A couple of weeks ago, an incredibly moving scene played out in the wake of yet another mass shooting – this time in Charleston, South Carolina. At the bond hearing of the accused shooter, family members of those murdered professed their forgiveness of the murderer.
I’ve been pondering what it is about this scene that makes me uncomfortable. Surely an act of forgiveness — of the most horrendous of offenses, from the most personally wounded of positions — is to be commended, isn’t it?
To me, there is no question that these anguished victims, going against the normal human impulse to lash out and to seek revenge, are drawing from a resource they would likely describe as outside of themselves. It is nothing short of inspiring when someone of faith demonstrates the willingness to live it authentically in such a profoundly agonizing situation.
None of us can say with certainty what we would feel or say in their shoes. It is not my purpose here to declare what i might do or to hold forth on the effects of what they are doing — only to try to understand what i find jarring about it, beyond its rarity.
According to one school of thought about forgiveness, it may be offered but not truly given unless it is first asked for. Based on what i’ve read in the news so far, that is not the case here. Further, the offer of forgiveness is not (or should not be) expected to replace natural consequences or legal consequences for misdeeds. Additionally — and this one may be my opinion only — it ought not to be held out as an inducement toward improved behavior in the forgiven, though it may have that fortunate byproduct.
These are three elements that go some distance toward addressing the misgivings mentioned at the outset. The murderer has shown no remorse that i am aware of. He still needs to face the ramifications of what he has done, both within himself and legally. And those hoping to see some sudden acknowledgement of wrong or harm on his part may be sorely disappointed if that is even a partial aim of their extending of forgiveness.
I’ve gone a long way in this discussion, though, without defining our principal term. Doing so may bring some clarity. As i’ve said, forgiveness is not an exemption from consequences, nor does it imply a disregard of the harm done and the anguish felt by the victims. As for what it is, the most helpful definition of forgiveness i’ve come across, in my own paraphrase, is this:
“Forgiveness is letting go of the demand that someone repay a debt they could never afford to repay anyway.”
We are not likely to ever understand what would drive the shooter in his 21 short years to such violence. Of course, he could never “make up” for this. While he must be held accountable for his actions, it seems doubtful he can have fully thought through their implications. So in that sense, another paraphrase may be fitting: forgive him, for he knows not what he has done.
It’s said that in the gesture of forgiveness, it is in fact ourselves we are freeing — from the corrosive effects of hate, resentment and vengeful thoughts. Free to move past the damaging event without being constrained emotionally by the harm another has caused.
Those that extended forgiveness in Charleston made clear that doing so comes from their Christian faith. However, none of these expanded explanations of forgiveness makes such a gesture unavailable to those who do not claim a religious faith. It does require both a strength of character and a circumspection beyond one’s narrow in-the-moment considerations.
Our human desire for justice is strong, and is not the same thing as the desire for retaliation. I can reconcile my apprehensions about this recent scene of forgiveness by not confusing the two. These families are saying justice will be sought, but retaliation relinquished. And it is their way of declaring that love can be stronger than hate.