On Friday of last week, several families of Charleston shooter Dylann Roof’s nine victims addressed the killer during his first court appearance. Roof stood in a guarded chamber elsewhere, while his likeness appeared on a closed-circuit television in a Charleston courtroom. He appeared sullen, baleful, and skeletal, unmoved as, one by one, the family members present forgave him and wished him the mercy of the Lord.
Expressing forgiveness from the depths of grief is extraordinary, and the mercy expressed by these surviving relatives has been rightly praised. And yet, there is still a current of unease surrounding the public reception of their forgiveness.
On one hand, the Christian compulsion to forgive is absolute: and as exemplars of the faith, the families of the Charleston victims are excellent. On the other hand, their forgiveness presents a challenge to the onlooking public: are we ignoring their wishes if we do not join them in forgiving Roof? And what becomes of the discussion of the massacre if the rhetoric turns primarily to forgiveness? Further, why is it always black Christians who are burdened with the task of unilateral forgiveness without expectation of radical trasnformation? (Take, for instance, invocations of Martin Luther King Jr.'s Christian example when the pitch of racial tension rises high enough to worry moneyed interests.)
There is perhaps a second source of unease surrounding Roof’s forgiveness, namely that he has shown not even a vague sign of remorse, which makes the victims’ families’ decision to forgive him seem all the more harrowing.
And it is harrowing. Forgiveness in modern use has multiple charges; the three most applicable here seem to be the Christian practice of forgiveness, the therapeutic practice of forgiveness, and the political practice of forgiveness. These separate uses have elements in common, but Roof’s case appears to have emphasized the tensions between them, leading to mixed public sentiment laden with powerful emotions. So, let’s unpack them.
The therapeutic sense of forgiveness is the one advertised in self-help books and programs, with an emphasis on relieving personal or interpersonal difficulties. This approach to forgiveness is relatively thin: The idea is usually some permutation of letting-it-go in order to dispense with anger, frustration, bitterness, or whatever hindrance is in the way of the goal the book or program is selling—think “inner peace.” In our age of therapy culture, this use of forgiveness has trickled out of seminars and books and into the ether, where it is invoked as a high-minded version of deciding not to bother with a problem any longer, which is not necessarily ignoble. Nonetheless, this is emphatically not the brand of forgiveness on display in Roof’s case.
Christian forgiveness is another phenomenon altogether. It is associated not with instantaneous relief or inner calm, but with torture, humiliation, and death—with the forgiveness offered to humankind via Christ’s self-sacrifice serving as the example par excellence. Christian forgiveness, especially when (as in Roof’s case) repentance is absent, is a gesture toward God vis-à-vis the forgiven person. It is calamitously painful, especially because it does not necessarily terminate in the destruction of a relationship. Whereas therapeutic forgiveness typically invites the forgiver to eliminate ongoing interaction with the person or circumstance that has harmed them, Christian forgiveness often works in the reverse order: You forgive someone, then as a function of your forgiveness, allow them to make amends.
Christian forgiveness is compelling in this case in part because it is so heroically difficult, but also because it so starkly negates Roof’s diabolical goals. Roof hates black people to such an extent that he desires their total destruction. One of his strategies for the elimination of black people was evidently to spark a race war, presumably using the Charleston slaughter as its incendiary incident. But in the extension of forgiveness by his victims’ families, both intentions are undercut. By confronting him face-to-face with forgiveness, the victims’ families established a relationship with Roof, presenting themselves as persons urging and awaiting his repentance. This is the opposite of the kind of isolation Roof desires. Further, it is an act of black agency that averts the chain of violence Roof had hoped to ignite. The Christian spiritual practice of forgiveness has, therefore, had an impact. But we should not saddle it with the same expectations we place on political forms of forgiveness.
Forms of forgiveness that function as political tools take many forms: some are aspects of restorative justice schemes; others take the shape of pardons, exoneration, and so on. Whatever the issues with forgiveness-as-political-practice, none of these strictly political forms of forgiveness appear to be active in Roof’s case. The forgiveness he has been given by the families of his victims has not excused him from standing trial, nor will it prevent him from receiving punishment.
Nor should it confuse the public into believing that it is time to move on from the massacre. This is not therapeutic forgiveness, nor is it political: it is meant neither to close down consideration of a subject, nor to halt its progress through the justice system. Christian forgiveness is a long and rocky process, and the public way in which Roof’s victims’ families have chosen to conduct their journey is profoundly moving. But forgiveness within Christianity is meant to be transformative, and it is imperative to allow our discourse to be transformed for the better, not for the worse. Yes, Christianity compels forgiveness, but it also grants special consideration to those who mourn and those who hunger and thirst for justice. Admiration of Roof’s victims’ families willingness to forgive should come along with an understanding that their forgiveness is only a starting point after which the hard work of penance must be carried out—not only by Roof himself, but by the aspects of our culture that produced him.