I had my homily all prepared for today’s readings, but in light of the dreadful killings that took place in Charleston, South Carolina, I want to say something different.
I know the whole country is completely horrified at these savage and pointless killings that took place of the 9 African Americans gathered together to pray. But I think what is even more astonishing was to hear the children of one of the women shot dead saying that they forgive the young man who shot her. There was also at least one other woman who said the same thing. Another man who was part of that community was heard praying outside and saying aloud, ‘We know Lord that even out of this you can bring glory.’
Were these people mad or just naive to say such things? No, they are Christians and they have learnt from their faith that above all we are called to forgive and because their faith is alive they were able to do that. It really is astonishing and so inspiring to hear a woman’s children say that they forgive their mother’s killer. I heard another woman say the same thing. She said, ‘I am angry, but our family is a family of love and of faith and so I forgive you.’ She said this face to face to killer. Again, she was able to do this because of her faith.
The natural reaction of pretty much everyone is both outrage and the desire to take revenge. Justice should be brought about and I’m sure it will, but if we let ourselves be consumed by hatred then we become just like the young man who committed these murders. He did it because he was consumed by hatred and a twisted thinking. What we hear about the killings of ISIS is the same. They are also consumed by hatred and a twisted understanding of what they believe. If we hate them back the way they hate those whom they kill, then we are no better than them. We must not allow ourselves to be consumed by hate, but pray to God for the grace to be able to forgive that man and pray that he and all the others who think like that will change, because their thinking has become rooted in pure evil.
So many times in the Gospels Jesus talks about the need to forgive. Why is it so important? Because if we don’t try and forgive those who have hurt us, then we become full of anger and bitterness and hatred and it destroys us. We tend to think that if we go on being angry and resentful towards someone who has hurt us, then they will suffer. They don’t suffer. They may not even be aware that you resent them. We are the ones who suffer and it festers within us until we become more and more bitter. You meet people like this every so often and it is very sad, because you can see how it has destroyed them. That is not what the Lord wants for us.
There are one or two important distinctions to be made about forgiveness which people often overlook. First of all we don’t have to feel like forgiving someone to forgive. You can be sure that none of the people in Charleston feel like forgiving that young man, but they chose to forgive him. It is an act of the will and it doesn’t depend on how we feel. If we waited until we felt like forgiving someone who has hurt us we probably never would, because the pain runs too deep. Secondly: when we make the decision to forgive someone, we open the door to God’s grace to help us to heal. The Lord wants to help us be healed from the hurt, but God cannot help us as long as we refuse to forgive. This is why Jesus spoke about this so many times in the Gospels through parables and stories and above all in the way He taught the disciples to pray: ‘Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.’ That doesn’t mean it is easy, because it’s not. But if we want to heal and move on, then we have to try to forgive.
Remember too that when I make the decision to forgive someone, it doesn’t mean that I am saying what they did was alright, or that it doesn’t matter, or that we don’t seek justice. We do, but we also try to forgive so that we won’t become consumed with hatred just like those who have carried out these killings. Otherwise we are no different than they are.
When you find yourself saying that it is impossible to do this, it’s not realistic, remind yourself of that mother’s children and the other people there who said they forgive that man for what he did and asked for mercy for him. Thank God for their courage and bravery to say such a thing and to remind us all who we are called to live.