The Best of Times and the Worst of Times: Heroic Forgiveness
Once again we as a nation are witness to a homegrown terrorist act aimed at intimidating a whole group and destroying innocent others going about their daily lives. You can be warped by learning to hate and you can be saved by learning to love. And the lesson applies to us all. Two weeks ago, “heinous aggression and hatred walked into consecrated space and took away the most sacred gift that we have: Life.” Thus wrote The Rev. Dr. Dorothy White, a fellow Priest Associate at St. John’s Episcopal Church here in Richmond, Virginia.
So again we as a nation are witness to a homegrown terrorist act aimed at intimidating a whole group and destroying innocent others going about their daily lives. Little ones dropped off at day care, children in their classrooms, folks at a midnight showing of a popular film, workers unlucky enough to be in the upper floors of the World Trade Center as they went about their jobs, unsuspecting folks who pulled mail out of their bomb-triggered mailboxes, government workers who opened mail laced with deadly poison, and now a group of Christians who gathered for prayer and Bible study. Those nine people gunned down gathered for prayer and worship at Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, welcoming with open arms their murderer, Dylann Roof, into their circle of fellowship.
So much has been written in the aftermath of this heinous act; so many soul-searching questions have been raised about public symbols and their current effect on segments of our citizens. Questions are again being raised about stricter gun control legislation amid jaw-dropping insistence that arming everyone would save lives; about Roof’s act echoing “a dark part of our history” – as the President put it as he again addressed the issue of racism which lurks in the underbelly of our culture. I’m not going to repeat all those issues again here. There will be plenty of time to reflect in the weeks ahead – until the next big thing grabs our attention.
“The worst of times” is a reference to the specter of evil witnessed in Roof’s act and registered on his face and in his words posted on the Internet. As one blog commentator puts it, “This was an act of hatred against humanity.” Evil does exist in the world and we witnessed evil in the face of this young man.
Humans are capable of incredible inhumanity to those they deem Other. This is part of our evolutionary heritage. Evil lurks within. But for most of us, we learn across years of our development to tame our evil impulses. We become shaped by civilization into being good citizens. And if we are very lucky, we learn to love others along the way – we learn to bridge differences and grasp our common humanity with others who look and sound and pray differently from us. Staring into the face of this evil carried out in sacred space reminds us again that – as the line from South Pacific goes – you have to be carefully taught. You can be warped by learning to hate and you can be saved by learning to love. And the lesson applies to us all.
So again Dylann Roof’s motives and evil act were the worst of these past two weeks in our nation’s life. What was the best of times in those same days past? For me, the best was the forgiveness tearfully offered by some of the victims of his shooting. It always has been the case that when we are witness to goodness in the face of provocative evil – and I talked about that a bit in an earlier blog – we are awe-struck in the face of such heroism. Studies have shown that when you are confronted by a display of selfless sacrifice (e.g., someone stepping in front of a stranger and taking a bullet intended for them, dying in their stead) or see and hear the forgiveness offered the killers by victims of a mass shooting (e.g., an Amish community forgiving killers of their school children or what we all witnessed on TV this past week), we are “elevated” and better for the witnessing. In fact, results from an experimental study carried out at the University of Virginia showed the release of the brain chemical oxytocin that triggers feelings of trust and even love when viewing such a positive display. Subjects who view acts of selfless generosity and heroic acts of kindness also experience feelings of “warmth” and expressed a significant increase of love for others – even strangers that they don’t know personally. In short, they are inspired to love in return.
So we have witnessed in recent days some of the worst and some of the best that humankind has to offer. But we still have much to do in our society in order to bridge the differences that divide us. Maybe one blessing that will come out of Roof’s horrendous act is the soul-searching discussion that his evil has triggered. May we all be a bit better for that conversation in the weeks ahead.