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Dylann Roof wanted to start a war. On June 17, 2015 Roof felt his white race was losing the battle in maintaining the white Southerner’s way of life, the way of life where black people knew their place. He had to find a way to wake up the rest of white America about this growing threat. He had to find a target that would trigger the race war he wanted and begin taking America back from the people unworthy in his eyes. 

Author Jennifer Berry Hawes described how Charleston South Carolina was the perfect place to start the new war between the races. She wrote, “Without stopping, (Roof) cruised toward South Carolina’s most historic city, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired in the first state to secede from the union…Charleston had been home to the nation’s highest ratio of enslaved black people to whites. An estimated 40% of America’ slaves came through its harbor. That’s why he’d picked it…It was perfect.” (1) It was not an impromptu idea nor passing thought for Roof, it was a deliberate attempt to eliminate a group of people he believed should not exist anymore. Roof felt vengeance was the only way to save his people. 

In the book of Acts, Saul felt the only way to save the Jewish way of life was to eliminate the source of trouble—the followers of Jesus who believed a bastard interpretation of the Old Testament. He was a Jewish supremacist. He entered the picture giving approval to Stephen’s death by taking care of the stoner’s robes. He believed God endorsed violence in restoring a culture of holiness. He was convinced the apostles and their followers were misrepresenting God and used the religious and his religious authority to eliminate all opponents. He felt it was up to him and his fellow Pharisees to restore the Mosaic law back to its original purpose—for God’s people, chosen to be a light to the nations through them alone. He felt his crusade was right and just. His efforts were to bring God glory by killing his enemies. He helped create the kind of religious fervor like the South had during the Civil War. Truth and God were on their side. 

After killing nine people at Charleston’s historic Mother Emanuel African Episcopal Church during a bible study, Dylann Roof didn’t shoot Felicia Sanders after reloading his .45 caliber Glock. He told her, “I’m not going to. I’m going to leave you here to tell the story.” (2) Roof expected Sanders to tell a story of his reign of terror that started the race war he had been dreaming of. He expected Sanders to become an evangelist that white people had taken up arms because Dylann Roof woke them up from sleepwalking through history. When Sanders pleaded with Roof that he didn’t have to kill people, that there might be another way, Roof aptly remarked, “I have to finish my mission.”

Dylann Roof believed vengeance was necessary in his mission of restoring the racial hierarchy back to its original place in American life. Roof faced the survivors of the shooting and expected to hear stories of anguish and pain. He expected to hear statements of exacting justice and death for his crimes. 

He faced Nadine Collier, daughter of Ethel Lance who was killed at his hands. She locked her eyes on Roof's blank stare and said, “I want everybody to know, I forgive you! I will never be able to talk to her again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you.” She took her seat.

Myra Thompson, who lost her husband Rev. Anthony Thompson, did the same thing.

Then it was Felicia Sanders turn. Her son Tywanza died because of Roof’s actions. She told Roof, “Tywanza was my son. Tywanza was my hero. But as we say in the Bible study, we enjoyed [having] you, God have mercy on you.” (3)

Roof didn’t get the story he expected Sanders and others to say at his hearing. Instead of returning revenge, Emanuel faithful knew how to suspend judgment for the sake of the gospel. As the late Christian ethicist Lewis Smedes once said, “Forgiving turns off the videotape of pained memory. Forgiving sets you free." They chose to suspend judgment on Roof.

On a well-worn Damascus road, Saul had his mind made up that violence was the only means to reversing the Christian trend that he believed misused and abused Jewish way of life. Was Saul open for a reasonable conversation with Peter, Philip, or John? Nope. Was Saul willing to debate the validity of Christian view of Jesus in a public forum in Damascus? Not really. Saul was rewinding his vengeance tape.

Lewis Smedes described vengeance (as) “having a videotape planted in your soul that cannot be turned off. It plays the painful scene over and over again inside your mind...and each time it plays, you feel the clap of pain again.” It was clear the videotape in Saul mind’s refused to be edited at any time.     

Only the brightly lit face and calming voice of the divine Jesus stopped him in his tracks. Notice that Jesus does not ask “Why you are persecuting my people?” He doesn't ask Saul why he was opposing his movement. Jesus doesn't take an opportunity to take out Saul in a revenge rant. Jesus’ intervention was essentially a personal appeal to him. “Saul,” said Jesus, “Why are you persecuting me?”

While Saul dehumanized Jesus and his followers, Jesus did not dehumanize Saul. Jesus tried to restore Saul's sense of humanity, equipping him to view Jesus as a personal witness and Savior. 

In the same Acts chapter 9, Ananias, who was clearly a disciple of Jesus, tells how the stories of Saul’s killings were well known among Christians in Damascus. Saul had a sterling reputation for being very good at his job of getting rid of Christians. It would be fair to say both Ananias and Saul would not have picked each other to learn from without some convincing from Master Jesus.

 A blinded Saul showed up at Ananias’s house and Ananias was clearly suspicious that Saul was not a disciple of Jesus. Luke eluded to his apprehension that Saul was a bad dude. Both men wanted vengeance in a sense. Both men had a choice to make.

Lewis described the empty rewards of revenge. He wrote, “Vengeance is a passion to get even. It is a hot desire to give back as much pain as someone gives you. The problem with revenge is that it never gets what it wants; it never evens the score. Fairness never comes. The chain reaction set off by every act of vengeance always takes its unhindered course. It ties both the injured and the injurer to an escalator of pain. Both are stuck on the escalator as long as parity is demanded, and the escalator never stops, never lets anyone off.” Both men chose to get off the escalator of vengeance. They chose to suspend judgment for the sake of the gospel. 

The Christ-followers at Emanuel African Episcopal Church didn’t stop being Christian for the sake of settling the score with Dylann Roof. They chose to model a different kind of Christianity. 

In Martin Luther King’s nativity sermon, he wrote, “Do you know what a stable smells like? You know what that family would have smelled like after the birth when they went out into the city? And if they were standing next to you, how would you have felt about them and regarded them?”

He is saying, “I want you to see Christ in the neighborhood you tend to despise, in the political party you despise, in the class of people you despise. Christmas is the end of thinking you are better than someone else, because Christmas is telling you that you could never get to heaven on your own. God had to come to you.” (4)  

Comments

Wow. You brought me to the feet of Jesus this morning with such a stunning story of faith lived out by Felicia Sanders, Myra Thompson, and Nadine Collier. Thank you for sharing and may we do likewise. 

A moving account of the wonderful, but difficult, grace of forgiving. Thank you, Reggie.

Thank you for this article.  I was stationed in Charleston, S.C. when I was assigned as a Chaplain at the Coast Guard base there.  I drove past that church every day.  My heart still goes out to the dear people whose sacred space was defiled on that tragic day.  You are right-- forgiveness is the only answer.

 

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