By Denise George
Correspondent, The Alabama Baptist
On Sunday, Sept. 15, 1963 — 55 years ago — dynamite planted by white supremacist terrorists exploded at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, a historic African-American church in Birmingham, a tense, violent and racially segregated city.
The blast killed four young girls and injured 20 church members. The city erupted in riots, leading to the shooting deaths of two black teens that evening. Photographers captured and televised sensational images of death and destruction, shocking the nation and leading to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
During the following half-century, every racially charged incident resulted in exploding racial violence in city after city: Newark, Memphis, Los Angeles, Miami, Cincinnati, Ferguson and others. Destructive riots became the predictable pattern.
Fifty-two years later, on June 17, 2015, white supremacist Dylann Roof walked into a Wednesday night Bible study at the Emanuel A.M.E. Church, an African-American Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Bible study teacher Myra Thompson welcomed him warmly. Forty-five minutes later, during the closing prayer, Roof pulled out a Glock .45, shooting and killing nine church members, including Myra Thompson and church pastor Clementa Pinckney. Roof admitted he hoped to start a nationwide race war, purposely choosing Charleston and the historic Emanuel A.M.E. Church as its point of origin.
Forty-eight hours later, at Roof’s bond hearing, Myra Thompson’s husband, Anthony, as well as several other victims’ family members, confronted the young man and publicly forgave him.
“I forgive you,” Anthony Thompson told Roof. “And my family forgives you.”
Then Thompson added: “But we would like you to take this opportunity to repent. Repent. Confess. Give your life to the One who matters the most: Jesus Christ, so that He can change it and change your attitude. And no matter what happens to you, then you’ll be okay. Do that and you’ll be better off than you are right now.”
After the massacre, Roof and the rest of the world waited for Charleston to respond with expected racial mayhem and brutality. But Charleston reacted differently, erupting not with predictable violence but with unanticipated grace. Because of the acts of biblical forgiveness, black and white residents came together, offering each other love, forgiveness and compassionate acts of kindness. After many tragic years of broken bonds between Charleston’s black and white residents, more than 15,000 people, black and white, joined hands across Charleston’s Ravenel Bridge, making a clear statement about the powerful results of biblical forgiveness. It proved an incredible human connection that bridged a gap between two diverse and often warring cultures.
Social media captured the city’s shining examples of brotherly love and united hearts, races and faiths. The grieving families showed not only Roof but also a global audience the full power of the gospel.
Monuments and memory gardens were created and people around the world began to ask deep theological questions in an effort to understand this life-changing type of forgiveness.
‘All he did was unite us’
When Joseph Riley, Charleston’s mayor at the time, witnessed firsthand the city’s surprising and peaceful response, he stated: “A hateful person came to this community with some crazy idea he’d be able to divide. But all he did was unite us and make us love each other even more.”
Such is the shocking power of practiced biblical forgiveness.
In this day of racial unrest and violence, our nation can learn something valuable from Charleston, a city long overshadowed by an ugly past history of racism, injustice and fear. The practice of biblical forgiveness is transforming people’s hearts, attitudes and lives in Charleston, proclaiming the power of God’s word to a watching world.
EDITOR’S NOTE — Denise George, author/co-author of 31 books, recently worked with Reverend Anthony Thompson on writing “Called to Forgive: The Charleston Church Shooting, A Victim’s Husband, and the Path to Healing and Peace” (to be released by Bethany House in June 2019). Denise is married to Timothy George, founding dean of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University in Birmingham.
Understanding biblical forgiveness
Q: Are some crimes so heinous that God requires no forgiveness from us?
A: Biblical forgiveness forgives all crimes, no matter how atrocious.
Q: Does biblical forgiveness mean that we dismiss, condone or excuse an offender’s actions?
A: No. While we might excuse an accident, biblical forgiveness does not dismiss, condone or excuse an intentional hurtful act. Because we blame the offender, we can choose to forgive the offender.
Q: Should we forgive if the offender shows no remorse or fails to say, “I’m sorry”?
A: Biblical forgiveness requires no response from the offender in order to forgive.
Q: Must we forgive an offender if we don’t feel forgiving?
A: Emotional feelings have nothing to do with the choice of biblical forgiveness. We make the decision to forgive as an act of our will.
Q: Must the offender provide restitution in order to warrant our forgiveness?
A: No. We can forgive without receiving anything from the offender.
Q: Must the offender be required to accept the victim’s forgiveness in order for forgiveness to be complete?
A: No acceptance or response is needed from the offender. (Denise George)