Forgiveness: What We Can Learn from the Emmanuel AME Church

What does forgiveness mean? Merriam-Websters Dictionary defines forgiveness as “to stop feeling anger towards.” From this definition, I think we can learn a great deal about the responses of the bereaved from the Emmanuel AME Church towards Dylan Roof.

A congregant spoke with me about the difference between how the friends and family of the Emmanuel AME Church victims responded versus how we as Jews would respond. As Jews we are commanded to remember the actions of Amalek, how they attacked us from behind. We are commanded to blot them out with the words “Do not forget.” We have two holidays that focus on remembrance: Our Holocaust Remembrance Day (יום השואה) and our Israeli Soldier Memorial Day (יום הזכרון). In particular regarding the Holocaust, we say NEVER AGAIN or We Shall Never Forget. We do this with good reason, for as George Santayana pointed out, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

In contrast we have the bereaved from the Emmanuel AME Church whose main refrain to Mr Roof was “I forgive you.” One even said to him “You’re welcome to our Bible study next Wednesday night.” Why would they embrace a murderer rather than attacking him?

I believe Webster’s definition of forgiveness demonstrates this. Too often we associate forgiveness with forgetting, and this is not the case. The bereaved will NEVER forget the atrocities that Mr. Roof did. One specifically said to him. “You took someone dear to me. I can never call her again, talk to her again.” This was followed by “I forgive you and may God have mercy on your soul.” What this woman was doing, in my opinion, was to say to Mr. Roof ‘There are some things you cannot take away from me-one of which is my ability to forgive, to let go of the anger, rage and hatred that I feel for you and for those like you.’ No matter what happens to us, no matter what we cannot control, forgiveness is in our power. We have the opportunity to let go of the legitimate hurt, anger and hatred that we feel and not let them bring us down. These victims recognized that they could not “let hate win.”

A couple years ago I saw a video where a man was complaining to his father about something done to him by another 10 years ago. He went on and on describing the situation. The father finally said, “How much rent are you charging him?” Taken aback the son replied “What do you mean? I haven’t seen him in years!” The father replied, “He’s still in your head.”

The lesson I learned from the members of the Emmanuel AME Church is the importance of letting go of negative emotions, no matter how difficult and how much pain we feel. This is not a one-step process or something that can occur overnight. However, by doing so, we are empowered to act in a way that lets love and community win out. I don’t think I could have acted in the way that the members of Emmanuel AME did and I commend them for their courage. At the same time, I’ve learned that when I feel negative emotions that I strive to let go of them and take them out of my head, putting in their place love and devotion.

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