Last Thursday, America woke up to the horrifying news of a massacre in a historic black church. Dylann Roof, a devout racist, walked into a Bible study, listened to innocent people discuss their faith for an hour, and then shot and killed nine of them in cold blood.
Two days after the killings, Americans were shocked once again—but this time, the surprise came from the families and friends of the murdered churchgoers. One by one, gathered at Roof’s bond hearing, a group of Christians publicly forgave and prayed for a decidedly evil person who, except for a few fleeting, eye-flickering onscreen moments, seemed without a soul.
It was the Gospel in practice. It’s not something you see every day, at least not in the fever swamps of our relentless, gurgling, insatiable media, which increasingly resemble a starving narrative monster on speed. As an ever-imperfect Christian, the forgiveness was humbling—almost shamefully so—to watch. Sadly, for some, Charleston’s transcendent moment appears to be slipping away, likely because it was so contrary, and so foreign, to our media culture at large.
From one corner, for instance, we are now told that forgiveness is a tool of oppression. “The almost reflexive demand for forgiveness, especially for those dealing with death by racism, is about protecting whiteness, and America as a whole,” wrote Stacey Patton in Monday’s Washington Post. “What white people are really asking for when they demand forgiveness from a traumatized community is absolution,” Roxanne Gay argued in Wednesday’s New York Times. “Can’t remember any campaign to ‘love’ and ‘forgive’ in the wake of ISIS beheadings,” Atlantic monthly writer Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote on Twitter.
That last point is undoubtedly true. But here’s the problem: Prior to the church’s radical act of forgiveness, there was no large-scale “campaign” or “demand” or “narrative” that asked them to do anything of the sort. Search the news and social media leading up to that mind-blowing hearing, and you’ll come up empty. Very few, in fact, saw anything like the church’s response coming. That’s what made it so unexpected, so beautiful, and so astonishing—and, in a culture that often thrives on outrage, so disorienting.