In the aftermath of the stunning massacre of nine innocent people in a church in Charleston, America is left asking itself: what comes next? For the family members of those whose lives were lost, the answer came quickly - forgiveness.
A few short days after the attack, sisters, children and grandchildren of the slain offered words of forgiveness for perpetrator Dylann Roof.
"I forgive you. You took something very precious from me. I will never talk to her again. I will never, ever hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul."
- Nadine Collier, daughter of 70-year-old victim Ethel Lance
"I acknowledge that I am very angry, but one thing that DePayne always enjoined in our family … is she taught me that we are the family that love built. We have no room for hating, so we have to forgive. I pray God on your soul."
- Myra Thompson, sister of victim DePayne Middleton-Doctor
"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 in love and their legacies will live in love. So hate won't win. And I just want to thank the court for making sure that hate doesn't win."
- Wanda Simmons, granddaughter of victim Daniel Simmons
These words came during a hearing just two days after the shooting in which the perpetrator was being indicted for the murders of their loved ones. This incredible display was mirrored by each of the victim's families in turn as they stepped in front of the man responsible for their pain.
Forgiveness is Breaking the Cycle
Individuals who forgive are looking beyond the violent act to see the humanity of the individual who has victimized them, to see the inherent sameness that they share. There is an inhumanity to violence, it rips individuals away from each other. That hurt offers a powerful draw toward inflicting that same kind of pain upon another, often the individual who caused the hurt to begin with but in many cases that need for vengeance extends to members of the wider community that the perpetrator belongs to. This is especially true with an unexpected trauma such as the one visited upon the members of the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. The experience of a traumatic event is different for each individual, but the cycle of violence is something that is well documented and researched.
The relatives of those lost in Charleston are likely well aware that their act of forgiveness transcends their own lives, and even the lives of the people in their immediate area. The massacre at Emanuel AME Church has become a flashpoint for race relations in the United States, a swift spark that caught fire within hours of the attack. The choice to so rapidly offer forgiveness is not a sign of weakness on the part of the victim's families - it's a sign that they are ready and willing to break the cycle of hate. In fact Roof has stated to authorities that his intent with this incredibly violent act was to begin a "race war," in fact to begin a large and broad cycle of violence. However the wake of his violent act has not sparked mass conflict in retribution. While there has been considerable public debate about the appropriateness of the Confederate flag's position in both public and private spaces as a result of the shooting, there has to date been no wave of violence in response to the act. Thanks in large part to the leadership through forgiveness of the families of the victims, there has not been a wave of physical violence.
Forgiveness is Power
Violence is taking power, taking the ultimate control of a situation by ending the life of another human being. Often victims relinquish even further control over to the perpetrator in negotiated forgiveness, where their ability to forgive and move on with their lives is dependent upon the actions of others and in particular the remorse of the person who has visited an atrocity upon them. The families of the victims of the massacre in Charleston are practicing unilateral forgiveness, meaning that their forgiveness is not dependent upon the contrition of the the offender. While Dylann Roof continues to stand firm in is reasoning for the attack and in his lack of remorse for his actions, those left with lives destroyed in his wake have chosen to be strong in their own feelings and not to allow his actions to control them any further. In unilateral forgiveness, the victims of the violent act are empowered by self determination and their own desire to live their lives as determined by their desires as opposed to the desires of the individual who has brought harm upon them. While the finality of death means that they cannot ever take back complete control, forgiveness means that they are able to recapture as much of it as is possible in their situation.
Forgiveness is difficult, it takes a significant amount of strength in order to forgive. Individuals who have been through the violent loss of a loved one report that the desire for vengeance and retribution are easy to feel, but to convert those feelings to openness and empathy is much more challenging, and is in fact a process that takes time and energy. To forgive does not mean to excuse the action, or to forget it. Rather it is seeing violence through the wide lens of time and in the context of the humanity of the offender. On the other side of that hard work, forgiveness offers a modicum of peace in the lives of those left behind.
The act of forgiveness offers families and the wider community the opportunity to mourn for the lives that have been lost and to move forward with a future that has been changed by violence. It is not an act of defeat - it is an act of strength.
Izadi, E. (2015, June 19). The powerful words of forgiveness delivered to Dylann Roof by the victim's relatives. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2015/06/19/hate-wont-win-the-powerful-words-delivered-to-dylann-roof-by-victims-relatives/
Roe, M. (2007). Intergroup forgiveness in settings of political violence: Complexities, ambiguities, and potentialities. Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology,
Tutu, D. (1998). Exploring forgiveness. Madison, Wis: University of Wisconsin Press.