We are living in historic times, my friends. Times of great victories—such as the June 26th SCOTUS ruling for marriage equality, and times of great pain and terror- such as the murders of nine people of faith in Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC.
And on the razor’s edge of sorrow and joy, President Barack Obama’s eulogy of Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the minister shot down along with eight congregants at a prayer meeting at Emanuel AME, will also go down in history as one of the most eloquent and powerful speeches of our day.
I’ve been thinking a lot about grace this week, he states early on. I, too, had been thinking about grace, wanting to put some words around the aftermath of the terrorist attack on the beloved church. I thought about how the family members of the victims walked in grace that empowered them to tell Dylann Roof, the shooter, that they forgave him.
Forgiveness is a tricky thing. I’ve been thinking about forgiveness, too, this week. It’s a much better focus, than the sense of helplessness or despair that can so easily find its way to the forefront of my being.
It’s good to turn away from such bleak feelings to feelings of power. And forgiveness is just that. Forgiveness is refusing to allow injustices done to us have complete power over our lives, Forgiveness is acknowledging that we will never have a different past. Forgiveness is grace is action.
I watched the footage of the families of the victims “facing” Dylann Roof via video feed and expressing their pain and anguish at the lives he took from them but also, curiously, telling him they forgave him, and I was filled with so many questions.
What does it mean to forgive in this type of circumstance? Can it even be real, so close to the rawness of their loss, the blood stains still not yet faded, despite the crime scene clean up?
What was the scene like at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC , that following Sunday morning? In black churches across the nation?
And what does it mean for members of the African American community to forgive their white destroyer of lives and dreams? Should that be something to wait before giving, as black scholar and author, LaToya Baldwin Clark, suggests?
How is forgiveness borne in the heart? When is it real and when is it just words? And is it a linear path that once traveled, cannot be revisited? Or is forgiveness like the tide, ebbing and flowing on any given day, depending on our own strength and grace in the moment?
It seems to me forgiveness and grace are intertwined; they are woven into the same fabric of humanity; each one requires the other to fully thrive. Grace calls us to forgiveness, forgiveness calls us to grace.
In his speech, President Obama alluded to the well-known hymn “Amazing Grace” in saying that grace calls us to open our eyes to see what we have refused to see; I would add that grace calls us to see the road that leads to wholeness, which is what the word salvation means, to stop insisting we can't find our way.
The President spoke movingly about how we, as a nation, have in the past refused to open our eyes to the reality of the racism embedded in the flying of the Confederate flag, how we have refused to look upon the carnage of gun violence as something we can prevent with better gun control regulation, how we have turned away from the racist attacks on the African American community. But grace calls us to see. Grace calls us to see the path that leads to justice and start walking. Ironically, "Amazing Grace" was written by John Newton, who experienced that turning point of having his eyes opened to the evils of the slave trade, in which he was an active participant. And Dylann Roof, himself, would talk about how close he came to having his eyes opened, due to the love and grace extended him by those nine people of faith, who welcomed him into their prayer meeting. Grace is not something thrust upon us; it is an invitation to have our eyes opened to a different, more inclusive way. Dylann heard that invitation, but in the end Dylann chose to continue with his blinders on, leaving a swath of destruction in his wake.
Grace may also call us to forgive those who have wronged us. I would like to think I could have as much grace as the family members did in forgiving Roof, but I don’t know that I am that evolved. Frankly, though, I would probably find it much easier to forgive Dylann Roof than I would to forgive our politicians who keep pandering to the powerful gun lobbyists out of fear that they might not get re-elected. Our laws—particularly those that would provide a safer world—should be based on what is right and just, not what is politically expedient. In my opinion, that is where the real evil lies: in the hands of politicians too afraid to fall out of step with the NRA and other groups who insist their right to bear semi-automatic weapons is ironclad, and to put the craven desires of those groups above the safety of our nation. That is evil. That is reprehensible.
People talk about being in a state of grace as if it were something to shield them from pain, but that’s not the way the President spoke of it. He spoke of it as a catalyst for change, for having our eyes opened to the injustices and pain that is all around us and making a different choice.
In his eulogy for Rev. Pinckney, our President gave voice to the grace that we need as a nation, as families impacted by violence, as a grieving community. He stood fully in his power as the President and in his identity as a Black man and spoke prophetically about grace in such a way that we can no longer say we don’t see it. We can no longer say we don’t see the damage done by racism, subtle and overt, by gun violence. The President called upon us to open our eyes, and to walk in the state of grace that leads us to a place of justice, compassion, and forgiveness. If we can take at least one step, it will be a start.
The families of the fallen were able to do that, even if I don’t understand how they could. Now it’s our turn. Let’s get moving.