Does Dylann Roof Deserve Forgiveness?

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Like many, I was struck – and deeply moved – by the anguished statements of both hurt and forgiveness expressed by family members of those killed by Dylann Roof. I wonder if any of you also pondered, along with me, how it was possible for them to do so – or even whether such quick and ready forgiveness felt appropriate.

As a Christian, I am convinced that the power and grace to forgive is at the heart of the Christian message, and I believe that their actions are nothing short of a courageous and eloquent expression of that faith. But reading Roxane Gay’s column this morning in the New York Times articulated some of the thoughts that lingered beneath the surface for me – namely about how such forgiveness seems shrouded and obscured by the shadow that racism casts on the situation. Please do take a moment to read it. Whereas the Amish farmers who offered instant forgiveness for the killer of their children in a 2006 schoolhouse shooting seemed unquestionably pure, there seems to be a different dynamic in play here. Ms. Gay seems to articulate powerfully why that is.

As a white person, is it appropriate for me to uphold this act of forgiveness when it might seem to let me off the hook for the racism that gave birth to such an act? A racism that is often invisible to those who enjoy white privilege, but obvious to persons of color? Is it possible that forgiveness gives ready cover for us to ignore the deeper issues – the “principalities and powers in high places,” of which Paul speaks, which create such evils, and which affect us all? These are the provocative questions that Ms. Gay’s column elicits for me.

I believe these are questions that we as a congregation should grapple with, as a predominantly white community of faith.

To begin – here are a few thoughts of my own in response. I suppose I could not put it better than some of those who have already commented on the article:

1) “One does not forgive to absolve one who transgresses from his sin. One forgives for oneself in a sense. You ideally want a large, overflowing, compassionate heart as a personal goal. You become more of a positive contributor to society as you come closer to this.” We forgive first not for the person who wronged us, but to confess with our lips the desire for that grace that will release us from the spiritual venom that our desire for vengeance creates. Such hatred is corrosive to our soul. We cannot control the desire of the perpetrator to be forgiven, or to repent – our hope is that he will. But we begin first by desiring ourselves to be released from the poison of hatred and vengeance.

2) And this from an African American man: “Being able to forgive is a quality that makes us most unlike our tormentors. Dylann and others of his ilk perpetrate these heinous crimes precisely because they themselves cannot forgive us for the most unchangeable aspect of our person, namely, our black skin.” Forgiveness will always mess up those who wish to perpetrate evil. The Romans didn’t know what to do when people refused, in the face of persecution, to fight back or to hate them. The cross had worked magically every time before as a means of social control. But something about Christians was different. That love brought down a whole empire based on Roman privilege and Roman violence.

So…thoughts out there? Simply reply in the space below.


PS – It was an incredibly powerful thing for about a dozen of us from PCOL to be welcomed by Shiloh Baptist as worshippers – I was unsure what it would feel like for white persons to insert themselves into the life of a primarily African American congregation. Their love and welcome felt to me yet more evidence of the power of the gospel. But I was also left feeling…let’s not only get together during crises and milestones. What could we do together – with Shiloh or any number of congregations in Trenton – to symbolize our desire to understand and work together on a more on-going basis?

2018-04-14T11:34:48+00:00June 24th, 2015|Pastor's Blog, Uncategorized|


  1. katie alverson June 24, 2015 at 11:54 am - Reply

    Roxane’s column was very powerful.
    What Dylann deserved and never received was education, from parent, from school, or church; the opportunity to learn that racism is wrong, that the old south is (or should be) dead.

    What he did not deserve and should never have been given was a gun.
    I pity his ignorance but find it hard to forgive him, after he spent time with his victims, spoke with them, was welcomed by them and still felt he had the right to kill them.
    It is a tough issue and will prompt much discussion, but I fear nothing will change.
    Guns will still be easily available and the white supremacists are still spreading their hatred.

  2. Louise Johnson June 24, 2015 at 12:37 pm - Reply

    Jeff, I also share your ambivalence about how to process the forgiveness so immediately offered by the families of the victims in Charleston, SC. On the one hand, their forgiveness is powerful evidence of the depth of their Christian faith – a profound witness indeed. I stand in awe of that kind of testimony. It is in fact SO counter-cultural that some observers call into question the sincerity and motives of these mourning families.

    On the other hand, can true forgiveness really happen that quickly? You mention the example of the Amish community’s forgiveness in response to the 2006 schoolhouse shooting of 10 children. A father who lost his daughter spoke of forgiveness this way: “forgiveness means giving up the right to revenge.” A local farmer commented that lack of forgiveness has its own set of side effects. “The acid of bitterness eats the container that holds it,” he told reporters. Because the Amish believe that the long arm of the Lord will bring justice in good time, they believe that there is no need for human retaliation.

    I have found the small book by Lewis Smedes on forgiveness helpful. Entitled, “Forgive and Forget: Healing the Hurts We Don’t Deserve” ( – it also makes the point that refusing to forgive often hurts the one who has been wronged far more than not being forgiven wounds the one responsible for the hurt. In this case, lots of attention has been focused on Dylann Roof’s lack of remorse/repentence. Smedes would remind us that we cannot control whether the one who wounds us is sorry or wants our forgiveness; what we can work toward is letting go of the anger and bitterness that can ruin the rest of our lives. Letting the wounds of the past kill a healthy future is to give much more power to the offender. Best to work through the pain and move toward wholeness. Smedes is clear that forgiveness may take decades – not days – to happen. He calls it a process by which a person is freed from the poison of hatred and anger. Whenever and however that happens, I am grateful – no less in the case of the families of these victims than in any other case. Smedes would say the timetable is not important; the task of letting go of the anger and hurt is key.

    One other observation about forgiveness, which is indeed at the heart of Jesus’ mission and message, is that forgiveness should not be confused with other concepts. Forgiveness is not the same as saying that whatever happened doesn’t matter or that all hurts have been forgotten. Forgiveness is not an antidote for suffering or pain. In fact, it is often painful to make the journey toward forgiveness. Forgiveness is not a free pass for the one who caused the pain, nor is it a release from responsibility. To the contrary, Smedes asserts that forgiveness requires that a person be held accountable for causing the pain. Only when the wrongdoer is held accountable can the healing begin. Note in this case that the shooter was apprehended; in the case of the Amish schoolhouse shootings, the gunman committed suicide. Accountability and punishment are appropriate responses to wrongdoing; retaliation and revenge are what forgiveness seeks to prevent.

    Should PCOL actively explore race relations and how we, as Christians, can be proactive in recognizing racism and addressing it in ways that promote healing and wholeness. YES. Admittedly it is a difficult topic on so many levels, but why in the world would we not be open to such soul-searching?

    • jeffvamos June 24, 2015 at 1:30 pm - Reply

      Thank you for your thoughtful words, Louise – well wrought as always, and good “grist for the mill.”

  3. Maxine Clarke June 24, 2015 at 5:04 pm - Reply

    Thanks for writing this Jeff. I myself wondered how was it possible for family members to forgive so quickly. I understand that this was a result of their strong Christian faith. Does our forgiving make people less guilty? I remember how the world embraced Mandela in part because of his willingness to forgive, but also because his forgiving made them felt less guilty. Thanks also for speaking to the question of white privilege, a “concept” that is unfortunately misunderstood by many.
    Warm wishes to you and all at PCOL. I will visit when I am in Lawrenceville in the summer.

  4. Jeff Vamos June 25, 2015 at 11:22 am - Reply

    Great – look forward to connecting with you, Maxine, when you’re in Lawrenceville! Thanks for your thoughts.

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