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.