A deeper meaning of forgiveness in the Christian nonviolent tradition reveals a critique that knows when the perpetrator has been caught but the killer is still at large.
There is a scripture that says we wrestle not against flesh and blood but against the powers and rulers of the darkness. Within the nonviolent faith tradition, it has always been clear that hate cannot drive out hate and evil cannot drive out evil. And so the Christians at the Charleston Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church who were able to forgive the murder of nine of their fellow worshipers 48 hours after losing their loved ones are consistent with their faith. Jesus said as he was being murdered by the state, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
But this forgiveness should not be misinterpreted as a dismissing of the greater evil. The forgiveness in Charleston is also an act of resistance to the attempts to lay the blame for this horror at the feet of one man. If America is serious about this moment, we cannot just cry ceremonial tears while at the same time refusing to support the martyred Reverend Pinckney and his parishioners’ stalwart fight against the racism that gave birth to the crime.
The perpetrator has been caught, but the killer is still at large: the deep well of American racism and white supremacy that Dylann Roof drank from. These families are challenging the schizophrenia of American morality, which allows political leaders to condemn the crime but embrace the policies that are its genesis.
Many South Carolina politicians and others around the nation are decrying the killings but steadfastly refusing to quell their divisive race-implying rhetoric. They have condemned the violence but have not ceased their push for policies that promote race-based voter suppression; adversity toward fixing the Voting Rights Act; cutting public education in ways that foster resegregation; denying workers living wages; refusing Medicaid expansion; allowing the proliferation of guns; and flying the Confederate flag, a symbol of slavery, racism, and terrorism against African-Americans, at the state Capitol.
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Some even use racial code words to criticize the president, all in the name of taking their country back and preventing its destruction. And they refuse to admit that there is a history of racialized political rhetoric and policies spawning the pathology of terroristic murder and violent resistance.
When they were murdered, Reverend Pinckney and his parishioners were advocating for a better life for people of all races. They were standing with fast-food workers demanding a living wage. They were calling for the Confederate flag to come down. They were fighting against voter suppression and for funding public education, expanding Medicaid to allow the poor and near-poor of all races to have healthcare. They were mobilizing for police accountability and marching for justice in the recent killing of Walter Scott, an unarmed African-American man shot in the back by a police officer in North Charleston.
These brave family members are telling America that you cannot focus only on Dylann Roof and absolve the nation of its historic sickness. In a profound way, they are saying that giving the killer the death penalty is not going to fix what ails us. Arresting one disturbed young man will not bring “closure” or “healing” to a society that is still sick with the sins of racism and inequality, where too many perpetuate the slow violence of undermining the promise of equal protection under the law, which preachers like Denmark Vessey, Martin Luther King, and Clementa Pickney fought for.
These family members are asking us to forgive the sinner but hate the sin. They are issuing a clarion call born of their pain and loss to create a society that truly embraces justice and equality, that ends the policies of racism and poverty that guarantee there will be more Dylann Roofs and more acts of terror, because only then will we apprehend the real killers.
In light of this, I believe real healing would be writing and passing a bipartisan omnibus bill in the name of the nine Emanuel Martyrs that implements Medicaid expansion, raises public education funding, passes living-wage requirements and new gun-control laws, removes the Confederate flag from the South Carolina Statehouse, and restores the Voting Rights Act.
The very seat Reverend Pinckney held in the state Senate is in jeopardy as long as Section 5 of the VRA has been gutted. And even if it passed, the current reform bill in the US House would exempt Alabama, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, and Tennessee from coverage. If we want closure, let us name a VRA restoration bill after the Emanuel Nine.
We have no choice. We must see transformative action, not temporary ceremonial displays. Until we deal with the issues of race, poverty, and violence that threaten to tear our nation asunder, it is not just America’s soul that is at stake, but America itself.