Earlier this week members of the First Baptist church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, were gunned down during a typical Sunday morning church service. Devin Patrick Kelley’s rampage claimed at least 26 lives and wounded at least 20 others. The violent act left behind a small-town church of 100 reeling from losing friends, neighbors, and loved ones, as well as the question: What now?
A pastor from a Fort Worth, Texas-area church has his own answer for the afflicted congregation: forgive.
"To refuse to forgive is to insist on drinking the poison you meant for your worst enemy,” Pastor Al Meredith, formerly of Wedgwood Baptist Church, told a radio interviewer. “You always destroy yourself.”
Meredith has insight into what it means to forgive a mass shooter. In 1999, a gunman killed eight members of Meredith’s own congregation, and wounded seven. Meredith has been preaching forgiveness since then.
Meredith’s words reflect a difficult tension when it comes to the aftermath of tragic violence, particularly when that tragic violence occurs within a Christian place of worship: According to the FBI, almost 4 percent of mass shootings between 2000 and 2013 took place in a church. How can or should those affected by tragedy live out one of the most fundamental and radical principles of Christian life — to “turn the other cheek” to offenders — even as they balance righteous anger at those responsible?
Forgiveness can be a politically loaded act
In some cases, forgiveness of offenders has doubled as a political act of resistance. When white supremacist Dylann Roof opened fire on an African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina, killing nine, the families of victims made headlines by forgiving Roof publicly during the trial.
“We have no room for hating, so we have to forgive,” said the sister of one victim.
“I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you,” said the daughter of another.
In that case, the public forgiveness expressed toward Roof served to intensify the grotesque senselessness of his crimes: Roof sought to prove his self-appointed superiority over people of color, only to receive kindness and dignity from members of the community he had hurt the most.
While the case of Sutherland Springs is politically different than the shooting in Charleston, Pastor Meredith’s exhortation still raises some important questions. How can those afflicted balance Christian forgiveness with a righteous anger at the circumstances that made Kelly’s rampage possible, be it inadequate gun control laws, insufficient provisions for those who should have been legally barred from owning guns, or a patriarchal society that ignores one of the major “warning signs” of a mass shooter — domestic abuse — until it is too late?
For many pastors, these are questions front and center in their minds this week.
"There is a disagreement among evangelicals as to when it is appropriate to forgive someone who's sinned against us. Some say we forgive immediately and unreservedly. Others say we wait until the person comes to us in repentance,” said Ron Henzel, an evangelical pastor at Midwest Christian Outreach. “Genocides and mass shootings are in a category all to themselves … but those who suffered loss because of these terrible crimes can extend the lowest level of forgiveness by simply not seeking vengeance and doing their best to cope with the loss and pain that will never go away.
“And because the loss and pain persists, the forgiver may have to ‘reforgive’ daily as they reexperience the crime. I don't think we can really do this, however, until we trust that God alone is the best person to make us whole.”
Still, he says, there is a real place for anger: a collective anger at how “we as a people — not merely our politicians and social thinkers … have not yet developed a firm resolve to deal with the problem of evil among us.”
Emily Heath, a pastor at United Church of Christ in Exeter, New Hampshire, agreed that forgiveness can be meaningless without action. “Turning the other cheek does not mean failing to hold those who do, or enable, violence accountable,” Heath said. "It’s the duty of people of faith to ensure that their neighbors are safe. It would be ‘cheap grace’ to simply forgive without also calling for transformation. It’s too late to ask that of the shooter, but it’s the right time to ask that from our society. Turning the other cheek does not allow us to turn our eyes away from this tragedy."
Christians have debated forgiveness in the face of structural oppression
Questions about the nature of and limitations of forgiveness aren’t new. They have been debated in the academic theological sphere throughout the 20th century, particularly in the aftermath of World War II, when many struggled to reconcile a classical theology of forgiveness with the astounding force of evil they had witnessed.
Movements of the 1960s and 70s like feminist and liberation theology questioned the degree to which “turn the other cheek” should be balanced by righteous anger. Feminist critics like Rosemary Radford Ruether and Valerie Saiving pointed out that the classical Christian idea that sin was rooted in pride and arrogance — and that therefore their opposites, humility and subservience, were virtues — was very much based on the lived experience of men. Women, by contrast, were already socialized to be self-giving, overly willing to forgive transgressions. Likewise, liberation theologians, such as Dorothee Soelle cautioned against “forgiveness” being used to allow oppressive and unequal social structures to continue unchallenged.
One of the most famous encapsulations of that tension can be found in the work of the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and anti-Nazi dissident who was ultimately executed in a concentration camp for his activism. He distinguished between “cheap grace” — easy forgiveness that allowed individual perpetrators and oppressive societies to get away, unchallenged, with their actions — and “costly grace,” or forgiveness that also asks hard questions, and demands social change.
A number of Christian organizations, influenced by both Bonhoeffer and by subsequent 20th-century theologians, have done successful work using the “theology of reconciliation,” in which participants in post-conflict communities, often involving serious violence or oppression, have been brought together to forgive one another without minimizing the real violence and damage that has been done. In post-Troubles Northern Ireland, for example, Christian organizations like Corrymeela have worked with survivors on both sides of the Protestant-Catholic conflict to enact restorative justice through a theological lens.
But both Christian and non-Christian critics have pointed out “forgiveness” is too often required of marginalized people against their oppressors, placing the burden on those afflicted by tragedy or crime to uphold the status quo at the expense of real change. In an Alternet article, Chauncey DeVega criticized the social pressures on victims of the Charleston shooting to “forgive,” pointing out that people of color are more likely to be asked to express forgiveness in order to alleviate white guilt, pointing out that, historically, anger has been a more dangerous response for people of color than forgiveness.
Likewise, evangelical critics have pointed out the way in which narratives of “forgiveness” also serve to reinforce toxic hierarchies of gender. In another Alternet piece, Vyckie Garrison condemns how, for example, women who suffer sexual abuse are often encouraged to “forgive” their offenders before they are ready, even as that community allows forgiveness to take the place of consequences.
Writing about the case of Josh Duggar — the fringe evangelical turned reality TV star who confessed to molesting his sisters — Garrison writes, "Apparently, her immersion in Christian culture influenced Anna [Duggar’s wife] to interpret the revelation of Josh’s ‘past mistakes’ (which she says he confessed to her and her parents two years before he proposed to her) through the ‘sin, forgiveness, and redemption’ narrative rather than giving credence to the prevailing understanding that sex offenders rarely … change.” In other words, the call on someone who has been abused or neglected to “forgive” places an extra burden on someone who is suffering, even as it elides the need for real structural change.
That said, there may be psychological and theological reasons to embrace forgiveness after a tragedy. According to a 2005 study in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine, participants who ranked themselves as particularly forgiving were physically healthier than those who did not. Their ability to forgive those who had hurt them manifested itself physically in the absence of stress-related symptoms.
Still, for some pastors, turning the other cheek only goes so far, especially as the fear of another attack becomes more concrete. Rafael Martinez, associate pastor of Crossroads Church in Lynwood, Illinois, told Vox, “Jesus said to turn the other cheek — but not what to do after that. … I intend to conceal carry as soon as I can be licensed and as soon as I can get the kind of handgun that this tragic day of needful security compels me to have to get. I was trained in the military to use sidearms and I'm going to now have to be ready once again to use them."