If you ever want to know the true meaning of Christmas, go spend some time with people who have forgiven the murderer of their loved ones.
I recently had the opportunity – in reality, the privilege – of doing so when I was invited by the South Carolina Baptist Convention to speak at a special service held at Mother Emanuel AME Church in downtown Charleston.
As I’m sure most Americans remember, three and a half years ago a young man named Dylann Roof walked into Mother Emanuel on the pretense of attending a Wednesday night Bible study. When the study’s prayer time came, he pulled out a gun and started firing. He killed nine people, including the pastor, Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, a father of two young girls.
After his arrest, Roof, who self-identifies as a white supremacist, confessed his motive for carrying out the shooting was to start a “race war.” He was charged with 33 counts of federal hate crimes and was sentenced to death. He is currently in an Indiana penitentiary, awaiting execution.
Roof’s heinous hate crime shocked the nation, but it was the response from the victims’ families that left us truly speechless.
At a bond hearing two days after the massacre, one family member after another – a daughter, then a mother, granddaughter and sister – told Roof they forgave him.
Nadine Collier, daughter of Ethel Lace, who died at the shooting, said to Roof, “You took something very precious away from me. I will never get to talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you … If God forgives you, I forgive you.”
“I acknowledge that I am very angry,” said the sister of DePayne Middleton Doctor, another one of Roof’s victims. “But one thing that DePayne … taught me [is] that we are the family that love built. We have no room for hating, so we have to forgive. I pray God will have mercy on your soul.”
You cannot read those words and not be overcome with emotion. That kind of forgiveness can only come out of a heart that believes love is greater than hate. It can only come out of a heart that knows Jesus.
Christmas is the season when we remember the story of the birth of Jesus – the angels appearing to the awestruck shepherds, the magi following the star across the desert to worship the newborn child, young Mary and Joseph marveling at God’s favor on them, baby Jesus swaddled in a manger. His birth heralded the coming of the Messiah promised of long-ago who would save the world. No other person like Jesus has ever been born or will ever be born on earth.
Yet, as Christians across the world remember the night when Jesus took his first breath, my visit to Mother Emanuel has left me thinking about the afternoon He took his last.
On that day, instead of lying swaddled in a manger, the 33-year-old Jesus hung on a cross for all to see. There were no magi to bring Him gifts, only Roman soldiers who spat on Him, mocked Him and cast lots over His garment. Angels did not appear to announce His coming, but a crude sign was hung over His head, ironically deriding Him as “The King of the Jews.”
But as He hung there on that cross, dying for a crime He did not commit on behalf of a people undeserving, Jesus looked up to Heaven and said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)
This is the Christmas story the family members of the Charleston shooting victims had in mind when they looked at Dylann Roof and said to him, We forgive you.
God’s love can give people the superhuman strength to love and forgive those who have hurt them beyond words. His love can change the world.