Smucker

      Based on the tone of your reaction, I suspect you may be mishearing the man’s statement and what I meant by quoting him, but I need some clarification in order to respond. Can you specify what you understood him (and/or me) to be saying?