Only Love Can Do That

“I do not forgive Dylann Roof, a racist terrorist whose name I hate saying or knowing,” wrote Roxanne Gay, an Op-Ed writer for the New York Times, on June 23, 2015. She had no connection to the racist massacre of the nine African Americans in Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. Yet, she said, “I do not foresee ever forgiving his crimes, and I am wholly at ease with that choice.”

She raises a good point. As a child, she was raised a Catholic and taught that “forgiveness requires reconciliation by way of confession and penance.” That is true of the process of reconciliation between people. Where relationships have been broken and wrongdoing has been done by one party, the wrongdoing needs to be acknowledged. Nadine Collier, whose mother was killed by Roof, said, “You took something very precious away from me. I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again.” This is a call to confession in which the wrongdoing is named and the impact upon others is stated. Then, a confession with real remorse is the next step in the process. If the hearers do not believe the remorse is real, it may signal that the contrition is not deeply felt by the wrongdoer. This is often where the process is derailed, when the confession is insincere or meant to gain some advantage for the wrongdoer. The next step is penance or new behavior in the opposite direction from the wrongdoing, such as restitution or amends. Oftentimes, forgiveness only follows after such new behavior is performed because seeing is believing. Seeing a wrongdoer perform new behavior is more likely to convince others that he or she has changed.

The Process of Reconciliation looks like this:

1. Call to Confession

2. Confession with Contrition or Remorse

3. New Behavior or Restitution or Amends

4. Forgiveness

So, I can see why Roxanne Gay was unwilling to forgive Dylann Roof for nine murders under the current circumstances. She said that he had shone no remorse or interest in reconciliation. “I do not believe there has been enough time since this terrorist attack for anyone to forgive.” Although she wrote that she respected the families of those murdered, she also said, “I cannot fathom how they are capable of such eloquent mercy, such grace under such duress.”

On the other hand, I can see why the families of the nine Christians were willing to forgive. The grace came from a Higher Power. Only Love can do that. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:

“The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral,
begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy.
Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.
Through violence you may murder the liar,
but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth.
Through violence you may murder the hater,
but you do not murder hate.
In fact, violence merely increases hate.
So it goes.
Returning violence for violence multiplies violence,
adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness:
only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

By responding to hate with love and forgiveness, the families were driving out hate and racism. Many in the community came together in grief, support and solidarity in response to this racist hate crime. They were inspired by love and a desire to care for the families, church members and all those touched by this tragedy.

At the same time, I know that the voices of fear and hatred still speak. Individual and systemic racism is alive in us Caucasian people (while I am part Native American) by virtue of growing up in United States culture. White privilege is granted to us, whether we Caucasians recognize it or not. So, it is primarily our responsibility to de-construct racism in all its forms. When I begin to feel overwhelmed, I remember that only the power of Love can do that.

Where does this kind of Love come from in my understanding? It comes from God; God is Love. (1 John 4:7-8) This was also true for the nine people studying the Bible at Mother Emanuel, who welcomed Dylann Roof into their midst on the night they were slain by him. This was probably true for their families, who spoke of forgiveness and mercy even before Roof confessed with any remorse or made any kind of restitution. Nadine Collier said to Dylann Roof,  “I forgive you and have mercy on your soul.” Only Love can do that and God is Love.