Some acts are so terrible, it seems masochistic to talk about them. Some acts are so gracious, we marvel at them and must talk about them.
Today, we felt compelled to talk about the events of last week (June 17, 2015), the horrific killing of nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
Why? Because we’re seeing in those events how light overcomes darkness. How love overcomes hate.
As you almost undoubtedly know, on June 17, a man described as “white, with sandy-blond hair, around 21 years old and 5 feet 9 inches in height, wearing a gray sweatshirt and jeans” entered Emanuel and participated in a Bible study led by the Church’s pastor, Clementa C. Pinckney.
At about 9pm, the man, subsequently identified as Dylann Roof, opened fire killing nine people, including Pastor Pinckney.
Scarcely had the news broken than pundits – both liberal and conservative – started using the shooting to further pet causes, from banning the Confederate flag to the need to permit people to carry guns in church.
But, remarkably, the people of Emanuel wanted to talk about something far more important: grace and forgiveness.
In an interview with the BBC, the children of Sharonda Singleton, one of the victims, told the reporter “We already forgive [Dylann Roof] and there’s nothing but love from our side of the family.”
And they weren’t alone. Stephen Singleton, Emanuel’s former pastor, told NPR that “we’re people of faith, and people of faith know that we heal. God helps us heal. This doesn’t drive us away from God. This drives us to God, and that’s why I’m here now.”
When asked what his former parishioners had told him, he continued, “There are a lot of broken hearts, a lot of sorrow and a lot of healing to be done. And that’s what we’re going to work on, and that’s what we’re going to focus on because if we get bitter and angry, we just make a bad situation worse.”
Thus, a relative of another victim, Myra Thompson, said “I forgive him and my family forgives him. But we would like him to take this opportunity to repent” and “give your life to the one who matters most: Christ.”
Senator Tim Scott, appearing on “Face the Nation” said that while Roof may have intended to ignite a war between the races, he brought the people of Charleston closer together.
And that’s because the people of Emanuel have responded in a way that is distinctly, if not uniquely, Christian: loving those who hate you, forgiving those who sin against you, and blessing those who would persecute you.
Christian ideas may no longer have power in our culture that they once had. But to paraphrase the Apostle Paul, against the kind of grace on display in Charleston there is no argument.
We even saw it on display in Roof’s capture. A North Carolina woman, at great personal risk, followed Roof’s car until she was sure it was him and then called the police. When asked why, she replied, “I had been praying for those people on my way to work . . . I was in the right place at the right time that the Lord puts you.”
This was so reminiscent of the horrific event from years ago, the murder of five Amish girls in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. The members of the Amish community forgave the murderer. The families of the victims reached out to the widow of the perpetrator. And on this program then, Chuck Colson asked questions we should ask again today: “How are we working in our own communities to build cultures of grace? Are we teaching our children to forgive? Are we actively working to restore offenders and reach out in aid to victims? Are we overcoming evil in the world by good, as we are commanded to do?” And I would add: “If evil and tragedy come our way, are we ready to respond in love the same way our brothers and sisters in Charleston have?”
What happened in Charleston is a tragic reminder of the great darkness in the world. But in the aftermath we see the truth that the “light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.”
— by John Stonestreet
Stonestreet is the Director of Strategic Partnerships for the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview and is heard on Breakpoint. Copyright© 2015 Prison Fellowship Ministries. Reprinted with permission. BreakPoint is a ministry of Prison Fellowship Ministries.