On the evening of June 17, 2015, Dylann Roof, twenty-one at the time, casually joined a group of African Americans gathered peacefully at the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, for a Bible study. For over an hour, he participated in the discussion, and then, without warning, he stood up, brandished a handgun and, uttering racist epithets, commenced firing. At one point during the attack, he shouted, “Y’all want something to pray about; I’ll give you something to pray about.” At the end of the rampage, nine people were dead, including the forty-two-year-old pastor of the church, an eighty-seven-year-old parishioner, and a twenty-six-year-old man who had tried to dissuade the shooter from his awful mission.
Later, under police interrogation, he blandly admitted to the killings and explained that it was his purpose to foment a race war in the United States. In a journal entry made some weeks after the murders, Roof wrote, “I would like to make it crystal clear, I do not regret what I did. I am not sorry. I have not shed a tear for the innocent people I killed.” During the sentencing phase of his trial, he insisted that he was not mentally ill and was, at the time of the shootings, fully aware of what he was doing and why. Even if we were to uncover personal struggles and psychological debilities that might mitigate his guilt, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Dylann Roof is, to use a word that has sadly fallen into desuetude, wicked.
In the wake of these terrible events, the pardon offered to Roof on the part of families of some of the victims was, depending on one’s perspective, edifying, puzzling, or unnerving. The daughter of a murdered churchgoer said to the killer, “I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you.” The relative of another victim insisted, “We have no room for hating, so we have to forgive.” She continued, bluntly, “I pray God on your soul.”
In many ways, the Charleston killings and their aftermath called to mind the massacre of Amish children that took place in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in 2006. In that incident, a man named Charles Roberts, not Amish but known to the community as a faithful milk truck driver, entered a one-room schoolhouse and opened fire on ten children, murdering five of them and then taking his own life. As armies of reporters descended on the small village in order to make sense of the event, members of the Amish families immediately expressed their forgiveness of Roberts by visiting his family to offer pardon and condolence. As in the Charleston case, the relation between crime and reaction seemed, to many, incongruous. Did these acts of reconciliation not signal a refusal to take seriously the crimes that had been committed?
These moments are so confounding because they testify to the unfathomable love of God. In order to understand this, we should first clear the ground a bit. Forgiveness hasn’t a thing to do with indifference to, much less exculpation of, the crime that prompted it. The one who pardons knows that the recipient of the pardon has done something objectively wrong. Also, forgiveness is not at all a matter of sentiment or the summoning of positive feelings about the perpetrator of the offense. The family members who pronounced their clemency toward Dylann Roof were not expressing a mere emotional attitude. Real forgiveness, the kind that Jesus speaks of, is an act of love, and love is an act of the will. When we forgive, we lift the burden of responsibility from the shoulders of the offender. We give a very specific gift: the exoneration of the obligation to right the wrong done. Forgiveness is the writing off of a debt.
But is this sort of act even possible? Many philosophers in the twentieth century—Jacques Derrida, Jean-Luc Marion, Marcel Mauss, Émile Benveniste come to mind—wrestled with what they called the aporia of the gift. They noted that it seems impossible to ever give a gift that is not part of some self-interested exchange. A true gift must be presented without strings attached, without any expectation of compensation on the part of either the giver or the receiver; otherwise, it ceases to be a gift and becomes an act of manipulation or imposition. In the real world, gift-giving appears always to be a more or less effective cover for precisely such an elaborate system of obligation and coercion, my present awakening in you the requirement to give to me in return, my generosity compelling you to an answering generosity.
Benveniste drew attention to the well-documented phenomenon of chieftains of rival tribes literally ruining themselves as each, feeling the sting of obligation, tried to outdo the other in hospitality. Wouldn’t even the most noble and generous act—say, an offer of forgiveness—devolve in short order into an implied declaration of moral superiority on the part of the pardoner? And wouldn’t the pardoned, therefore, feel more aggressed than liberated? Derrida signaled this dilemma by associating, in his typically gymnastic way, the English word “gift” with the German term Gift, meaning poison, and Benveniste, in a similar vein, commented that “hospitality” is related to the Latin hostis (enemy). Thus it appears as though the distinctly Christian teaching on love and forgiveness is perhaps a lovely ideal but impossible to realize.
Proving that the aporia of the gift was well known long before Derrida and company drew attention to it, Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, declares, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you . . . for if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have?” (Matt. 5:43–46). In the Sermon on the Plain, he makes a very similar suggestion: “Do to others as you would have them do to you. For if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them” (Luke 6:31–32). And in dialogue with a Pharisee who had invited him to supper, he makes this teaching more concrete and pointed: “When you hold a lunch or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or your wealthy neighbors, in case they may invite you back and you have repayment. Rather, when you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you” (Luke 14:12–14).
In stressing love of enemies and generosity to those who cannot answer in kind, he is urging his followers to break free of the economy of exchange, which simply reinforces egotism and violence. Furthermore, he is proposing tests of love, the willing of the good of the other as other. Derrida and company are right in suggesting that, within the context of a fallen world, even those acts that seem most disinterested are often indirectly to the advantage of the agent. Therefore, Jesus commands generous acts precisely toward those who cannot or will not return the favor.
But again the question poses itself: Is this kind of pure self-gift possible? Here we should return to words of Jesus that might seem, at first blush, just so much pious boilerplate, but which, in point of fact, constitute the hinge upon which this entire matter turns. Just after the command to love one’s enemies, Jesus remarks, “that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun to rise on the good and bad, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust” (Matt. 5:45). How does God love? He does so regardless of the moral worth of those he loves, regardless of any recompense, in utter indifference to any spiritual economy of exchange. How different in this regard the Father of Jesus is from the deities of the various pagan religions, who remained desperately interested in the manner in which their favors were received and appreciated.
And God can love this way because he is not one being among many, not one more item in the nexus of conditioned things, but rather the sheer being itself, what Thomas Aquinas calls ipsum esse. If God were one thing among many, he would, necessarily, stand in some relation of need vis-à-vis other things. But he needs nothing outside of himself. So radical, in fact, is his self-sufficiency that the world adds nothing to his greatness. As Robert Sokolowski says, drawing out an implication of Anselm’s characterization of God as that than which nothing greater can be thought, “God plus the world is not greater than God alone.” Therefore, whenever God wills something toward creation, it is completely and without remainder for the good of creation. It is, in the most complete sense possible, willing the good of the other as other.
Derrida and his colleagues are right in suggesting that we, on our own, cannot break out of the rhythm of exchange and self-absorption. But with God, all things are possible. The kind of love that Jesus commands is possible only in the measure that we have the divine life in us, that we have received a gift that enables us to love as God loves. This is why, for the classical tradition, love is a properly theological virtue, one that cannot come simply through repetition and habituation, but only through grace.
And all of this brings us back to Dylann Roof and those who were willing to forgive him. As many of the negative and puzzled reactions prove, what the relatives of the Charleston victims did is, on the merely human level, inexplicable. To offer pardon to a wicked man, who in no sense gave indication of regret or repentance, is just so strange that something else, we are convinced, must be going on. But the very despicability of the killer, his very stubbornness and refusal to reciprocate the kindness that he received, puts into sharper relief the iconic quality of his pardoners’ gesture. They loved with the love of God. They broke free of the egotistic rhythm of exchange, and they thereby demonstrated the existence and nature of God more effectively than any abstract metaphysical proof ever could.
Do you want to evangelize nonbelievers? Speak to them of the loved one of a murdered woman who said, “We have no room for hating, so we have to forgive.”
Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.