by Lacy Ford
Few actions prompt as much soul-searching about our common humanity as deadly attacks on innocents. White law enforcement officers shooting African-Americans under questionable circumstances, hate crimes against others on the basis of race, religion, sexual orientation or gender identification, or retaliation against real or perceived injustice (as in the case of mass assassination of law enforcement officers because of their race, such as occurred in Dallas) all raise deep and troubling questions about the evil thriving in our midst. Together, such events in Charleston, Orlando, Dallas, Baton Rouge, the suburbs of St. Paul and Charlotte have not only rekindled the rage seething just beneath the surface in too many Americans, but also frayed the nerves and troubled the consciences of many others. In a secular sense, all of these attacks – all of this violence – threatens the rule of law at home and abroad. They raise questions about the very stability of civil society in our historic democracies. From a religious perspective, these horrible incidents raise troubling questions about how people of faith and goodwill should respond to such violence.
These questions have no easy or universal answers. But, as counterintuitive as it may seem, both our faith and our history suggest that violence is almost never the best or most appropriate response to violence. Violence as a reply to violence typically escalates the violence, prevents civil authorities from having the time to respond and too often deprives victims of their time for grief and perhaps even an appropriate claim on public understanding. It too often simply makes the situation worse by begetting more violence.
It was the special genius of Martin Luther King Jr., learning from Scripture as well Gandhi and others, that recognized that non-violence offered the best moral and strategic response to violence. Ironically, for years prior to his own violent death, King lead a non-violent protest movement for civil rights that did more to promote justice and equal rights in America in the last 75 years than any other effort.
Often lost in the familiar story of King and the larger Civil Rights Movement is the unmistakable fact that it took an incredibly disciplined and well-trained movement to respond non-violently to all manner of violence, insult, injustice and ridicule. In King’s case, his followers in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference had deep roots in an active Christian religious tradition that vigorously sought justice and yet emphasized peaceful responses to a violent world. This tradition served as a school and a restorative refuge for many whose faith had been and would be tested over and over again by injustice and violence.
The world saw an example of the power of forgiveness in action as recently as the summer of 2015 when the mass murder of African-Americans holding a Bible study in the historic Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, by a young white man with explicitly racist motives shocked and appalled the nation. Yet within days, the families of the victims found in their hearts and souls what many others could not begin to find: the ability to offer forgiveness to the killer.
This simple gift of underserved grace prompted a most amazing display of mutual solidarity among South Carolinians. As Vanderbilt historian and fellow Presbyterian David Carlton and I wrote at the time, the “slung smooth stone of forgiveness hurled by the families of the victims and the congregation of Mother Emanuel AME stopped the Goliath of racism and hatred in its tracks and aroused a sense of unity and compassion among South Carolinians that was inspiring to us all.”
That conservative South Carolina reacted with overwhelming compassion for the victims’ families, horror at the despicable crime itself and a rallying of blacks and a healthy majority of whites behind a renewed effort to remove the Confederate battle flag from the Statehouse grounds proved remarkable. And that effort, which drew support from key figures previously opposed to removal (including South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley and College of Charleston president and former state senator Glenn McConnell) gave South Carolinians a glimpse of what the spirit of a new community in South Carolina might look like, one reaching across the divides of race, party, denominations, faith traditions, generations and across all divides to nurture a full sense of community throughout a diverse population.
That such a glimpse of new community was not followed by immediate legislative action to revamp public school funding formulas to provide extra assistance to poorer districts in the state, or to close the Medicaid gap for those using affordable care, or to take steps to guard against racial profiling was disappointing. But disappointment is not a reason to lose sight of the vision. Such demanding struggles are often won with Job-like patience, through “weary years and many tears.”
Despite this case study in the power of forgiveness, the offering of forgiveness when so grievously wronged or when so badly hurt by such senseless and premeditated violence, is unbelievably hard. It runs counter to human nature and against natural instincts of self-preservation. But when instilled across generations, as it was in the members of Emmanuel AME in Charleston, by dedicated pastors and church leaders, followers, like the Emmanuel AME parishioners, can take the lead in pointing out that retribution and retaliation are not the appropriate responses regardless of the enormity of events. The disciplined faith displayed by these people of faith — the offering of grace at a moment when every fiber of their being recoiled in the horror of the wrong they had suffered — should serve as a model for us all.
As people of faith we must always remember that it remains imperative that we seek justice. But as we seek justice relentlessly, we must also remember to show mercy abundantly. We must forgive knowing that we are forgiven. We must let undeserved grace drive our actions at the most difficult moments when we least want to do so. We must follow forgiveness with works of reconciliation. And we must show mercy with humility rather than pride. Ultimately, we must walk humbly but confidently in our faith, mindful of the compelling truth proclaimed by my fellow South Carolina Presbyterian, Jim Lowry, in one of his memorable sermons, that in and through Christ Jesus:
“There will be no injustice so great
That it cannot be faced with dignity …
There will be no evil so cruel
That it cannot be put to shame with kindness . . .
and . . .
There is no power so profane
That it will not be defeated.”
Lacy Ford is a professor of history and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of South Carolina and a ruling elder at Shandon Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina.