Forgiveness And Justice: How Charleston Churches Balance Both

Dylann Roof is the 62nd person on the federal death row as of February 2017. He is also the 39th person in South Carolina facing execution, though his state trial has yet to begin.

Roof, a self-professed white supremacist, confessed to the 2015 murders of nine members of the historically black Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina. He killed them during a Wednesday night Bible study that members had welcomed him to join. Their names are Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lee Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Clementa C. Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton and Myra Thompson. The massacre – cold, calculating, horrific – caused Charleston and the nation to mourn.

“Maybe for the first time, the white community of our city felt the true depth of the pain of racism,” said the Rev. Marshall Blalock in an interview with Message. Blalock is the senior pastor of the historically white First Baptist Church of Charleston. “Everyone felt a kinship with the families of those who were murdered that night.”

Life Sentence Wanted

A jury convicted Roof and sentenced him to die in January. But this outcome conflicts with what some of the surviving family members wanted – or even what a significant segment of South Carolinians want. A poll conducted by the University of South Carolina found that more than 64 percent of blacks in the state wanted Roof to be imprisoned for life. An equal number of whites wanted him to get the death sentence.

“This was a just verdict,” Blalock told Message. “But there is no happiness about the verdict to put someone to death.”

Blalock believes that if meting out the death penalty is a legitimate state function, then the massacre at Mother Emanuel certainly warrants it. “I’m not an enthusiastic fan of the death penalty,” Blalock said. “But I think that there are certain cases when if the evidence is incontrovertible and the crime is as awful as this crime was, and you have a killer with no remorse – and it’s no question about guilt and you’ve identified the right person – that the death penalty may be warranted.”

Stephen Stetson disagrees. Stetson, an attorney and public policy analyst in Montgomery, Alabama advocates against the death penalty. “I think the death penalty will eventually be struck down as unconstitutional,” Stetson told Message. “I believe that it’s cruel and unusual. I think it’s just bad public policy as well, particularly when we have life in prison as an alternative punishment. The alternative is not death or let them go. There’s just no need to take a life.”

How Family Wishes Enter The Debate

Esther Brown knows both sides of the death penalty debate. She grew up in Germany during World War II, during which several members of her family died or were killed. She doesn’t like talking about the details, but said she still thinks and dreams about them. Despite the pain of her childhood, Brown adamantly opposes the death penalty. In fact, her opposition pushed her to become the executive director of Project Hope to Abolish the Death Penalty.

“We are against the death penalty,” Brown told Message. “Which does not mean that one condones murder. We don’t condone murder, whether done by the individual or by the state.” Brown, like Blalock and Stetson, recognizes the tragic horror of the Charleston massacre. But she is adamantly opposed to Roof’s death sentence and pending execution.

“Killing him does not bring the people back who were murdered,” Brown said. “The families of the murder victims do not want the death penalty. So where’s our respect?”

Pastor Blalock also was moved by the forgiveness granted to Roof by some of the family members. “I believed more fully at that moment that the grace of God is the most powerful force in the world,” he said. “More powerful than hate and war and everything else.”

What Does Forgiveness Have To Do With It?

Still, for many, forgiveness and justice are separate issues. And Blalock, who followed Roof’s trial closely, believes that society has a right to penalize him for his vicious crimes. He notes that Roof began killing people during prayer, used hollow point bullets and shot one woman 11 times – all despite sitting next to Emanuel’s pastor, Clementa C. Pinckney.

“If I were a death penalty opponent, this would be one of the most difficult ones to defend,” Blalock said. The Charleston pastor also raises another point: What if the death penalty is the most humane penalty for this particular killer? “If Dylan Roof were put in the general population in prison, the likelihood of him dying a terrible death at the hands of other prisoners is pretty high,” Blalock said.

“He’d have to be in solitary confinement the rest of his life. And that’s considered to be cruel and inhumane punishment.”

Stetson doesn’t buy this argument. He believes the death penalty is unique in its cruelty, not unlike other heinous acts of retribution that society once allowed. “We (once) had lynchings in the public square,” Stetson said. “We don’t do that anymore for a reason. We no longer see that as a morally acceptable practice.”

I believed more fully at that moment that the grace of God is the most powerful force in the world. More powerful than hate and war and everything else.–Marshall Blalock, pastor of the historically white First Baptist Church in Charleston

Esther Brown goes a step further, indicting a society that claims the prerogative to take a life – even if ostensibly in the name of justice. “It is not whether somebody deserves to die,” Brown said, paraphrasing a line from “Just Mercy,” the best-seller written by Bryan Stevenson. “It’s whether we deserve to kill. We don’t have the right.”

Love Seen, Felt And Heard Around The World

For Blalock, as a pastor, the death penalty debate ultimately pales in comparison to the spiritual impact of the Charleston massacre. He shared a story about a couple from his church that was teaching English in China when Roof committed the killings. The pair followed the news and legal proceedings on-line. One day, Blalock said, his members heard a knock on their door. It was their next door neighbors, Chinese citizens who also had been following the case and knew they were from Charleston. They had seen the family members who extended their forgiveness to Roof for killing their loved ones.

“We want you to tell us about this forgiveness and about this Jesus,” the Chinese couple said, according to Blalock. “We want to know what those people have, because we want it.”

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