Violence begets violence. Racism begets racism. Sin begets sin. Hatred begets hatred. The pagan world glorified revenge and violence in works like The Odyssey. God’s revelation to the Jewish people taught to only take back what was taken from you: “An eye for an eye.”
Jesus, though, was a radical teacher, commanding his followers to forgive and not take revenge. God will forgive the sins—even the most depraved—of his people, only if they can bring themselves to forgive those who have wronged them. This teaching is recited by Christians daily in the prayer Jesus taught. Forgiveness of the other is the condition for one’s own forgiveness by God.
See Jesus on his cross. The perfect man, totally innocent, teacher of peace and bringer of joy—tortured for his love, scourged for the iniquities of other men and women—raises his eyes to heaven and pleads, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”
See Nadine Collier. Every word is mixed with tears. She can barely utter the words that will free her soul from the bonds of hatred. “I forgive you,” she says, for taking away her seventy year-old mother while in a place of peace, studying the Word of God. “Have mercy on your soul.”
See Rev. Anthony Thompson. “I forgive you and my family forgives you. . . . Repent, confess, give your life to the one who matters the most . . . Christ.” No longer will he hold his wife. Revenge, hatred, murder: all these would be understandable for him. But instead, he shows true, agonizing love to the one who took his love from him.
See Felicia Sanders. “We welcomed you with open arms. You have killed some of the most beautifulest people that I have known. Every fiber in my body hurts, and I will never be the same. Tywanza Sanders is my son, but Tywanza was my hero. . . . But may God have mercy on you.”
These and others have done what is possible only through the grace of God and cooperation with his power. Though they rightly still seek justice, the power of Jesus’s forgiveness of his persecutors lives on in his disciples.
The blood of those great witnesses who died while practicing their Christian faith cry out with Jesus’s own blood “more eloquently than that of Abel,” not for revenge, but for love. This is the love that conquers all, the love that forgives, the gritty painful, tear-filled love mixed with blood that baptizes the believer.
Forgiveness is not weak. Killing people at a Bible study is weak. Giving into revenge is understandable and seems strong, but it too is weak. Already a victim of someone else’s hate, forgiveness frees you from being a victim of your own hate. This allows the victims to pursue justice with a clear conscience.
This virtue of forgiveness doesn’t go unnoticed either. For those who don’t know Christ, these witnesses in Charleston are telling of his resurrection once again and spreading the Good News that he has conquered death once and for all. By the grace of God, for those at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, violence begets love, racism begets dignity, sin begets grace, hatred begets forgiveness.
Dominic Bouck, O.P., is a Dominican brother of the Province of St. Joseph and a summer intern at First Things.