|The nine shooting victims|
(Seventh Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on February 19, 2017 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Matthew 5: 38-48.)
[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Seventh Sunday 2017]
On June 17, 2015 a 21-year-old white supremacist named Dylann Roof walked into a Bible study class at a church in Charleston, South Carolina. There he shot and killed nine innocent people—all African Americans—in a sick, demented attempt to start a race war. Most of you remember the tragedy, I’m sure. It was all over the news when it happened.
Dylann Roof has expressed no remorse for what he did on that June night two years ago. From all external indications, he remains a bitter and hate-filled man, as he sits in prison awaiting his execution. Just last month a jury recommended the death penalty for Roof, and a judge sentenced him to die by lethal injection.
The sentence has yet to be carried out.
Now what’s really amazing is this: In stark contrast to Roof’s hatred and bitterness is the love and forgiveness that some relatives of the victims have expressed since these killings took place. In fact, just a few days after the murders, family members had the opportunity to speak directly to Roof and tell him whatever they wanted to tell him. Here are some of the things that were said on that occasion …
Nadine Collier, the daughter of one of the victims said, “I forgive you. You took something very precious away from me. I will never get to 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 hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. If God forgives you, I forgive you.”
The sister of another victim said, “That was my sister, and I’d like to thank you on behalf of my family for not allowing hate to win. For me, I’m a work in progress. And I acknowledge that I am very angry. But one thing that [my sister] always enjoined in our family … is she taught me that we are the family that love built. We have no room for hating, so we have to forgive. I pray God on your soul.”
The granddaughter of one of those killed said, “Although my grandfather and the other victims died at the hands of hate, this is proof—everyone’s plea for your soul—is proof that they lived in love and their legacies will live in love. So hate won’t win.”
Finally, the relative of another victim, when asked about the message she would want Dylann Roof to hear, stated: “I would just like him to know that, to say the same thing that was just said: I forgive him and my family forgives him. But we would like him to take this opportunity to repent. Repent. Confess. Give your life to the one who matters most: Christ. So that He can change him and change your ways, so no matter what happens to you, you’ll be okay.”
Now I’m not sure what passage of Scripture they were studying at that South Carolina church right before this tragedy occurred, but it would have been fitting if it had been the text we just heard as our gospel reading this morning—especially the part where Jesus says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.”
This, of course, is one of the most difficult commandments of Jesus to obey in the concrete circumstances of our daily lives. We all know that—by experience! It’s difficult for us because we all share a human nature that’s tainted by original sin. Consequently, our first instinct as human beings is to hate and curse our enemies, not love them. But loving them is certainly possible—as the four people I just mentioned made clear to Dylann Roof by the things they said to him just a few days after he murdered their loved ones.
But it was hard! One of them made that fact crystal clear when she said that she was “very angry” and that she was “a work in progress” with respect to forgiveness.
God bless her for her honesty.
But the important thing to note is that she was moving in the right direction by making the effort (that is to say, the choice, the decision) to deal with her anger, and love this man who had so brutally killed her sister.
Here we get a few important insights about what it means (and what it does not mean) to love your enemies.
First of all, to love your enemies is a choice, it’s not a feeling; it’s a decision, it’s not an emotion. “Liking” is an emotion: we all have certain people whom we like more than others. And there’s nothing wrong with that; that’s normal human behavior.
“Loving” is different. Loving, in the sense that Jesus uses the term here, means (in the words of Scripture scholar William Barclay) “unconquerable benevolence, invincible goodwill.” In his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, Barclay says this: “If we regard a person with agape [the Greek word for love that’s used in this text], it means that no matter what that person does to us, no matter how he treats us, no matter if he insults us or injures us or grieves us, we will never allow any bitterness against him to invade our hearts, but will regard him with that unconquerable benevolence which will seek nothing but his highest good.”
That’s a key insight, because it reminds us that it’s possible to have “unconquerable benevolence” and “invincible goodwill” toward everyone—even toward people we dislike. Make no mistake about it, my brothers and sisters, the four people whom I quoted a few moments ago do not like Dylann Roof and what he stands for; they probably have had very few (if any) good feelings about him or toward him. But, by the grace of God, they have made the decision to desire what’s best for him—his “highest good,” as Barclay would say. That’s especially evident in the comment of the last woman, who said, “I forgive [Dylann Roof] and my family forgives him. But we would like him to take this opportunity to repent. Repent. Confess. Give your life to the one who matters most: Christ. So that He can change him and change your ways, so no matter what happens to you, you’ll be okay.”
To desire that the person who murdered your loved one, someone near and dear to you—to desire that such a person repent and go to heaven someday: that’s love! That’s Christian, agape love. That’s the kind of love Jesus is talking about here in this text.
It doesn’t mean you pretend that the evil your enemy did never happened. It doesn’t mean you have to be “best buddies” with him or her from now on. It doesn’t mean you have to dispense with justice and punishment—not at all! Believe it or not, sometimes agape love requires those things. As Barclay put it, “If we regard a person with invincible goodwill, it will often mean that we must punish him, that we must restrain him, that we must discipline him, that we must protect him against himself.”
Of course, it will be remedial punishment, not vengeful punishment—but it will be punishment nonetheless.
Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said, “The real test of the Christian is not how much he loves his friends, but how much he loves his enemies.”
Since that’s the case, I think it’s safe to say that the four grieving relatives quoted in this homily are currently passing the “test”—with flying colors! In the midst of a situation in which it would be very easy for them to hate their enemy, they’ve chosen to love him with agape love. As far as I’m concerned, they all deserve “As” on the exam.
By the grace of God that we receive at this Mass, may we make the choice to follow their example in our lives.