TONY BEST: Forgiveness plus pursuit of justice
THE RIGHT REVEREND PETER FENTY, the first black bishop in the history of Canada’s Anglican Church, has very strong views about the “Charleston Massacre” in South Carolina.
“After learning of the tragedy, my thought was that racism was alive and well in predominantly white societies. But we continue to deny that evil in our midst,” said Bishop Fenty, a Barbadian cleric in Toronto for decades.
“For me we have skirted around naming it for what it is – an ‘evil’ that continues to plague societies where a dominant culture, in this context white, believes it has some inherent superiority over others.”
Fenty said he was “moved” by the swift way worshippers and survivors of the mass killings at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, where nine people were murdered, said they “forgive” Dylan Roof, the 21-year old white supremacist, who allegedly killed his victims while they were attending a Bible class.
“They spoke very clearly about forgiveness. It is ironic that you hear that appeal for forgiveness more from people who have been oppressed, particularly black people towards those who have oppressed them than you hear it from the other side of the fence,” said the bishop. “I am thinking of people like Nelson Mandela who could have been a bitter man but who took the high road.”
The expression of forgiveness was articulated by relatives of many of Roof’s victims when they spoke within hours of his arrest on murder charges.
“We already forgive him for what he has done,” said Chris Coleman Singleton, whose 45 year old mother, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, was one of the victims.
Nadine Colier, the daughter of Ethel Lance, who was gunned down, echoed a similar sentiment.
“I just want everybody to know that, to you, I forgive you,” Colier told Roof at a public bond court hearing before a judge in court.
But not everyone felt that way. As a matter of fact the expression of forgiveness has triggered a national debate about forgiveness versus a call for justice.
Professor Jelani Cobb of the University of Connecticut wrote on Twitter: “It’s naïve in America to think that forgiveness of white supremacy is anything other than a pass.”
“Jesus taught all Christians to love those who hate you,” said the Barbadian. “I was really impressed by that in Charleston. But forgiveness and showing mercy must go hand in hand with the pursuit of what is just and right. They are not mutually exclusive in any way, they are integral to what it is we want to become as a society.
“I celebrate the modelling of the Christian principle by which we live, offering forgiveness and seeking a better way,” he went on. “But forgiveness must be balanced by a fervent desire for justice so that it is not perceived as overlooking how evil the action was in Charleston is. Those who hate us and are around us must still face the consequences of their actions.”
In other words, Roof must be punished and not given a pass.
Interestingly, another Bajan cleric, the Reverend Kirtley Yearwood, once a forensic pathologist in Arkansas, South Carolina, Washington DC, Oklahoma and Seattle conducted autopsies on bodies in Charleston between 2006 and 2008.
“I know the Emanuel AME Church and some of the people who worship there. I also know some of the pathologists who performed some of the autopsies on the bodies of the victims of the shooting. Charleston is truly a unique place,” said the Bajan.
“Christian values are very strong and I wasn’t surprised when relatives of some of the victims spoke about forgiveness so quickly after the killings.”
But Yearwood, who gave up medicine to pursue a life of faith and is now priest in charge of St Alban’s the Martyr Episcopal Church in Queens, agreed with Fenty, saying Charleston “must have some justice” amidst the expressions of forgiveness.
The Rev. David Henry, pastor of St Paul’s United Methodist Church in Brooklyn, said he embraced the need for forgiveness, because those people who forgive received benefits in return.
“It releases the burden we may be carrying. When someone does me a wrong and I offer forgiveness I don’t have to carry around that extra load, that burden,” he said. “However, the events in Charleston emphasise that we must be careful about our security, even in church. We will not search worshippers but we must be vigilant.”
Tony Best is the NATION’S North American correspondent.