“I acknowledge that I am very angry…(but) she taught me that we are the family that love built. We have no room for hating.” Thus said Bethane Middleton-Brown, sister of one of the victims, DePayne Middleton-Doctor, killed last week by a racist murderer in a Bible study class at a church in Charleston, SC.
The family that love built — the parade of victims’ family members who addressed the murderer in the courtroom the day after his horrific act ended their loved ones’ lives was one of the greatest witnesses to Christian faith I’ve seen in my lifetime. Still grieving, their voices sometimes trembling with tears, sometimes strong and clipped, they came to the microphone one after another and offered this simple message: We forgive you.
“It was as if the Bible study had never ended,” a New York Times reporter wrote.
I suspect these families will struggle with the pain, the anger, and even some hate in their hearts over the years. But when they had the chance to speak publicly, on the record, in a courtroom, they used their moments in the spotlight to preach love, not hate, not personal agendas or political points.
Would that we all learned from them. So often, when horrible acts like this occur, we reach for our own particular solution. Angry that it was never enacted (gun control, better mental illness care, anti-racism/terrorism programs), we let that anger spill into hate, at times, for opponents of the solutions we favor.
We saw this in the aftermath of the Charleston massacre. We saw, sadly, hate, not love from some quarters. Hate for gun control opponents. Hate for those who won’t rush to take down the Confederate flag from South Carolina. Hate for anyone we disagree with. Don’t get me wrong — I agree with some of the solutions these people espouse. But to be effective, you must learn to love your policy idea and the people you want it to benefit more than you hate its opponents . (For how this plays out, just look at the last push for gun control in the US Senate, where proponents were happy to use the issue to bludgeon opponents but lacked the fortitude to even “whip” the vote.)
To a certain extent, it’s understandable to get so riled up that we lash out during times like this. When something this horrible happens, even removed from the personal pain of those directly affected by it, we still ache for them in our hearts. It’s easy for that ache to search for expression. And it’s very easy for that expression to become: “If only those horrible people hadn’t done or said X or stood in the way of Y…”
A conservative website, Ace of Spades, acknowledged the legitimacy of this kind of feeling in a raw post right after the shooting:
“The feeling I have — apart from shock and horror — is shame. Shame that this creature looks anything at all like me, shame that there may be a few stray nucleotides in his envenomed heart that resemble my own….
Black people are going to be angry at white folks — even if they hide it, they’re going to be angry at white folks for what this bloody bastard did. And I won’t jeer at this feeling. I understand it…”
But then, in that courtroom, we saw the opposite of hate. We saw the love of Christ. We have to acknowledge it as this because those family members testified as Christians called to live their faith.
Christianity has been around so long now and has been such a part of the history of the western world that we have forgotten how revolutionary its message was at the beginning. As theologian David Bentley Hart has pointed out, Christ’s message of loving one’s neighbor, of forgiveness, was fresh and radical in an ancient world where violence and revenge were not only tolerated but in many cases sanctioned. Think a world dominated by the likes of ISIS, by tyrants. And then think what it must have been like to have someone preach a gospel of love, of “good news,” that actually turned hard hearts away from slaughter, hate, and oppression toward love and forgiveness.
Think of those families in Charleston.
They represent what Christianity should be, the “family that love built.” Thanks to those Charleston family members, we were able to witness it anew.