A Miracle in Charleston

Mathis: Awed by the families who forgive Dylann Roof, who doesn't deserve it.

When the arguments about guns and race subside after last week’s Charleston massacre — and, inevitably, they will — there is one moment from the whole ugly affair that I expect to remember for a long, long time.

That moment came after the alleged shooter, Dylann Roof, had been captured and brought before a judge to hear the charges and have bail set. In a moment unlike any I’ve experienced in court, the judge then allowed family members of the victims to speak to Roof.

And what happened was kind of extraordinary.

“You took something really precious from me. I will never talk to her again,” the daughter of 70-year-old Ethel Lance said. “But I forgive you and have mercy on your soul. You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. But God forgives you. I forgive you.”

“We welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible study with open arms. You have killed some of the most beautifulest people that I know,” said the mother of 26-year-old Tywanza Sanders. “As we said in the Bible study, we enjoyed you, but may God have mercy on you.”

“I forgive you, and my family forgives you,” said the husband of 59-year-old Myra Thompson, said. “But we would like you take this opportunity to repent. Change your ways.”

I watched the video of this. I wept. And I was humbled.

We talk a lot about faith and religion in the aftermath of these kinds of disasters — too often, it seems, in trying to understand the motives of killers. Do Islam or Christianity or Judaism deserve the blame for evil sometimes done in their names? Why do humans so often kill in the name of their God?

We don’t talk very often — at least, not in this context — about the miracles that faith can create.

I’m not talking magic here. But: There’s no rational reason to forgive Dylann Roof, and every reason to rage and want to see him die a painful death. No reason at all to offer him the slightest bit of grace or hope or human warmth, and every reason to argue, vehemently and unflaggingly, about race and guns and the Confederate flag. Every bit of anger that is being expressed right now on behalf of the victims and their families is a fully justifiable, correct emotion.

Yet: There were family members — no doubt feeling rage and grief and a million other painful emotions — who looked at Roof, remembered what their faith told them about forgiveness, and tried to live their values in the toughest of all circumstances.

Like I said: A miracle. A not-entirely rational happening in a rational world.

I’m not saying you need religion to be a good person; I know better. And I’m honestly not trying to urge faith or any particular form of it on you, reader. I count myself an agnostic, and know from bitter experience the truth once uttered by Huckleberry Finn: You can’t pray a lie. It’s tricky to write positively about faith when you’ve divorced yourself from it.

But if I can’t personally embrace faith, and if I can get irritated when it summons my friends to war or keeps my gay friends from being fully accepted and free to live their lives in society, I can also recognize the instances where it creates a moment of grace that we all desperately, desperately need.

The families of Dylann Roof’s victims managed to create one of those moments this week, when hurt and anger threatened to drown everything else out. They left me in awe. God bless them, every one.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.