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.”

Are You Mad Enough?

“Are You Mad Enough?”

I was saddened, disgusted, disturbed, but not surprised at the recent church massacre in Charleston, South Carolina. The killing of innocent Black people is back en vogue. The slaughter of American citizens with darker hues of skin seems to be all the rage again.

While it may seem that I have arrived at a fatalistic viewpoint, this is far from the truth. Neither am I naive enough to be optimistic and think that things will just get better with time. Both fatalism and optimism lead to a “hands off” approach. I believe how we feel about these tragedies does not matter as much as what we are going to do in response.

While I am not surprised by these racially charged acts of domestic terrorism, I am surprised at the lack of response by the church, particularly when we espouse Jesus as our example. Howard Thurman remarked on the connection between the impotency of the Christian Church and the lack of our application to the social conditions people live in when he said, “to those who need profound succor and strength to enable them to live in the present with dignity and creativity, Christianity often has been sterile and of little avail.”

The Jesus we serve gave us a different example. It is recorded in Mark 11:15-17, that Jesus went to the Temple and witnessed something that disturbed Him greatly. When He saw the moneychangers and witnessed the sale of the sacrificial animals, He was disgusted. He was not just sad. He was mad. He didn’t suppress His discontent by simply sharing it with his disciples around a Sabbath lunch. Jesus was disturbed enough to do something.

He made a whip and physically overturned tables while evicting both the animals and the moneychangers. What would make Jesus do something so uncharacteristic of the Lamb of God?
This text has been used to talk about everything from irreverence in the sanctuary to the evils of the love of money. However, these issues are not why Jesus acted in such a visceral manner. Jesus overturned the tables because the religious elite was taking advantage of the poor travelers who had come to the city for Passover. Jesus was disgusted at the unjust treatment of the vulnerable and He could not remain unengaged.


Jesus was disgusted at the unjust treatment of the vulnerable and He could not remain unengaged.

Jesus wasn’t just sad; no, He got mad. Mad enough to turn over “the tables of injustice.” I believe indifference is a close relative to inactivity. If we are to be true disciples of Christ, should we not do something about the exploitation of the vulnerable, defenseless, marginalized and disenfranchised? It is not enough for Christians to talk about, post about, tweet about, and sermonize about the evils of racism, and prejudice. It is time for action. I think it is instructive for us that Jesus does not give a sermon or speech to address the issue. He acts first and then explains why He acted. After Jesus cleans the Temple, He explains that His concern is for “all people” and their access to what God has provided for them.

Our reaction to these atrocities usually does not go past our talk. Jesus did not talk. He acted. There are a few ways we can be like Jesus in dealing with injustice.

Jesus acted against the attitude of superiority that had been permeating the culture of the Temple. When Jesus overturned the tables, He was addressing the fact that there was an atmosphere or a “permissive air” that allowed these acts of discrimination and inequality to take place. People do not just wake up and say they want to kill nine Black people in a Church. The environment that they grow up in, got to work in, or hang around in, allows them to think in a prejudiced and bigoted way. This young man who killed these innocent people was raised in dangerous societal maelstrom of hatred. We must overturn and expose the permissive air of racism wherever we are. There is a permissive air on our jobs, in our schools, and even in our own denominations.

If we are to be like Jesus, we all have to expose that permissive air of injustice around us. We cannot allow or laugh at racial jokes. We have to address the fact that many states in the South still have variations of the Confederate flag flying o’er the grounds of their State Capitals. We have to actively engage in challenging the racist cultures of our private schools and denominational offices. We need persistent protest against the racism and inequality in even in our denominational processes and decisions. If we do not challenge this culture, we allow the system to take advantage of more people.

Jesus also acted against a system that exploited poor and marginalized people. He did not just address the words and ideas that these religious elite had towards the poor. His overturning of the tables literally stopped the injustice that was going on. We have to do something to stop the injustice. While we work on the hearts of people, we have to stop the hands of those who are killing and destroying our communities. Our churches need to hold their local leaders and legislators accountable for the laws and policies that govern their communities. National elections must become secondary to local elections so that we can begin to determine who sits on our legal benches, who patrols our streets, and who makes policies for our local schools.
Every church in should have a Social Justice ministry. Does it not make sense that if we have a ministry that fights for people’s religious rights that we should also have a ministry that is dedicated to securing their human and civil rights? If we had a social justice ministry, we could coordinate our efforts to inform and equip our churches to engage our communities for systemic change.

Overturning these “tables of injustice” must involve our congregations getting involved in local politics. Politics is not inherently a negative practice. Dr. Martin Luther King understood that people of faith have to change the laws and policies of this great nation while working on the harder and larger work of changing the hearts of people. We must speak against injustice and we must also do something about injustice. If we want to be like Jesus, and we love the people that Christ died to save, we must overturn the tables so that all people have access to what God has provided.

Are you mad enough to do something? Jesus, our Savior did something. Will you?