Life Lived “On the Other Hand”: Some Meditation on What Happened in Charleston Last Week
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. – Paul, in Romans 12.21
I cannot imagine that the minds of many in the Emanuel AME church, the friends and family of those nine killed in the shooting, did not turn in the direction of anger, vengeance, and retribution, at least at some point.
Maybe that says more than anything else something about the pathetic limits of my imagination.
But I cannot imagine that thoughts of retribution did not flash through their minds.
After all, that’s just human nature. And if there is anything our current society trumpets as “good” it is to go with how you feel, go with that nature, do what you feel, be “authentic.”
Certainly a great deal of the initial reaction I read and heard in our social media-saturated age in the first few days was, naturally, of the “angry retribution” kind. And, certainly, if anyone ought to be in the way of folks righteously throwing verbal stones it is those who are hate-filled racists. Let them know what it is to be on the receiving end of hatred and ostracism. I can go there so easily.
It just comes naturally, doesn’t it?
An aside: It comes so naturally, that in the Law of Moses, God set a limit on retribution [maybe at that point, a full stop on retribution would not have been possible; maybe the people just couldn’t have lived up to it]. One of the very first articulations of that limit is found mere verses after the Ten Commandments. Exodus 21.23-24: If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. The temptation is always to let retribution become a “plus one” situation: “You hit me, I’ll hit you harder…and twice.” That’s just natural, isn’t it? But God says, in a word, “no.”
And, then, as we’re absorbing the horror of this event and reacting to it, there comes a new wrinkle last Friday morning. There were members of that church, family members of five of the nine people killed, standing there less than two days after the shooting. Clearly grieving, but also clearly expressing their commitment to forgive the shooter.
To forgive the shooter.
The one who had murdered their relatives and friends. The one who had shouted racial epithets as he shot their relatives and friends. The one who still shouted racial epithets as he stood over the dead bodies surveying his “work” of slaughtering their relatives and friends. It is a hellish scene to contemplate if there has ever been one.
And there these folks are, expressing the desire, expressing their commitment, to live up to the call of Christ even in this moment of sheer, damnable hellishness. They thrust into the darkness of this event a shaft of God’s light.
And they were doing this at the initial bond hearing of the confessed shooter. It was not a theoretical moment. I understand from media reports that they saw him (on video feed, at least) as they offered forgiveness.
Jesus said this right before he said that to be like God involves learning to love your enemy: You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. That’s Matthew 5.38-42. And that’s not what comes naturally. At least not for me.
It’s as if Jesus says, “Yes, retribution is natural, and God made provision for it in the old law, but on the other hand, here’s an even more godly way to live.”
When Paul is trying to get churches to work on and work out their differences so that they can work for their common cause, he says things like this:
Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. (Ephesians 4.31-32)
Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. (Colossians 3.13)
Truth to tell, we have trouble doing that well among ourselves, even in a good church setting. Bitterness and anger and complaining just come so naturally, don’t they? But, on the other hand…
I know that this whole issue — the specifics of the Emanuel Church shooting, the struggle to come to terms with what Jesus says in Matthew 5.38-42, the stomach-turning ugliness of racism (even latent, hidden racism), perhaps even the factor of mental illness and how it is treated (ignored?) in this society — is incredibly complicated. And, unlike many in the blogosphere, the world of Facebook and other social media, and water-cooler type conversations, I don’t think there are any easy, obvious answers.
So, here’s a meditation, not an answer.
I want to hang on to that image of people standing to offer forgiveness in the face of horrible evidence of evil’s power.
There will be times as this process plays out when the commitment to forgive will be sorely tested for those people. That is because that commitment will always stand over against what comes naturally to our divided hearts. But they have said the words, they have made the commitment, they have taken the first step of a journey to life “on the other hand.”
I’ve quoted G. K. Chesterton on this before: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult, and left untried.” Thank God for these people in Charleston who will at least commit to “try.” What an inspiration for us.
My journey will not be the same as theirs; my struggles with what comes naturally will be different. But if I am to consider myself a follower of Christ in this sad, dark age I will have to pursue life “on the other hand.” What other option represents him so well?
May Southeastern be a church that seeks with all our collective heart to see “the other hand” when tempted to act naturally and then to live “on the other hand.”