On June 15th, 2015, Dylann Roof a white supremist entered Emmaual Baptist church in Charleston, SC and cold bloodily killed nine African American members attending Bible study. At a bond hearing the daughter of one of the victims said to him “I will never talk with her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you,” This reflected the general feeling of the congregation was controversial. Some people felt that it was too easy. The immediate response of forgiveness may in fact have been psychologically dangerous allowing deeper ressentiments to go “underground” that would emerge later and disturb their peace. It also could seem as if this were a crime without consequence reflecting the deep-seated racism of our nation and culture.
There is some truth in this especially if we believe that peace is keeping things in their proper place. This is the peace the world can give, and it is the best we can give ourselves. Yet Jesus has told us that there is a peace the world cannot give. This peace is not keeping things in their proper place but by disturbing the peace by creating a new way of being human.
Today’s Gospel reveals this peace which Jesus had previously told his disciples he alone can give. (John 14:27). Perfect peace for the Jews was Shalom. Harmony between God and humanity, humans ourselves and humanity and nature. They did not expect this until the Messiah brought the Kingdom and began the rule of God. They expected armies of angels to herald this event but although they thought Jesus at very least the Messiah “he showed them his hands and his side” not angelic choirs This was proof that it was the same Jesus who died not his ghost and that his sacrifice of himself was accepted by God. He brought a new covenant and new relationship binding God and all humanity. Their reaction was joy, the emotion that recognizes the presence of God. They were disciples – one who follows – but were to be apostles – one who is sent. This they cannot do unaided, so he breathes on them as he breathed on the water at creation and forms his people, his church, his very presence in the world. There are many gifts and power which come with this, but John strategically emphasizes forgiveness of sins.
This is impressive but is it enough? It is the Easter question: is the love revealed in the resurrection of Jesus, here and now, for this and everything the most powerful force in the world? If it is then we will seek to forgive indiscriminately, if not, perhaps not at all.
The people of Emmanul Baptist church who forgive the unrepentant murderer of their pastor, friends and even family believed that it was. Forgiveness is the tip of the spear of love. It shows more clearly than anything else that we accept that what makes us human is the gift of divine love. We did not give it and we cannot take it away. We must however recognize it in others even when it is hidden by sin and corruption. The parishioners of Emmauel Baptist as all Christians recite the Lord’s prayer often. The hardest words of which are “forgive us our debts and we forgive our debtors”. Jesus himself and the first martyr Stehpen provided the example by forgiving their executioners. St Matthew explains the meaning in the parable of the ungrateful steward who was forgiven of unimaginable debt but refused to forgive the debt of someone who owed him pocket change. Forgiveness reflects God’s love and thus we cannot forgive once or twice or seven times but as many times as the need presents itself.
A distinction must be made between forgiveness and reconciliation. Forgiveness is what I offer, reconciliation is what we create. I offer you the freedom of my holding no debt, but you do not have to accept it. The people of Emmanuel Baptist offered their forgiveness, but Dylann Roof did not accept it. There was no reconciliation. The people of the church were freed, he was not, Also, for true reconciliation there must be some form of restitution in the broadest terms. A person who has wronged the other must do something to show the he or she wishes to be reconciled. This may be as simple as restoring the value of something which has been stolen or as complex as seeking to restore a person’s reputation. There are also people who are psychologically or spiritually incapable of reconciliation and should they commit a crime they need to be incarcerated. Again, Dylann Roof is a good example of the spiritually incorrigible.
A great sign of how far we have come from even paying Christianity lip service is how foreign forgiveness has become for us. I have no social media presence, but I am told that it is marked by both a lack of charity and forgiveness. People who disagree are not opponents but enemies and seeking reconciliation proves one at best, a fool at worst a traitor. That innocent people with whom others disagree can be accused of “grooming” shows that our world has embraced the darkness. Is there an escape, only in the upper room with Jesus and the Apostles.
We too are to be sent into a darkened world and have been offered the same gifts as the Apostles. Jesus is with us: Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.” He has offered us his peace and as breathed his spirit upon us. Have we accepted the Spirit into our hearts and allowed him to transform us?
There is one way to find out. Begin at the beginning with the first gift: Accept the forgiveness of God and share it with others. Fulfill the beatitude and be a peacemaker (Matthew 5:9) , follow St Paul and be a minister of Reconciliation (2 Cor 5:17) You may be scorned and reviled but you will know the power of Easter you will feel joy and bring light.