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God Squad: Forgiveness is a mighty sword against hate

After the tragic killings of nine people during evening Bible study at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., what is the big lesson we must learn that benefits our spiritual growth?

For some, the lesson is that we must find better ways to control and limit gun ownership in America. I understand this lesson, but I cannot learn it. Gun ownership is a constitutionally protected right and many of the weapons used in mass killings are purchased legally anyway.

A theological and moral question that I have: Is it right to forgive an unrepentant killer? My dear friend Msgr. Thomas Hartman and I have always agreed about most things. However, we've often argued over whether forgiveness needed to be earned. It is Peter's question in Matthew 18:21-22 (KJV): "Then came Peter to him, and said, 'Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Till seven times?' Jesus saith unto him, 'I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.' " Tommy fairly took this teaching to mean that God always requires absolute forgiveness, without conditions. I took the position that I'm commanded to always forgive, but not until the sinner has asked to be forgiven.

Today, for the first time in my life, I think I may have been wrong. I'm often wrong, but until now I've never been in doubt. Today, I'm in doubt.

This doubt has arisen because of the breathtaking power of forgiveness expressed by the families of the victims of the Charleston shootings. These people could easily have been forgiven for screaming words of fury, bloodlust and hatred at the young man who shattered their lives and took the lives of those they loved. Instead, they brought the lesson of their Christian faith out of their blood-stained church and into the streets with words of forgiveness and love.

Speaking directly to the killer at his bond hearing, one of them said, "You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people, but God forgives you, and I forgive you."

I heard this pure love confronting pure evil once before in my life. In 2006, a man took hostages and shot 10 girls, ages 6-13, killing five of them, at an Amish school house in Pennsylvania, and then killed himself. A grandfather of one of the murdered girls said, "We must not think evil of this man." Another Amish father noted of the killer, "He had a mother and a wife and a soul, and now he's standing before a just God." Another commented: "I don't think there's anybody here who wants to do anything but forgive and not only reach out to those who have suffered a loss in that way, but also to reach out to the family of the man who committed these acts."

In the face of such responses I'm consumed by two questions: How does God make people like this? and: Are they right? I can't answer either question. I'm simply in awe of the complete way these people have expelled hatred and replaced it with love.

A part of me still clings to the belief that only God can forgive horrific acts like the murders in Charleston. A part of me wonders what it even means to forgive someone who hasn't even asked publicly to be forgiven. A part of me believes that anger at killers helps us rid the world of killers, and forgiveness has the same effect as sheep forgiving their slaughterers; it just produces more dead sheep. A part of me believes that whether or not those who forgive depraved killers are right, I'm just not built that way. But all of me believes that these forgivers have achieved a remote human spiritual possibility. They may be wrong, but they are pure, and I am in awe of them all.


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