By Caleb G. Hall
On June 17, 2015, Felicia Sanders showed up at Emanuel AME Church for a Bible study—a typical Wednesday night. Two days later, she stood in front of a monitor showing a video conference with a handcuffed Dylan Roof, the man that shot and killed her son Tywanza along with eight others during that Bible study two nights before.
“We welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible study with open arms,” she said to Roof, her voice filled with pain. “You have killed some of the most beautifulest people that I know. Every fiber in my body hurts, and I will never be the same.” And as she and other family members of the victims wept, Sanders said to Roof, “As we say in Bible study, we enjoyed you. But may God have mercy on you.”
Sanders was joined by other family members. They spoke forgiveness to Roof. The Rev. Anthony Thompson, whose wife was killed during the shooting, said to Roof, “Repent, confess, give your life to the one who matters the most, Christ…He can change your ways no matter what happened to you, and you’ll be OK.”
Their story declares, as Joseph said in Genesis 50:20, “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” They laid aside any vengeful desire out of concern for the murderer’s soul.
Some, even Christians, did not applaud their forgiveness, focusing on the politicized topic of gun control, arguing that victims would have been better off if they had shot back at Roof. Was their forgiveness cowardice or weakness? Are these statements justified, or do these types of statements look directly into the bloodied face of Christ, who didn’t resist, and fail to recognize him?
Jesus told his followers in Matthew 5:44, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” With his dying breaths, while dying for crimes he did not commit, he did just as he instructed others to do, praying in Luke 23:34, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” This is how the Charleston victims and their families responded.
This same response has been emulated time and time again by Christian martyrs. They respond to Christ’s example with selfless sacrifices of their own. The first martyr, Stephen, following Christ’s example, also prayed for his killers as he died, saying in Acts 7:60, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”
Jim Elliot and the four other missionaries killed by the exceedingly hostile Waodani tribe in Ecuador agreed before making contact with the tribe that they would not respond with violence, even if they faced death. They believed, as Elliot wrote in his journal years before, that “he is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.”
Early Christianity, suffering persecution under the Roman empire, is filled with similar examples. Before being burned at the stake, Polycarp prayed, “I bless you for judging me worthy of this day, this hour, so that in the company of the martyrs I may share the cup of Christ.” Justin Martyr, before being beheaded, said, “That is our desire, to be tortured for Our Lord, Jesus Christ.” Ignatius of Antioch, another martyr, wrote, “Let fire and cross, flocks of beasts, broken bones, dismemberment…come upon me, so long as I attain to Jesus Christ.”
These martyrs, and countless others, demonstrated with their lives that they agreed with what Paul expressed in his letter to the Romans in Romans 8:18: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” Their stories are powerful, and their lives demonstrate such inspiring devotion to God, mirroring the cross of Christ.
Jerry Falwell Jr.
Jerry Falwell Jr., in his recent, highly publicized remarks during a convocation to Liberty University, where he is president, said, in response to the tragic mass shooting in San Bernadino, California, “I’ve always thought that if more good people had concealed-carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in.” He later clarified his statement, noting that by “those Muslims” he was not referring to all Muslims. Rather, he explained, he was exclusively referring to Islamic terrorists.
Falwell’s words were met with boisterous applause from the audience. There is much debate in the Christian tradition regarding issues of violence and force, and there are valid discussions to be had on this topic. But even if violence in the form of self-defense is justified, taking a life, especially one untouched by salvation, should not be something we, as Christians, should rejoice in. To cheer in response to this is not solemn and does not responsibly acknowledge the weight of violence.
In his remarks, he also said, “Let’s teach them a lesson if they ever show up here.” What lesson do we want to teach terrorists? What lesson do we want to teach the world? What lesson did the martyrs teach? What lesson did Jesus’ death teach? These are the questions we must ask. The lesson the martyrs taught does not align with what Falwell is suggesting. Christ calls us to a nobler path. Where will we place our trust? The psalmist writes in Psalm 20:7, “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God.”
There is widespread fear in America in response to horrific and inhumane acts of violence committed by ISIS and other Islamic terror groups. A recent NBC News poll found that 25 percent of Americans agree with Donald Trump’s call to prohibit all Muslims that are not already citizens to enter the country, and another 18 percent are unsure what they think about the issue. Universal fear of Muslims has dangerous consequences. CNN recently reported hate crimes against mosques and Islamic centers have reached record highs with a “threefold increase over last year.”
This is the climate into which Falwell said his remarks. Although he clarified later that by “those Muslims” he was referring exclusively to terrorists, the words that he said, that were applauded by those present in the auditorium and heard by many around the nation, could easily be interpreted as a call for violence against all members of the Islamic faith. He did not say these words into a vacuum.
Falwell offered a call to defend ourselves and increase security. God offers a call “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” Micah 6:8. Falwell wants Christians to arm ourselves with guns. Scripture tells us to take up a different sort of armament in 1 Peter 4:1: “Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking.”
As a part of doing justice, we must publicly oppose rhetoric that encourages hate or violence against anyone, Muslim or otherwise. As James wrote in James 1:27, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” Our religion must be unstained from the false ideals of security, power, and vengeance. Our task is to serve the oppressed and outcast. We do not want to be counted among the number that ask in Matthew 25:34: “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?”
The Charleston victims and their families so clearly demonstrated loving mercy. We must love our enemies. We must also extend grace to people like Falwell. He made problematic remarks that have been criticized by many, but we must approach him, too, with mercy and charity. Falwell has offered full scholarships to children of the San Bernadino victims as well as some of the first responders. Whether we consider him an enemy, or a misinformed comrade, we should love him just the same.
Walk Humbly with our God
We are faced with many difficult questions, and we will not always agree. All of these questions of practice and policy must be approached with humility. Solomon wrote in Proverbs 14:12, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.” To have any sort helpful dialogue, we must be humble enough to listen to new ideas and to be open to change.
What is most important, though, is that we walk with God. While there is fear around the world about the dangers of ISIS, let us remember that Jesus said in Matthew 10:28, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
Christ is the supreme example of walking humbly with God. The Christian life is not one of safety, as he told his disciples in Matthew 16:24-26, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” The martyrs knew this. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” according to Matthew 5:10.
May we ever seek to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. May we be known for loving our neighbors and caring for the oppressed, and not for longing to kill those we fear. And, if we are so blessed, may we rejoice in martyrdom to the glory of God.