Tobin Miller Shearer is the Director of the African-American Studies Program at the University of Montana and an Associate Professor of History. He is the co-founder of the Damascus Road anti-racism process and the author of Daily Demonstrators: The Civil Rights Movement in Mennonite Homes and Sanctuaries. He holds membership at Community Mennonite Fellowship in Markham, Ill.
Early on the morning of Thursday, June 18, my wife and I began a two-week trip that would take us from Missoula, Montana to Kalona, Iowa and many points in between. We were attending Cheryl’s high school reunion, joining family gatherings and visiting our son in Chicago.
Once on Highway 90, we turned on the radio. The trip turned sober quickly as we listened to a British announcer describe a mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, that left nine people dead. A young man, heavily influenced by white supremacist hate groups, had entered Emanuel African Methodist Church, joined in a Wednesday night Bible study, and shot nine African-American worshipers in hopes of starting a race war.
We continued driving.
Throughout that day and the days to follow, I received emails and calls from colleagues and the press asking for comment on the events in Charleston. As the director of African-American Studies at the University of Montana, I was expected to have insight to offer. But whatever interpretation I delivered paled in comparison to what relatives of the nine shooting victims had to say the following day.
On Friday, June 19, the shooter—who had been quickly apprehended and returned to Charleston—appeared in court to be charged. We listened as a Charleston County magistrate set bail. Relatives of the shooting victims read statements that were broadcast repeatedly across the nation and the world.
Anthony Thompson, representing the family of victim Myra Thompson, said, “I forgive you and my family forgives you, but we would like you to take this opportunity to repent.”
Bethane Middleton-Brown, who represented the family of the Reverend DePayne Middleton-Doctor, offered these words, “One thing DePayne always … taught … [is that] we are the family that love built. We have no room for hate. We have to forgive. I pray God on your soul. And I also thank God I won’t be around when your judgment day comes with him.”
And Nadine Collier, the daughter of Ethel Lance, one of those shot and killed, said to the shooter, “I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her ever again. But I forgive you.”
Some have criticized those who spoke to the shooter on June 19 for offering forgiveness so quickly. The critics note that for generations black people have been asked to forgive and forgive again when faced with unsanctioned acts of violence—as in the case of the June 17 shootings—and sanctioned acts of violence—as in the case of police shootings of unarmed black women and men. The critics also note how long black people have been asked to forgive a country that distributes educational resources, housing and wealth so unequally. The critics of this forgiveness say that kind of public grace undercuts the tension necessary to bring about change.
But when you listen carefully to the words of the Charleston family members, you hear that they did not offer a cheap grace. They expected judgment, called for repentance, expressed anger and offered forgiveness. They evidenced a mature, discerning and strong faith.
During the following weeks, I kept thinking about the families who had chosen to forgive. What had shaped them? What did their forgiveness mean? How would their message bear fruit?
As we returned home through desolate stretches of South Dakota and drove past Billings and Bozeman and Butte, I remembered a call I received while we were still in Iowa. A church news magazine columnist wanted to write a column about the Charleston events, but he didn’t know how to frame his comments. We talked on the phone as I paced back and forth on my in-laws’ front lawn.
I don’t remember all that I said, but I do remember this. I wanted the columnist to know that the greatest tragedy that could come out of the events in Charleston was that we as a nation would end up thinking that forgiveness was the solution to our problems of racism, and that we would think we can all get along if we would only forgive those who harm us. I told him that the problems of race are complex; forgiveness alone will not suffice.
As I have reflected more on my comments to the columnist, I think I was both right and wrong.
If we only latch on to the idea of forgiveness, then, yes, it is incomplete. We will need to find ways to address the unconscious racism that causes police officers to pull the trigger much more easily on a black man than a white man. We will need to find ways to teach our children to address the realities of power and privilege in our society that are too often mediated by white skin. We will need to find ways to better distribute our educational, employment, and housing resources so that communities of color do not continue to be disproportionately burdened by poverty.
But if we discount forgiveness as unimportant, then, we, too, will be bereft. Political solutions are essential, but they are not sufficient. The removal of the confederate flag from the South Carolina capitol and from many other commercial establishments resulted directly from the powerful act of forgiveness that the nation witnessed in Charleston. Forgiveness brought about that change.
And so I wonder what we in this missional church will do to make our faith one to be proud of? How will each of us bring our faith formation forward? How will we, in the words of Hebrews (9:11-15), be made free from those “dead-end efforts to make ourselves respectable?” How will we “live all out for God?”
I imagine for some of us this may mean little acts of forgiveness when we have been slighted. For others it may mean expressing one’s passion for justice through political action or making wise decisions at work or home or church that do not bring attention but do build up the community.
I pray that no one will, in the act of forgiving, however, put themselves in a position to be hurt again. We have learned that people in abusive relationships must be especially careful about how they forgive. Sometimes the most powerful act of forgiveness requires that one leave the abuser so that the hurt may not again take place.
When we finally returned home to Missoula this summer after more than three and a half thousand miles of driving, I encountered one more act of forgiveness from a cherished colleague. From 1995 through 2005, Regina Shands
Stoltzfus and I—a black woman and a white man—traveled across the country, speaking and leading workshops together and calling our sisters and brothers in the church to bring an end to racism. With our colleagues, we conducted more than 500 workshops of a half-day or more in length. We were hopeful.
Cheryl and I had lunch with Regina this summer in Kansas City. We laughed a lot. We caught up on each other’s
lives. And we assessed the results of our efforts. In some ways it felt like we had made a difference. More people of color were in prominent positions of leadership in the church. A new generation of activists were speaking out about racism and drawing on resources we had written together two decades previously. But at the same time, our actions paled in comparison to the renewed attacks on the African-American community evident in the shooting at Emanuel and in the many shootings across the country of unarmed black women and men by the police.
When we returned to Missoula, I read a column by Regina entitled, “The Summer of Grief.” As I read it, I realized that the column was a profound act of forgiveness, the result of a life focused on spiritual formation, deep wisdom and living “all out for God.”
Regina had chosen to address a church that had often betrayed her trust. She wrote as a black woman to white believers who had too often refused to listen to her counsel. She wrote even though people she had come to trust—people like me I am sad to confess—had let her down by allowing their power and privilege to get in the way of right relationship. But nonetheless, she chose to forgive the church, to forgive me as she had many times before, and to make herself vulnerable.