We didn’t have all the details about the Sutherland Springs shooting correct when we heard about it at church this morning, but our church body stopped mid-service to engage in prayer on the First Baptist Church’s behalf. It seemed unfair to pray for forgiveness and peace so soon after the shooting, but we knew it would be a long road ahead for the victims and that it might be helpful for us to pray the things they would not be able to vocalize for possibly years to come. We prayed for love, healing, peace, miracles, for the dead to be raised, and we even prayed for the salvation of the shooter.
I am motivated to pray like this because of radical Christians like our brothers and sisters who endured the Charleston Church shooting of 2015. As you’ll recall, during a time where America was already suffering from racial inequality, a young white supremacist walked into a primarily black church in Charleston, South Carolina, and began shooting—murdering 9 people. I walked into church that Sunday, especially feeling the pain that some of our black congregants carried. Hadn’t all the police shootings at that time been enough?
But I had forgiveness written in my preaching notes that day and here’s the reason why: the families of those killed in the Charleston shooting had already forgiven the murderer. I don’t know how, but those affected went to the shooter’s bond hearing two days after this horrible atrocity and shared words of forgiveness with the shooter. The daughter of Ethel Lance, one of those who had been shot and killed, told him,
I just want everybody [to] know…. I forgive you. You took something very precious away from me. I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you and have mercy on your soul. You have hurt me. You have hurt a lot of people. But God forgives you, and I forgive you.
Next up, a representative from Myra Thompson’s family spoke.
Saying the same thing that was just said. You know, I forgive you and my family forgives you. But we would like you to take this opportunity to repent. Repent. Confess. Give your life to the one who matters the most, Christ, so that he can change it, can change your ways, no matter what happened to you, and you will be OK. Do that, and you will be better off than what you are right now.
Then another representative spoke up.
We welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible study with open arms. You have killed some of the most beautiful people that I know. Every fiber in my body hurts. And—and I will never be the same. Tywanza Sanders is my son, but Tywanza was my hero. Tywanza was my hero. But, as we said in the Bible study, we enjoyed you, but may God have mercy on you.
Another representative repeated the same theme.
Although my grandfather and the other victims died at the hands of hate, this is proof, everyone’s plea for your soul is proof that they—they lived in love, and their legacies will live in love. So, hate won’t win. And I just want to thank the courts for making sure that hate doesn’t win.
We’re not done yet. Another girl who had lost her sister spoke as well.
I would just thank you on behalf of my family for not allowing hate to win. For me, I’m a work in progress. And I acknowledge that I am very angry. But one thing Depayne has always joined in, in our family with is that she taught me that we are the families that love built. We have no room for hate. So, we have to forgive.
These amazingly bittersweet, gut-wrenching testimonies bring tears to my eyes as I read through them. How can anyone respond so peaceably? How do they not lash out and spew hatred over their victimizer?
By allowing the Holy Spirit to grow impossibly-sized fruit in their lives. They chose to be people of peace instead of violence; people of love instead of hate. Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church chose Jesus’ spiritual tactics when Satan’s fleshly tactics seemed so much more appetizing.
Today we hurt and grieve. But as we practice the peaceful ways of Jesus, we know that he will come to our aid, for no man likes to see his bride suffer.
“South Carolina Shooting Suspect in Court (Transcript).” CNN, 19 June 2015, http://www.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/1506/19/cnr.07.html. Accessed 15 May 2017. All the above testimonies are taken from this transcript.