I can’t get it out of my mind and I don’t want to. On June 19, Dylan Roof, the confessed killer of nine people in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, was arraigned in court and listened to passionate  words of forgiveness from Nadine Collier, Anthony Thompson, and Felicia Sanders, relatives of three of those he had killed.

Their words of forgiveness, spoken with breaking hearts and soaring spirits, have planted seeds deep into the soil of America—seeds that are already bearing fruit in steps to remove racist symbols of our past from our public life.

And so the power of forgiveness is once again in our public conversations. This was not the forgiveness that is conditioned by the apology and remorse of the perpetrator of a wrong.

It was a cleansing of a wound, an offering of a new beginning, both for those deeply traumatized by such a heinous assault but also for the accused killer and for the communities that had fostered, guided, and provisioned him for this crime. It was an act of love so that the hatred of the killer would not find lodging in their own hearts.

For most of us forgiveness is part of a transaction: You give me apology and I will give you forgiveness. Balance cleared. Debt erased. But this forgiveness, as so many have commented, comes from embrace of a prior act of God, the source of all new beginnings. Christians, in seizing on the conviction that God has started things anew in spite of human destructiveness, are simply trying to channel this power to others.

The members of Emanuel Church (Emanu-el, “God with us”) have schooled themselves for years to the habits of forgiveness. They were ready to forgive in spite of their sense of grievous loss. These were not words within a calculation of apology and forgiveness, they were words that re-start relationships on a new level built on a different orientation of gratitude rather than resentment, love rather than fear.

At the same time that murder and forgiveness were overturning business as usual in American culture and politics, Greece, and with it the entire European Union, was entering its own cataclysm. I couldn’t help connecting these seemingly separate events, because they both were struggles over the forgiveness of debts.

The forgiveness of Emanuel was entirely re-setting the debt and repayment world of retribution, violent reprisal, and apology-driven forgiveness. Greece was struggling with its own indebtedness and the inability of the world financial system to release itself from the destructive balance sheets of financial retribution.

Debts. That is what Jesus’s famous prayer ask forgiveness for. “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” (How ironic that we have these words in Greek!) Many of us mask this over by saying “Forgive us our trespasses,” but the Greek word “debts” (opheilimata) is embedded in the very concept of the Hebrew Jubilee, in which debts are released every fifty years, signaling a new beginning for the whole society.

Whether in the underlying economic subordination of American racism or in the trauma of Greek citizens today, the “debts” and the whole system of indebtedness that this radical forgiveness supplants are at the root of our problems of social justice.

So, if you’re a Christian, the next time you say The Lord’s Prayer, say “debts” and remember what the saints of Emanuel church have testified to. And fold in a prayer for the loosing of the unpayable debts that burden generations of people. It’s not everything that needs to be done, but perhaps it will open us all up to the new beginnings we need. Let me know what you think.

6 thoughts on “Forgiveness”

  1. Bill,
    As always, you touch us on so many levels. Forgiveness coming out of gratitude doesn’t “compute.” That’s because its “calculation” is divine. Only spirituality offers the possibility of transcending our psychological calculus and egotistical self-interest. Only God and our gratitude takes us beyond.

  2. So good to hear from all of you. I am especially glad to hear from Jyoti Sahi! Your comments on the way in which we sacrifice people designated as “other” by the dominant culture to some cultural absolute. In the US the act of prisoner execution has clearly become a symbolic act of absolutizing “American justice.” Killing a prisoner in retribution for a long-ago crime serves no other purpose than to justify the “system” of “justice” that purportedly requires it. Forgiveness calls the whole system into question, which is why Jesus remains such a revolutionary image even to this day in spite of the efforts to use him for our own cultural ends.


    Working in the Indian context of increasing manifestations of violence, I have been reflecting on the “logic of violence”, which possesses certain individuals, but this violence goes much deeper into the very way in which civilizations have been constructed. It is the violence against the “other”, perceived as an intruder, coruptor of the purity of civilization, the Dallit or tribal “Adivasi”. The violence comes from a deep urge to maintain the purity, and inviolability of a cultural construct.
    This construct is related to our concept of the “sacred”. Today’s headlines in the “Hindu” reads : “I gathered evidence that suggested the ruling class wanted access to (Adivasi) resources no matter what. So operation green hunt was launched to kill, maim and dislodge these people. The Best way to stop me was to throw me in jail”
    In the light of this violence some of us have been returning to Girard : “Violence and the Sacrred” A recent article in the theological paper “Vidya Jyoti” is entitled “Where is Abel, Your Brother ?” Levinas’ Response in a Psychological Reading of the Story of Cain and Abel.
    Designing a series of murals for a “Regional Theologate” in Orissa, I came across the study of the missionary Barbara Boal on the Khonds, and their mythic world. I was surprised to find there a story similar to the Cain and Abel narrative of the Bible about two brothers, and how one brother had to kill, or sacrifice the other brother. This was because he considered himself the “High Priest of the Land”.
    The problem of what we understand by “sacrifice” seem to lie deeply enshrined in what we believe to be “sacred”. The “sacred” is a domain from which the “other” seen as polluting, is denied access. The problem has many layers, and manifestations. Women’s issue, the “other” as black, aboriginal, and so forth, and the need to find a victim in order to consecrate a cultural ideal.
    The individual who commits the crime is only an agent, a possessed shaman one might say, of a spiritual world view that exists in a whole society. The individual is a symptom, and what we need to address is a given culture. Can this culture be forgiven ?

  4. Mary Baker Eddy interpreted those words from the Lord’s Prayer, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” as “Love is reflected in love.”

  5. Thanks. Reminds me of Donald Shiver’s An Ethic for Enemies: Forgiveness in Politics.

  6. Good commentary. I do view forgiveness as a transaction, too. The AMC folks spoke their forgiveness openly…and certainly reached the shooter’s ears. I accept that his
    courtroom apology is shallow, but apparently what he had to give, a generality. The AME folks are free, that is, not trapped by the feelings they will work through. As you stated, they will begin again. The shooter…hardly free in any sense, (and by the court) by no intentional acknowledgement of their declaration regarding him…yet.
    And, I guess, there is nothing to do about the “community” that influenced this young man. My opinion.

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