Charleston and the Power of Grace over Grievance

In the days since the Charleston shooting something surprising has happened. Rather than allowing the national media and Washington politicians drive a discussion about hot-button issues like gun control and “race in America,” the city of Charleston, and especially the families of the victims, has taken control of the national conversation. What they have done is school the nation in the power of grace over grievance.

We witnessed the image of thousands of black and white – and young and old – citizens of Charleston, not far from where the Civil War started, singing “We Shall Overcome” with interlocking arms at a ceremony at TD Arena.

At the event Charleston Mayor Joe Riley said, “If that young man thought he was going to divide this community or divide this country with his racial hatred we are here today, from all across America, to resoundingly say he miserably failed. He failed because in our broken hearts we realize we love each other more.”

Charleston Shooting

Hundreds march in support of the victims of the Charleston shooting on Saturday June 21st | Photo: AP

After the event, Reverend John Brown, pastor of Mount Zion AME Church said, “What [Dylann Roof, the shooter] thought he was going to accomplish, he did the opposite, and so we are smiling and laughing while yet praying for him, and he can’t stop us from praying for him, and he can’t stop us from loving him, so he got to live with black people loving white people and white people loving black people, and I think that is hell for him.”

Hell indeed.

But this was nothing compared to the extraordinary statements delivered by the families of the victims directly to Roof at his arraignment.

The daughter of Ethel Lance, one of the victims, said, “I just wanted everybody to know, to you, I forgive you. You took something very precious away from me. I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul. You have hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. May God forgive you, and I forgive you.”

I forgive you.

These three words capture the extraordinary power of grace – unmerited favor or giving people what they don’t deserve.

“The nature of evil is that it doesn’t make sense, and never will. But the gravity of grace leads us through the darkness.”

Grace, as expressed by these grieving families, was central to the civil rights movement in the 1960s. At key moments when criminals attempted to incite “black America” into fighting race war with “white America” through horrific acts like the Birmingham church bombing that took the lives of four young girls, Martin Luther King, Jr. responded with non-violence. He gave his assailants the kind of dignified protests they did not deserve.

Similarly, and more recently, when Nelson Mandela was released from prison after his captors took away 27 years of his life he gave his captors what they did not deserve – a truth and reconciliation commission rather than a race war.

King, Mandela, and now these heroes in Charleston, are showing that grace is not merely an emotional or religious concept but a shrewd strategy that subverts agents of injustice. Grace works. As Robert F. Kennedy suggested, these grace-filled acts of courage from local actors send out ripples of hope, and “crossing each other from a million different centers … those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

Still, no words and no events, however moving, can make sense of what happened in Charleston. The nature of evil is that it doesn’t make sense, and never will. But the gravity of grace leads us through the darkness.

Grace matters because we live in an age in which grievance and bitterness too often prevail. The causes for racial grievance are real. They aren’t made up. But how we respond to them makes all the difference.

The easy path is to treat the unspeakable events in Charleston as an indictment of white America or one ideology, as some publications have done. But MLK’s niece, Dr. Alveda King, offered a different view: “Evil has no color.”

Aftermath of the Shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Charleston, South Carolina, America - 21 Jun 2015

The Charleston community rallies behind Emmanuel A.M.E. Church at its first worship service since the fatal shootings. | Photo: APAftermath of the Shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Charleston, South Carolina, America – 21 Jun 2015
(Rex Features via AP Images)

The sad fact is grievance trumps grace because it is politically expedient. Since the civil rights era we’ve seen the rise of institutionalized racial grievance that seeks to exploit, rather than heal, racial divisions for political gain. This is an abomination of the American idea. Grace, on the other hand, inspires unity rather than division. As MLK reminded us, the American idea, however historically flawed, tells us our identity is not defined by race.

From a grace perspective, black lives matter all year round, not just on Election Day. The racial grievance industry, on the other hand, treats minorities as pawns in a turnout operation rather than people in a community. That’s a perspective politicians need to overcome.

Yet, in an age in which the shrill, opportunistic politics of institutional racial grievance seems to dominate, the families and citizens of Charleston have said “enough.” 

Long after last week’s shootings fade from memory and daily news coverage subsides, the families of the victims will carry the pain and sorrow of loss. But perhaps their grief can be assuaged by the knowledge that they have given the nation an immeasurable gift – a stunning lesson in the healing, and revolutionary, power of grace.

John Hart is Editor-in-Chief of Opportunity Lives. You can follow him on Twitter @johnhart333.