When grieving families in Charleston, S.C., forgave the dull-witted white boy who had killed worshippers at Emanuel AME Church, they gave America a Nelson Mandela moment.
It is a chance, thanks to their magnanimity, to transcend vengeance and to repent for our nation’s historical racial wrongs. As Mandela observed at the dawn of the new South Africa, “the moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come. The time to build is upon us.”
Now we Americans have an opportunity to build genuine exceptionalism, not the hollow political façade of it that many politicians tout.
We have been given an example of how we all might repent for the thousands of little racist habits that undergird the hateful house of cards of extremists … and to repent, too, for thoughtless, often unconscious, social practices dating to our nation’s founding.
Unfortunately, actual American exceptionalism has long tolerated exceptional racism and the sneers and chortles that attend it.
In forgiving the killer, the families of victims in Charleston found a gentle yet powerful weapon that oppressors cannot wield. Earlier this year, for instance, when Eva Kor forgave former German SS guard Oskar Groening for his crimes at the Auschwitz death camps, she illustrated the degree to which forgiveness is a tool of the morally strong, something Mahatma Gandhi long ago pointed out. Lowlifes who creep into churches and shoot unsuspecting worshippers, who gas children in phony showers, or who come masked in the night possess no such strength. They destroy because they are incapable of understanding our shared humanity. They must protect their fragile illusions of superiority and illustrate their moral befuddlement in the process.
Meanwhile, as Martin Luther King Jr. observed, “He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love.”
That Dylann Roof could sit among the worshippers in that church and remain untouched by the power of love there revealed how damaged he was. And now the parishioners have, by their simple yet profound acts of forgiveness, tossed a gauntlet of love that is likely beyond him.
But it is not beyond us. As a society we must not cradle the Dylan Roofs even as we forgive them. A white guy myself – husband, father, grandfather and flawed Christian – I want my family’s youngest generation to grow up with Clementa Pinckney, and Roof’s other victims, as their models, not the pitiful Roof. I pray that the disease engulfing him, and others like him, does not take hold in my own family. And I want to develop the grace to forgive not only Roof but myself, too, for whatever part over the years my own thoughtless behavior may have influenced others.
But I’m not ready to forgive those who consciously cultivate diseased minds like his, not until they crawl repentant and without racist reservations back into the American fold. Not until they accept the largess of Jesus (“Father, forgive them …”) or concomitant examples from other creeds could I welcome them. At that point, perhaps, Paul Boese’s famous observation might become reality: “Forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future.”
Gerald Haslam is an author who has been called the “quintessential California writer.”