In light of the tragic events in Charleston last week the question we’ve been considering seems all the more relevant. A group of faithful Christians gathered in prayer and Bible study at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church last Wednesday evening in Charleston. They welcomed into their circle a young white man, 21 years old. They probably thought he was there to find some answers. But he was there on a mission.
When the hour was up, the young man pulled out a 45 caliber handgun and began shooting. According to reports, he shouted racial slurs and reloaded his handgun five times. In the end nine people were dead, families would be changed forever, and a city and state and nation would be plunged into grief.
The young man jumped into his car and fled the scene. The police captured him the next morning after his father, having recognized his son in the surveillance photographs, turned him in. He and his family were devastated by what his son had done.
Initial reports indicate that the young man wanted to incite some sort of race war. He wanted to set the world ablaze after several years of high-profile, racially-charged events in Ferguson, New York, and Baltimore.
How do you love an enemy in a situation like this? What does it mean to love the young man so troubled he thought it right to kill nine innocent worshipers on a Wednesday night? If you really want to be a follower of Jesus, then you have to take what he said seriously in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:43-45):
43 You have been taught to love your neighbor and hate your enemy.[e] 44 But I tell you this: love your enemies. Pray for those who torment you and persecute you— 45 in so doing, you become children of your Father in heaven.He, after all, loves each of us—good and evil, kind and cruel. He causes the sun to rise and shine on evil and good alike. He causes the rain to water the fields of the righteous and the fields of the sinner.
On Friday several members of the victim’s families had a chance to address the shooter directly. Through tears and cracked voices these amazing, salt-of-the-earth people offered the young man prayer and forgiveness. How could they so quickly speak a redemptive, healing word? I don’t know exactly. I believe, however, it was God’s work in them.
On Thursday the nation and the world woke up to unthinkable news; the young man bore witness to rage, racism, and hatred. On Friday these family members wanted to bear witness to something greater: God’s love and grace.