Power to Change the World
By Steve Parker
For the past two months, I’ve been writing about the subject of forgiveness and how important it is for Christian discipleship. In June, I explored how our failure to forgive can hinder us from experiencing the fullness of Christ’s forgiveness, including all the blessings that come with the cleansing of our sins. In July, I put forth the idea that we may often be carrying unforgiveness but calling it something else, such as righteous indignation or justified anger. When this happens, we are unknowingly giving the devil a foothold in our life, which he uses to build strongholds, fortresses from which he can engage in spiritual warfare to turn us away from God. Because of this, when we choose to forgive, we are making room for the Holy Spirit to drive away spiritual darkness and bring Christ-like transformation to our inner world.
This month, I want to look at an example from the recent history of how embracing the radical forgiveness of the cross can not only powerfully change individual life, but can actually transform the world! Think back with me to the atrocity of the AME Zion church shooting in Charleston, SC.
On June 17, 2015, white supremacist Dylann Roof killed nine African-American members of the Emmanuel AME-Zion Church while attending their Wednesday night Bible study. As one would expect, news channels, newspapers, and social media devoted massive resources to providing coverage of this horrific event. The entire country was shocked by this violent display of racial bigotry and hatred.
Two days later, however, the country was shocked again, when the relatives of those who died were asked to speak at Roof’s first court appearance. What follows is from the article that appeared on the front page of the July 20 edition of The State, South Carolina’s largest newspaper. Taking up most of the page, the article’s headline read: “‘I forgive you.’ Victims’ families offer forgiveness, not condemnation, to suspect in Charleston church murders.” The opening paragraph read:
“One by one, the family members of slain Emanuel AME Church faced their loved ones’ suspected killer head on, and rather than condemning him, they offered their forgiveness. As the relatives spoke out during 21-year-old Dylann Roof’s initial bond hearing Friday, they expressed hope for his redemption and promised to pray for his soul through a tearful round of family sentiment.”
Nadine Collier, daughter of 70-year-old murder victim Ethel Lance was among the family members quoted on that front page: ‘You took something very precious from me,” she said. “I will never talk to her again. I will never, ever hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.’”
Years later, these same relatives would publicly share how these acts of radical forgiveness gave them a deep and abiding peace while drawing them closer to Christ at the time those events unfolded. But what I want to note here is the impact that an event like this can have even on non-Believers: Christ-like forgiveness makes the world stop and take notice. Just as the shooting had been front page news, forgiveness also made the front page. Usually, those headlines are reserved for events that are shocking, impactful, or unexpected. This qualified as all three.
However, deep forgiveness not only gets people’s attention, but it also has the power to transform governments and societies. The film Emmanuel documents the events following the shooting, and reports that leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement were drawn to Charleston by the tragedy and planned to launch massive protests. Those plans changed when they heard that the families had forgiven the shooters. BLM activist Muhiyidin D’Baha says in the film, “Immediately, as an organizer, it was just like… ‘that’s the nail in the coffin man. We aren’t going to be able to mobilize.”
However, amazingly enough, one of the results of the shooting was something that many civil rights activists had been trying to accomplish for decades. Moved by the tragedy and appalled at pictures of murderer Dylann Roof posing with the Confederate flag before the massacre, South Carolina legislators, led by Republican Governor Nikki Haley, voted overwhelmingly to remove that same flag from above the state capitol.
Would that have happened if the protests had taken place? Perhaps, but not necessarily. Quite possibly, defiant legislators would have refused to give in to violent demands. What seems to have happened, however, is that the power of forgiveness created an atmosphere that cleared the way for the flag to come down. South Carolina is a different place today because those who were grievously sinned against chose forgiveness over vengeance. They embraced the great grace that had been given to them through the cross of Christ and chose to be channels of that grace for a city that desperately needed to see it. They were changed, and their world was changed, for the better.
Radical forgiveness brings about radical change. The question is, are God’s people ready to embrace this power to transform the world?