A sermon given during the 6:00pm Choral Evensong, by The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO, on the 19th March 2023.

With forgiveness, tragedy need not be the last word

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

This evening is the fourth in our Lenten Evensong series on Forgiveness. The series started with Bishop’s Chris exploration of forgiveness being a precursor to hope. Rev Sally in the second sermon in the series explored the intricate relationship of repentance and forgiveness. While last Sunday, Rev Joan reflected upon healing and forgiveness. Tonight, I wish to explore the journey to forgiveness and grace which offers to be our companion on such journeys. I will do this through a discussion of a tragic event which occurred in Charleston, South Carolina on Wednesday June 17, 2015 at 9.05pm at the Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church.

The African Methodist Episcopal church had been founded in Philadelphia in 1794. Twenty-four years later, nearly five thousand blacks walked out of Methodist churches in Charleston over a dispute concerning the use of the burial ground. So was born the first black church in the slave-culture of the Deep South. On June 7, 1818. Rev Morris Brown preached to a mixed congregation of slaves and free blacks who had purchased their own freedom. The service was disrupted by the local constabulary who arrested nearly 150 worshippers. Five of the ministry team were sentenced to a month’s imprisonment with eight others ordered to receive ten lashes in lieu of hefty cash fines. Over subsequent decades, black worshippers continued to be harassed finally going underground in their worshipping. In 1865, with the Civil War recently concluded, three thousand of those secret worshippers came together and publicly worshipped at what became the Mother Emanuel church. Over the following 150 years, the congregation of that church faithfully held together in the face of numerous ordeals including an earthquake, Jim Crow laws, the rise of the KKK and other challenges. Today the church emblem contains the tag line:

A light of love, hope and resilience for over 200 years.

Which brings us to the evening of June 17, 2015. At 8pm on that night, a dozen parishioners, ranging in age from 11 to 87, gathered for a time of Bible study. At 8.16pm a young white man, Dylann Roof, entered the meeting room carrying a small backpack; he asked to sit next to the pastor, Clementa Pickney. After welcoming him, the group continued their discussion of Mark 4:13-20 (the gospel reading we have had tonight). Near the end of their meeting, one of the group started to say the benediction. The time was 9.05pm, I will let the authors of the book We are Charleston: Tragedy and Triumph at Mother Emanuel, continue the story:

As eyes were closed and heads were bowed, the young man … pulled a handgun from his fanny pack and started shooting. [p2]

In the confused minutes which followed, Roof reloaded five times firing in total 77 bullets, killing eight people immediately, mortally wounding another. During one respite whilst Roof reloaded, one of those present pleaded with him to stop, to which he replied:

I have to do this. You rape our women, you’re taking over our country. And you have to go. It don’t matter, I’m going to shoot you all. [p3]

Ominously, he spared the life of another person hiding under a folding table, saying to her:

I am going to let you live so you can tell the story of what happened. [p17]

Roof then fled the scene but was arrested the next day. Two days later a bond hearing took place at which relatives of some of the deceased spoke, thus starting a profound journey. Here are three of the responses from amongst those given during the 13 minute hearing:

(Roof) I forgive you. You took something really precious away from me. I will never talk to her again. I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you and have mercy on your soul. You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people, but I forgive you. [p18]

Although my grandfather and the other victims died at the hands of hate, this is proof – everyone’s plea for your soul is proof that they lived and loved, and their legacies will live and love so hate won’t win. [p19]

For me, I am a work in progress, and I acknowledge that I am very angry. But one thing that dePayne (one of the victims) has always joined in our family with is that she taught me that we are a family that love built. We have no room for hate so we have to forgive. I pray God on your soul. [p19]

How might each of us have reacted had that situation in Charleston been ours?

In their book We are Charleston: Tragedy and Triumph at Mother Emmanuel,[1] the authors devote two chapters to Forgiveness (for those who are interested, I can forward scanned copies of those chapters). Chapter 2, entitled Forgiveness, simply reported the aftermath of the tragedy and included the quotes I gave just now. The penultimate chapter of the book, chapter 12, entitled What is Forgiveness? sought to dig deeper into the issue of forgiveness. Chapter 2 inspires, but Chapter 12 challenges. That chapter, notwithstanding the authors statement that ‘there is virtually no precedent in America for what transpired at that bond hearing’ [p164], also contains this statement:

Forgiveness itself is as complex as any human action. These extraordinary expressions of forgiveness do not suggest acceptance, nor do they imply forgive and forget. [p165]

In so doing, they pose a number of reasons which could have been behind some of the forgiving statements made at the bond hearing. For example forgiving may help one survive grief. Or forgiveness may be an act of coping, arising from the seeming inevitability of one’s circumstance, in other words, not having any choice but to forgive. The authors quote a leader of the African-American community:

If you have no prospects to escape, you try to figure out how to forgive so that you can move on for your own psychological well-being. I think that’s baked into the southern African-American experience. [p168]

Forgiving may also be an inadequate shortcut to avoid facing a problem. The authors quoted one interviewee who said:

The oversimplification of I forgive demonstrates a lack of understanding of the significance of the incident. {p171]

This has been a particularly challenging issue here in the Australian church for example, as we have sought to deal with the evil of the sexual abuse of minors. Whose right is it to forgive in such situations? … and who does not have that right?

The bond hearing committed Roof to trial and eighteen months later he was sentenced to death. There was an appeal which was rejected four years later. As of this evening, Dylann Roof remains on death row.

Notwithstanding, the speed with which initial comments of forgiveness had been expressed by relatives of the slain, the subsequent years have not assuaged either their grief or the post-traumatic impact of what happened. Those long years have amounted to a journey of forgiveness they have had to continue. All of us will at sometime have to embark upon such journeys of forgiveness, we may already have had to do so. The question then arises, who will we acknowledge as companion to whom we may listen as we tread this difficult road?

Those grieving at Mother Emanuel had to face such a choice as to the voice to which they listened. For some, the accompanying companion, a voice of earthly weariness, said:

We forgive and forgive and forgive and those who trespass against us continue to trespass against us. [p172]

But another companion is also possible. Anthony Thompson, who lost his wife, told his story:

God told me exactly what to say because I didn’t even want to be there. I wasn’t even thinking about Dylann Roof. I’m still thinking about my wife and what had happened. Did she suffer? I said exactly what he told me – no more and no less. [p174]

These are the words which he spoke at the bond hearing:

I forgive you, my family forgive you, but we would like you to take this opportunity to repent. Repent, and pass, give your life to the one who matters most, Christ. So he can change it, and change your ways, no matter what happens to you. [p174]

We don’t know how Roof reacted to what Thompson said; but we do know of his own reaction:

When I sat down, I was a different person. I wasn’t that person thinking like when I came in there, ‘What happened to my wife?’ No more. I said, ‘God, you’ve got her; you gave me my peace this morning.’ I knew where to go from there. I still just don’t know exactly what to do, but I knew not to dwell on the tragedy anymore. [p174]

‘Not dwell on the tragedy anymore’ – those words evoke the black theologian, James Cone, author of The Cross and the lynching tree, who said, when he visited Charleston:

Tragedy is not the last word. [p170]

However, for it not to be the last word, Cone said that there had to be forgiveness. Forgiveness is an act which is within the capacity of each of us, and it can enable us to transcend the tragedy of circumstance which, again in the words of Cone, may lead to:

That transcendence of the spirit that no one can take away, no matter what they do. [p170]

For that transcendence to occur, for forgiveness to reach that level, faith is required. After all their studying of what had happened amongst the grieving congregation of the Mother Emanuel church, the authors of We are Charleston, concluded:

It takes enormous Christian faith to believe in transcendence, and this is what the world witnessed at the bond hearing – faith in the divine and the love that comes from that faith. With this faith also comes hope and the strength to go on. [p170]

It is in that transcendent faith where we may encounter grace. We will shortly sing Amazing Grace which, by coincidence, was sung at a special memorial service for the victims of the massacre. President Obama, speaking at that service, reminded those present of the definition of grace:

(which is) the free and benevolent favour of God as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings.

He continued:

If we can find that grace, anything is possible. If we can tap that grace, everything can change. Amazing grace. Amazing grace. [p176]

The marketing tag of the Mother Emanuel church is ‘A light of love, hope and resilience’; the grieving hearts of its parishioners showed such a light with blinding illumination, encountered hope in the darkness and, through grace, found resilience. That community of believers, in response to Dylann Roof’s 77 gunshots of hatred, have sought to be ‘the ones sown on the good soil; hearing the word and accepting it and bearing fruit, thirty, sixty and a hundredfold’ [Mark 4:20] as our gospel reading concluded tonight.

So too may we choose to be sown in the good soil, where we may pray with blessed intent:

Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.

[1] Frazier H, Powers B E, Wentworth M, We are Charleston: Tragedy and Triumph at Mother Emanuel, W Publishing, Nashville, TE, 2016.