This article was originally published in the June 2015 issue of Can We Tawk - a regular communication sent out by CSM's President & CEO, Dan Reeve.
I’m writing this right after our church worship service when our congregation joined with millions of other Christians who shared in a liturgy of grief - and commitment to standing together - with the families of those who lost their lives in Charleston's Emanuel AME Church on Wednesday. I’m tawkin’ about this not because of the racism that consumed the shooter, or the right and/or wrong of guns, or even whether a certain flag should fly on SC’s capitol building.
I’m tawkin’ about forgiveness because the American Church has a very rare opportunity to prove the truth of the Gospel in the way we imitate the survivors of this tragedy. The daughter of victim Ethel Lance said she forgave the killer and said, “I think he took something very precious away from me. I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you. You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. May God forgive you and I forgive you.” The mother of victim Tywanza Sanders, 26, also said, “May God have mercy on you, every fiber in my body hurts, and I’ll never be the same,” but she forgave her son’s killer.
One of the most important books I have ever read is “Exclusion and Embrace” by Miroslav Volf who talks about his own struggle living in a war zone in the former Yugoslavia. His was a life of victimization, over and again. His dad was tortured in a concentration camp. A soldier playfully put his older brother, Daniel, on a horse-drawn bread wagon. The five-year-old leaned sideways…and his head was crushed between a gate post and the wagon. But his father never pressed charges and ministered to the soldier after his guilt sent him to a mental hospital. He reports that, “My room was bugged…Then for another three or four months, I was interrogated and threatened that I would be sent to prison…” When ethnic and religious tensions exploded into war, Volf was teaching at Evangelical Theological Seminary in his Croatian hometown, Osijek. The entire seminary had to go into exile. “For months in 1993 the notorious Serbian fighters called ‘cetnik’ had been sowing desolation in my native country, herding people into concentration camps, raping women, burning down churches, and destroying cities. I had just argued (in the presentation of his paper) that we ought to embrace our enemies as God has embraced us in Christ.” After the lecture his mentor asked the most difficult question, “But can you embrace a cetnik?”
Volf was taken aback. Where could he find the strength to embrace someone who, to a Croat (or Bosnian Muslim), was the ultimate evil “other?” He writes that he wanted to answer, “No, I cannot—but as a follower of Christ I think I should be able to.” His book explains that the ultimate goal of human life is a community of love in the embrace of the Triune God. Just as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have distinct identities yet live in unity, people who become new creations in Christ retain their identities—and still make space for others.
He admits it’s often hard for him to reach out to Serbs, just as a Serb friend grieves over crimes committed against her people. Volf says that no matter what someone has done to you, you must be willing to begin the process of making your enemy your friend.
Practicing what he calls “double vision” lets you see a situation through your eyes…and through your enemy’s eyes. It’s hard to forgive someone who’s unintentionally wounded you. It’s even harder when hate fueled the wrong. Even small steps toward reconciliation make a difference.
“Forgiveness flounders because I exclude the enemy from the community of humans even as I exclude myself from the community of sinners. But no one can be in the presence of the God of the crucified Messiah for long without overcoming this double exclusion — without transposing the enemy from the sphere of the monstrous… into the sphere of shared humanity and herself from the sphere of proud innocence into the sphere of common sinfulness. When one knows [as the cross demonstrates] that the torturer will not eternally triumph over the victim, one is free to rediscover that person’s humanity and imitate God’s love for him. And when one knows [as the cross demonstrates] that God’s love is greater than all sin, one is free to see oneself in the light of God’s justice and so rediscover one’s own sinfulness.”
How petty are the hurts and offenses against me that I hold on to with dear life, for years? Can we ALL join the testimony of those at Emanuel Church and Dr. Volf, to be witnesses to the Gospel of forgiveness? In this awful tragedy we have, maybe for the first time in a long time, the opportunity to not politicize, fight, riot, accuse, demand revenge or continue to be divided; but instead, we can check our own hearts, let go of our hurts, see others - even those who hurt us - through the eyes of the Christ who loved us, and forgive.
Imagine what would happen if all of those reading this “Can We Tawk” were to join Ethel Lance’s daughter and say, “May God forgive you and I forgive you.”
- Dan Reeve
President & CEO