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The God Squad: Forgiveness after Charleston

We’ve been here before and we’ll be here again. But how should we respond?

After the tragic killings of nine people during evening Bible study at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., what is the big spiritual lesson we must learn in the aftermath of such a mass murder?

For some, it’s that we must find better ways to control and limit gun ownership in America. I understand this lesson, but I can’t learn it. Gun ownership is a constitutionally protected right, and many of the weapons used in mass killings are bought legally.

For others, the big lesson is that we must provide more options for the treatment of mental illness. I also understand this, but there’s no way to purge the public square of every unbalanced and potentially violent mentally ill person without creating a police state. The problem is complicated by the fact that not all people who commit evil acts are mentally ill.

For me, the big lesson would be posed as a theological and moral question: Is it right to forgive an unrepentant killer?

My dear friend Monsignor Thomas Hartman believed that God always requires absolute forgiveness, without conditions. I took the position that I’m to always forgive, but not until the sinner has asked to be forgiven.

Now, for the first time, I think I may have been wrong. My doubt has arisen because of the breathtaking power of forgiveness expressed by the survivors of those killed in the Charleston massacre. These people could easily have been forgiven for screaming words of fury, bloodlust and hatred at the young man who shattered their lives by killing those they loved. Instead, they brought the lessons of their Christian faith into the streets with words of forgiveness and love.

Speaking directly to the 21-year-old killer at his bond hearing, one of them said, “You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people, but God forgives you, and I forgive you.”

“I acknowledge that I am very angry,” said Bethane Middleton-Brown, sister of one of the dead, but “she taught me that we are the family that love built. We have no room for hating.”

I heard this pure love confronting pure evil once before. In 2006, a man took hostages and shot 10 girls, ages 6 to 13, killing five of them, at an Amish schoolhouse in Pennsylvania, and then killed himself. A grandfather of one of the murdered girls said, “We must not think evil of this man.”

Another Amish father noted of the killer, “He had a mother and a wife and a soul, and now he’s standing before a just God.” Another commented: “I don’t think there’s anybody here who wants to do anything but forgive, and not only reach out to those who have suffered a loss in that way, but also to reach out to the family of the man who committed these acts.”

In the face of such responses, I’m consumed by two questions: “How does God make people like this?” and “Are they right?” I can’t answer either one. I’m simply in awe of the complete way these people have expelled hatred and replaced it with love.

Part of me still clings to the belief that only God can forgive horrific acts such as the murders in Charleston. Part of me wonders what it even means to forgive someone who doesn’t even want to be forgiven. Part of me believes that anger at killers helps us rid the world of killers and that forgiveness has the same effect as sheep forgiving those who slaughter them; it just produces more dead sheep.

Part of me believes that whether or not those who forgive depraved killers are right, I’m just not built that way. But all of me believes that those who forgive have achieved a remote human spiritual possibility. They may be wrong, but they are pure, and I am in awe of them all.

After the killings in the Pennsylvania Amish community, one of the parents said, “Really, the only way to answer this is to toss it in the Lord’s lap and say, ‘You take care of it; I can’t.’ ”

Neither can I.