Nisi Dominus aedificaverit domum, in vanum laborant qui aedificaverunt eam - "Unless the Lord has built the house, they labored in vain who built it" Psalm 127

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Charleston, the Stranger, and the Power of Forgiveness

An earlier version of this Worth Revisiting post was first published 27 June 2016 . To enjoy the work of other faithful Catholic bloggers see Worth Revisiting Wednesday, hosted by Elizabeth Reardon at theologyisaverb.com and Allison Gingras atreconciledtoyou.com.

One more recent development: it was revealed in the recent trial of Omar Mateen's widow that Mateen did not choose to attack the Pulse nightclub because of its clientele. He chose Pulse simply because it appeared an easier target than his first choice, Disney World, where he was deterred by heavy security.


Love Overcomes Hate


One year ago [June 17th, 2015], a shocking crime was dominating the news here in the United States: the vicious murder of nine members of a prayer group in Charleston, South Carolina.  The killer, a young man named Dylann Roof, hoped that the crime would ignite a race war (Roof is white, his victims were black).  It didn’t happen.  It is true that some political activists took advantage of the understandable outrage at Roof’s racist massacre to push for various tenuously related pet causes, such as banning displays of the flag of the old Confederacy (never let a good crisis go to waste, someone once said), but racial armageddon stubbornly refused to break out.

Funeral for victims at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, 2015

More important than the machinations of the usual political agitators, however, was the reaction of the family and friends of the victims.  They had every reason to rise up in a spirit of anger and righteous vengeance.  Instead, they came together in a spirit of love and forgiveness, forgiveness explicitly grounded in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  These grieving, wounded Christians gave the whole world a moving example of the healing power of Christ’s love.


A Stranger Comes To Town


As it happens, these were not the first Christians to have lived out the words of their Savior: “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).  It has happened many times over the past two millennia. I was reminded of another such example a few days ago, when I paid a visit to the town cemetery in Gray, Maine.  There, among other Civil War era graves stands a headstone which reads:
Stranger
a Soldier of the late war
Died 1862
Erected
By the Ladies of Gray
A star medallion accompanies the stone, to indicate that the man beneath was a combat veteran.  There is usually a flag as well; when I visited last week, there were actually three small flags snapping in the breeze.  The Stranger differs from the dozens of other Civil War veterans buried in the cemetery, however, in that, here in the heart of the northernmost state of Yankee New England, his grave is honored not with the American flag, but with the Confederate battle flag, an emblem of the enemy of the local brothers, sons, and fathers who perished in that conflict.
There’s an interesting story here, going back over a century and a half.  At the time of the Civil War, soldiers who fell in battle would be buried in a military cemetery, usually not far from where they died.  If a soldier’s family wished to bury him at home, they had to pay out of their own resources for the transport of his body.  And so it happened that when Lt. Charles Colley of Gray died in September of 1862, succumbing to wounds he received at the battle of Cedar Mountain in Virginia, his family paid to bring his body back to Maine.
    An unpleasant surprise lay in store for Lt. Colley’s family when they opened his coffin, however.  They found in the casket not their son, but an unidentified young man in a Confederate uniform.  The government was not willing to ship him back, and besides, who knew where to send him? And so a group of local women arranged to have him interred in the local cemetery. There he lies today, the gray-uniformed Stranger side by side with one Johnson Smith, his blue-coated antagonist from the Maine Volunteers.


People Are More Than Symbols Or Categories


It might be helpful to consider who these “Ladies of Gray” were.  First of all, the Town of Gray sent a larger proportion of its population to the war than any other community in Maine; 178 of them are buried in the town cemetery.  The “Ladies” were mostly mothers and wives of young men who had gone to fight against the Stranger and his comrades-in-arms.  Many of these women had already seen their loved ones killed or grievously wounded.  How tempting it must have been to take symbolic vengeance on the remains of this enemy.  The Ladies of Gray were good Christian women, however, and saw him not as a symbol or a category (“The Enemy”), but as a fellow human being whose mortal remains deserved to be treated with the same dignity as any of their own.

Enemies in life, together in eternity

The two cases above, in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015 and in Gray, Maine in 1862, are vivid reminders of what we can do if we take Christ’s words to heart.  And if Christ’s love can help us to see, and to love, the humanity in someone who has murdered a brother or sister, or who has been making war against our sons, surely we can do the same with somebody with whom we simply disagree.  That’s why it was perfectly natural for Christians around the United States and around the world to offer prayers for the forty-nine people murdered and dozens more injured at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, and offer support to their families.  It doesn’t matter if we disagree about the morality of homosexual acts or the proper legal status of homosexual relationships.  The victims in Orlando are our fellow human beings, brothers and sisters made in the image and likeness of God, and unjustly slaughtered by a heartless fanatic.  We Christians would be hypocrites indeed if we did not pray for their souls and for the consolation of their loved ones.


J’Accuse!


As it happens, however, there are some people who are accusing Christians of hypocrisy because we pray for the victims of the Orlando massacre.  They argue that because we oppose gay marriage and the homosexual lifestyle, we must therefore really hate the victims, since they were slaughtered in a gay nightclub.  Some of these critics have even gone so far as to say that conservative Christians are really to blame and not radical Islam, not even the Muslim jihadist himself who publicly declared his allegiance to the terrorist Islamic State in the midst of the killing.
Some of the purveyors of this venomous nonsense are political operators, intent on exploiting a tragedy to push their agenda. It is likely, however, that most are sincerely convinced of the current secular dogma that our worth derives not from the fact that we are human beings made in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:27), but from our membership in various ethnic or sexual identity groups.  According to this worldview, the fact that Omar Mateen’s victims were mostly members of the LGBQT community is more important than the simple fact that they were human beings cruelly murdered. In such a view it is all too easy to lose a sense of shared humanity for its own sake, and to come to believe that to disagree with a particular group is necessarily to hate its members.  In such a worldview it is practically impossible to love your enemies, and praying for them can only be pretense.  And so large segments of the popular culture have proclaimed Christians who pray for the murdered men and woman of Orlando to be haters and hypocrites.  Case closed.


Speaking The Truth In Love


Now, it’s mighty tempting to lash out in turn at those who are exploiting the crimes of a fanatical jihadist, not to mention the deaths of his many victims, in order to slander Christians.  I was ready to do just that a week ago.  That is, until I came across this article titled “Pastor: Have Mercy On Dylann Roof”.  It tells about a prayer service held in Charleston on the first anniversary of Dylann Roof’s rampage:
Rev. Dr. Juenarrl Keith gave the invocation for the service . . . During the prayer, he asked for guidance and healing for the families, but also mentioned Roof, the man charged with the murders of the church members.
"Have mercy upon the soul and the life of young Dylann Roof," Keith told the crowd. Some in the crowd could be heard saying "Amen," and clapping after his statement.

Moments earlier, Keith told the gathered crowd inside the area, "help us o God never to deny humanity in others, for it is then we destroy humanity within ourselves."


Rev. Dr. Juenarrl Keith speaking at commemoration service for Charleston massacre victims
After seeing that, how could I not feel ashamed of my own anger at people guilty of little more than name-calling?
It’s not for us, of course, to forgive Omar Mateen: that is for the loved ones of those he has killed, if God grants them the grace. It is our place to respond to our own accusers with forgiveness. That does not mean that we agree to abandon the moral law or to reconfigure society based on the assertions of the ever-evolving sexual revolution.  Nor should we allow slanders against us and our faith to go unanswered.  The trick is to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15), respecting our antagonists as human beings even as we point out where they’re wrong (not coincidentally, what we say will be much more effective if we match it with how we say it). That’s not easy to do (not for me, I confess), which is a good reason to keep praying for God’s grace to live up to the example of the families of Charleston, and the Ladies of Gray.  Only then can we hope to be that shining lamp (Mark 4:21) that Christ calls us to be.

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