Within 48 hours of the unthinkable murders of nine Christians in Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC families of the victims expressed remarkable grace towards the gunman. At a bond hearing via video feed one relative after the other invoked God’s mercy on the shooter and several expressed their personal forgiveness to him.
“I forgive you, my family forgives you,” Anthony Thompson said, “But… take this opportunity to repent. Repent. Confess. Give your life to the one that matters the most – Christ – so that he can change you and change your ways no matter what happened to you, and you’ll be okay. Do that and you’ll be better off than you are right now.”
One particular television commentator was so awed by the reactions of the victims’ families that he kept repeating how he could not get over their unusual attitudes in the midst of such tremendous grief and anguish. A self-described non-religious person, he could barely grasp the concept of this kind of forgiveness, especially so soon after the horrific incident. Most of us can hardly fathom and only pray that we would respond in a like manner.
A similar situation occurred in October of 2006 when five Amish girls were killed in a one-room Pennsylvania schoolhouse. Families of the victims reached out with grace and compassion towards the family of the shooter who also took his own life that day. Amish mourners outnumbered non-Amish ones at the killer’s funeral and they set up a charitable fund for his wife and three children. The media and the public were stunned by the outpouring of forgiveness.
What could possibly explain this kind of reaction to such extreme hate? It is obvious that family members of these victims had hearts and minds completely transformed by the love of God. They exhibited a way of thinking and reacting that could only result from divine guidance. They took the words of Jesus seriously. “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” (Matthew 6:14-15)
The early Christians were also known for something extraordinary about their lives. A first or second century letter to Diognetus described followers of Christ whose attitudes should be exemplified by us today.
“They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all others; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death and restored to life. They are poor yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things and yet abound in all; they are dishonored and yet in their very dishonor are glorified. They are evil spoken of and yet are justified; they are reviled and bless; they are insulted and repay the insult with honor; they do good yet are punished as evildoers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred. To sum it all up in one word — what the soul is to the body, that are Christians in the world.”