Christian Love Can Change the World

CHARLESTON, SC - JUNE 27:  People look on as mourners file into the funeral of Cynthia Hurd, 54, at the Emanuel African Metho
CHARLESTON, SC - JUNE 27: People look on as mourners file into the funeral of Cynthia Hurd, 54, at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church where she was killed along with eight others in a mass shooting at the church on June 27, 2015 in Charleston, South Carolina. Suspected shooter Dylann Roof, 21 years old, is accused of killing nine people on June 17th during a prayer meeting in the church, which is one of the nation's oldest black churches in Charleston. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

As everyone knows, the families of the Charleston victims forgave Dylann Roof, the young man who murdered their loved ones. Everyone was stunned and moved by the video of their attempt to bring him into their faith, urging him to repent. Many are still trying to comprehend this miracle of kindness and compassion after the racially motivated bloodbath at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. It was awe-inspiring and genuinely humbling to watch these afflicted people speaking directly to their tormentor with a "peace that surpasses all understanding" manifest in their eyes and the sound of their voices. They were trying to save a man who had killed those they loved. For many non-believers, their compassion has been incomprehensible, maybe even offensive. That reaction shows how little Christianity's detractors understand the nature of this faith: it pivots on a radical kind of love for friends and enemies both. This love transcends all other considerations, because self-interest withers away in the light of what's eternal for a Christian, the chance to embody God's goodness every minute of every day.

Peggy Noonan wrote about this eloquently in the Wall Street Journal. She was inspired partly by another article, by Michael Wear, in Christianity Today, where he wrote: "They did not forgive (the killer) to express the values of their race or to represent the character of their country, but to be faithful to their God." She pointed out that this astonishing faith, this unconditional love, was part of what inspired the Alabama governor to order the removal of the Confederate flag from the statehouse grounds. "The Nobel Peace Prize committee . . . has some new nominees: the relatives of the dead who offered the mercy that relaxed the hands of those who'd been holding, too tight, to a flag."

All of these astonishing events perpetuate a lineage of goodness established by an earlier winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Martin Luther King, more than half a century ago. He based his preaching, his teaching, and his leadership for civil rights, on a single passage from the Sermon on the Mount: Matthew 5:39. "You have heard that it was said, an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also." This is the "confounding love" on display in the aftermath of the Charleston murders. This is the spiritual power that altered the social landscape for blacks in America after Martin Luther King walked in the footsteps of Jesus as a leader. If you trace it back, ultimately he learned how to do this from Tolstoy, whose late writings on Christianity inspired Gandhi in his advocacy of civil disobedience. As a spiritual leader and social activist, King followed the example of Gandhi. He recognized the essence of Christianity , as Tolstoy had grasped it, through this non-Christian leader's embodiment of its principles. What we've seen now in Charleston is a rebirth of that spirit--satyagraha--a clinging to spiritual truth in order to create change for the better, without rancor, bitterness, accusation, or condemnation of opponents or enemies. It's an offering of love in the face of hate.

This is the heart of Christianity, something radically different from our ordinary impulses. It's utterly selfless. The force for good that has emerged in Charleston is what drove the emergence of civil rights in the 60s set in motion the changes that led to the election of a black President today. That spirit was fundamentally, essentially Christian. As the chairman of the Novel Prize committee said, in his address at the ceremony speech in 1964, in awarding the Peace Prize to King:

Today we pay tribute to Martin Luther King, the man who has never abandoned his faith in the unarmed struggle he is waging, who has suffered for his faith, who has been imprisoned on many occasions, whose home has been subject to bomb attacks, whose life and the lives of his family have been threatened, and who nevertheless has never faltered . . . Martin Luther King's name will endure for the way in which he has waged his struggle, personifying in his conduct the words that were spoken to mankind: Whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also!

King won the Peace Prize for his unyielding love for all people, good and evil, black and white. King's faith rested on an assurance that Christian love was the only power that would bring his people the freedom they deserved. And, as a result, they have moved closer and closer to that freedom ever since. The power of that love has emerged, once again, in all its glory, in Charleston, and Noonan is right to call on Stockholm to take note, one more time.

Peter Georgescu is the author of The Constant Choice. He can be found at Good Reads.