Standing at the Lincoln Memorial on January 19, 2009, President-elect Barack Obama said this: “Directly in front of us is a pool that still reflects the dream of a King and the glory of a people who marched and bled so that children might be judged by their character’s content. And behind me, watching over the union he saved, sits the man who in so many ways made this day possible.” As Obama spoke, some wondered if his presidency signaled that the nation was no longer divided by the legacy of slavery. Many at least hoped that a new age was being ushered in, perhaps a “post-racial” age in America, not defined by W.E.B. Du Bois’s “color line.”
But in late June, some six years and at least four speeches on America’s racial divide later, President Obama again held the nation’s attention as he addressed a tragedy that would be all too familiar to those of Du Bois’s generation. As President Obama stepped into a pulpit to console a family and a nation after a hate-filled young man allegedly killed nine black parishioners and their pastor, he also called the country to account for its racist legacy. While disconcerting, it is fitting that the president delivered what The New York Times called “one of his presidency’s most impassioned reflections on race” during his eulogy to the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, for in that moment he embodied the best of the black church.
Historically, the black church has been that institution that has filled in the social, economic, and educational gaps left by the legacy of slavery in America. The church has been what Du Bois called both a “religious center and social center” for black people, or what sociologist E. Franklin Frazier described as a “nation within a nation.” It has been nothing less than a lifeline for black people as they have struggled to survive the hardships of racial injustice in America.
And it has been more than that.
Born within the crucible of slavery and grounded in the belief that all people are created in the image of a just and free God, the black church has contested any notion that black bodies were not meant to be free. In so doing, it provided a sanctuary for black women and men to escape the daily attacks upon their free humanity, and simultaneously affirmed that sacred humanity and God-given right to be free. This theology has vast implications, and the families of those slain at Emanuel AME church made one of them manifest.
To the surprise, if not consternation, of some, various family members of the murdered parishioners proclaimed that they forgave Dylann Roof. While the meaning of forgiveness in black church faith is complex, such forgiveness is not about the exoneration of the killer for the deadly injustice he allegedly perpetrated. Rather, it is about the loving justice of God and the liberation of the families from the killer’s sinful act.
Forgiveness, in the first instance, recognizes that no human justice can adequately respond to the grave injustice of such a racist, terroristic, murderous crime. Forgiveness, then, is a sign of the families’ faith that God’s justice will ultimately prevail and thus, it frees them from the anguish of knowing that no human justice will make up for the loss of their family members.