What Does Forgiveness Have to Teach Us?

The events of June 17 2015, the tragic shootings and murders of nine innocent African-American parishioners at the Emmanuel (Mother Emmanuel) African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Charleston, S.C. has shocked, saddened and angered a great number of people in our country. A lot of people still feel numb in the aftermath of this horrific event.

Who would have thought that you might not be safe at a Bible study at church? The very place where some people would seek solace and peace and comfort from the world instead became a place of carnage.

This evil horrific event was prompted by the alleged white male assailant who stated that he needed to kill these people because of their race. This occurred despite the fact that the assailant sat in the Bible study for one hour before he began his murderous shooting rampage.

What has been remarkable has been the reaction of family members of the slain at the arraignment hearing. Several family members were heard to say to the alleged assailant, "I forgive you. I will pray for your soul."

The question, of course, that has been raised by several people is how can this happen? How can you forgive someone who has committed such a heinous action? How can you forgive them so soon?

Christianity has been a faith that has consistently preached forgiveness as being a main component of the concept of the Kingdom Of God. Jesus talked about forgiveness a lot, "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld." (John 20: 23).

But does this mean that forgiveness is an automatic rapid process, sort of like going through a spiritual car wash? Even some of the family members of those slain in Charleston, S.C. this past week were heard to say that they felt bad that although their faith told them that they needed to forgive, they admitted that they had not totally arrived at the place of forgiveness yet and that made them feel bad.

Is forgiveness an immediate reaction or is forgiveness more of a process? Dr. Fred Luskin of Stanford University has articulated a nine-step process for forgiveness including amending your story of loss and tragedy to allow for the choice of forgiveness to occur. Dr. Frederick DiBlasio, LCSW of the University of Maryland, has developed a thirteen-step forgiveness protocol that he uses in his clinical practice which takes about four to five hours to complete with patients (DiBlasio 2013).

This does suggest that forgiveness is more of an ongoing process, something that people return to again and again and again, particularly when you are dealing with complicated bereavement, such as what we are witnessing currently in Charleston, S.C.

What does forgiveness have to teach us? I agree with previous comments made by others that feeling bad is not enough. If forgiveness is actually going to be meaningful and real, then it demands different attitudes, feelings and behaviors. The Greek word "metanoia" is defined as literally turning around and going in a different direction.

There have been examples previously where people who have committed egregious actions like murder have sought forgiveness and have responded by doing reparative work in their lives and in seeking to help the lives of others, i.e. working with the homeless or helping other offenders when they transition from incarceration back into society.

The current forgiveness process involving the murder of the innocents in Charleston, S.C. is really requiring all of us to re-examine the reality of continued racism and anger from white supremacist and other hate organizations directed at people of color. There is also needed discussion and policy re-evaluation regarding such issues as the display of the Confederate flag, the ready and available access to firearms etc.

Forgiveness can be real, genuine and life-changing, but forgiveness needs to be a natural process, not anything that is forced or expedited. The fact that some family members of those slain at Emanuel AME Church have stated that they are still struggling needs to be honored. One of my now deceased clergy friends observed one time, "I find myself being more human than I am divine."

This is a reality that we need to remember regarding this present tragedy. The people of Charleston have shown a lot of grace during this most terrible, difficult turbulent time. May we all have the courage to become people of grace as we move forward as a people and as a nation in the process of seeking reconciliation and justice for all.