A Remarkable Advertisement for Christianity

The late Christopher Hitchens, one of the world’s best known atheists, often gave this challenge to Christians and other theists: “Find one good or noble thing which cannot be accomplished without religion.” I believe that challenge was met in Charleston, South Carolina in the summer of 2015.

On June 19 of that year, just two days after the horrific murders at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in that city, family members of the nine victims spoke in a courtroom. Addressing Dylann Roof, the 21 year old man charged with brutally taking the life of their parent, child, or sibling, these family members spoke words which expressed incredible grace and forgiveness. One of the daughters of Ethel Lance, a 70 year old woman killed that night, told Roof, "I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you and have mercy on your soul," she said. "It hurts me, it hurts a lot of people, but God forgive you and I forgive you." A sister of another victim said, "We have no room for hate. We have to forgive. I pray God has mercy on your soul.” It was evident these family members shared the deep Christian faith of the nine men and women killed in the church that night.

CBS News described what happened that day as “one of the most extraordinary scenes ever in an American courtroom.” Charles C.W. Cooke, an atheist who writes for National Review, tweeted: “I am a non-Christian, and I must say: This is a remarkable advertisement for Christianity.”

“But, is it really good to extend forgiveness to someone who has done something as horrific as Dylann Roof?” I believe the answer is clearly, “yes.” Though the Bible teaches forgiveness cannot be experienced without repentance, offering that forgiveness, even to those who refuse to acknowledge the wrongfulness of their actions, is something we as Christians are called to do. “Forgive us our trespasses (sins) as we forgive those who trespass (sin) against us,” is our frequent prayer for two reasons: First, because we realize the bitterness that infects our souls if we refuse to forgive will ultimately destroy us. Secondly, because Jesus said, (Matthew 6:15) “if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Recognizing the pervasiveness of evil in our own lives enables us to extend grace and forgiveness even to those who have wronged us in horrible ways, because we, too, desperately need that grace and forgiveness.

The amazing forgiveness demonstrated by Christians in the Charleston courtroom is uncommon, but not unique. The Amish community in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania extended a similar forgiveness when a crazed gunman killed five school girls in 2006. These responses are indeed powerful advertisements for Christianity. They are also something very good and noble which atheists or agnostics seldom seem to be able to replicate.
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Dan Erickson