The tragedy in Charleston, South Carolina, this week has weighed heavily upon my heart. The people who suffered this tragedy are not only Christian, but they are Methodist Christians … they are more than friends and neighbors … they are family.
And to have such harm come to my family has brought many emotions to the surface. There is the shock and the sorrow for those who have suffered loss. There is fear for the safety of other family members in other churches who are subject to the same fate. There is fear that my family members whose skin is different from mine will continue to suffer at the hands of a culture that somehow can’t get beyond the racist, bigoted attitudes that shaped us so long ago. And there is anger and desire for revenge against the perpetrator who killed our brothers and sisters and who wanted only to start a race war.
My first thought was that, if its a race war, then put me on the side of those who are oppressed. If there’s a fight to be had, I will be on the side of those who have suffered at the hands of bigoted, prejudiced and hateful people. Let’s work to beat them at their own game! A good offense, after all, is the best defense.
But then I remembered Jesus. Jesus never lets me alone. He never lets me just get wound up in my emotions and my ignorant way of thinking that there are only two ways … either we win and they lose, or they win and we lose.
The way of Jesus is the third way. And I’m pretty sure that God led me this week to start a book by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his daughter, Mpho Tutu, titled The Book of Forgiving. In that book, they talk about Bishop Tutu’s work on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that addressed the atrocities of South Africa and forged a new way forward for their people. They tell stories of some of the most horrible atrocities and how people have transformed a culture through something as simple as forgiveness.
Forgiveness, however, seems too early now. The hurt is too fresh. Talk of forgiveness seems only to gloss over the pain and ignore the reality of this tragedy. But forgiveness as they describe it does no such thing. The Tutus describe a fourfold path that includes telling the story, naming the hurt, granting forgiveness and then renewing or releasing the relationship. In no way is the harshness of the crime minimized … as a matter of fact, it is told with such startling truth that the full weight of its pain and sin is obvious to all who hear.
And while I was hearing the stories of this unprovoked, ferocious attack, I was feeling nothing but anger and hatred toward the perpetrator. Then I went back to a chapter I had read only a couple of nights ago. Early in the book, Bishop Tutu talks about our shared humanity. As I thumbed back through the book, I found this passage:
People are not born hating each other and wishing to cause harm. It is a learned condition. Children do not dream of growing up to be rapists or murderers, and yet every rapist and every murderer was once a child. And there are times when I look at some of those who are described as “monsters” and I honestly believe that there, but for the grace of God, go I. I do not say this because I am some singular saint. I say this because I have spoken with former police officers who have admitted inflicting the cruelest torture, I have visited child soldiers who have committed acts of nauseating depravity, and I have recognized in each of them a depth of humanity that was a mirror of my own.
Whether the perpetrator of this act is an individual suffering mental illness or whether he is a victim of a culture that has ingrained in him a hatred for people of color, I look at him and suddenly realize that it could have been me. What if I had lived with his upbringing or his mental struggles? As Bishop Tutu said, “There but by the grace of God, go I.” The people in the church that night were not the only victims … the killer and so many others like him are victims of a culture that breeds within them a hatred and lust for violence that destroys the very fabric of their souls.
So I am back to sadness … not hatred or the need for revenge … just sadness that we live in a broken world. But I hold out hope for joy because I hold out hope for Christ. Perhaps a third way will give us a way forward. Perhaps a path that lets us tell our stories, name our pain, practice our forgiveness and then move forward is the path best taken. Maybe that is the pathway of the Christian life.
The opening story from The Book of Forgiving puts this in perspective. A woman had told of the horrible death of her husband who died at the hands of the white minority during the reign of tyranny in South Africa known as apartheid. She told of the 43 different wounds caused by different weapons, how they had cut off his hand and the horrible death he experienced. Then after the wife spoke, it was time for their nineteen-year-old daughter to speak.
She described the grief, police harassment, and hardship in the years since her father’s death. And then she said, “I would love to know who killed my father. So would my brother.” Her next words stunned me and left me breathless. “We want to forgive them. We want to forgive, but we don’t know who to forgive.”
I am reminded that I, too, am a Christ-follower and that I am called to seek a path that is not the conventional path. I am called to consider a third way. Perhaps then, too, I can seek out those who have harmed me and offer forgiveness. And maybe … just maybe … I will be forgiven for my own failed humanity and the times I have hurt others.
Then by the grace of God may we find peace!