Around the Institute

What I learned in Bible Study: The Dialectical Dilemma of Love and Forgiveness – Reflections on Charleston

June 22, 2015  • Eric L. Motley

The steeple of the Emanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston, South Carolina (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Eric L. Motley, Ph.D., is Vice President of the Aspen Institute and Executive Director of National Programs. Read below for his reflections on the aftermath of the recent Charleston shootings and the path to forgiveness.

In the aftermath of last week’s national tragedy at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC, many of us have struggled to reconcile humanity’s seemingly boundless capacity for hatred and evil with the capacity to forgive displayed by relatives of the victims. We have marveled at the paradox produced by the juxtaposition of the self-centeredness at the heart of the shooter’s evil act and the “impossible possibility” of forgiveness displayed by those whom he wished to demoralize. I would like to suggest that at least part of the reason for the latter group’s willingness to forgive can be found in the nature of what they were doing when the unspeakable deeds occurred. I refer to what secular culture sometimes sneeringly and dismissively refers to as “Wednesday night Bible study.”

While such midweek church activities are not as common as they once were, especially in the Bible Belt, I sat through my share of them as a youth who was baptized and nurtured in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. This past week I have been remembering those meetings and giving thanks for the timeless values that they helped instill in me and that, I believe, have helped to sustain and embolden the faithful members of Emanuel AME Church. Although the Bible studies of my youth occurred in the quiet sanctuary of a small church, they were not for the faint of heart, but for determined seekers, unafraid of asking hard questions and confronting unpleasant truths. At first I did not attend of my own choosing, but as life grew more complex and difficult to navigate, I came to need the sanctuary that the studies provided for my mind and soul. In addition to studying the Bible, we experienced the power of prayer and introspection. We discussed what was happening around us and in our lives, and we looked at those events with a collective wisdom shaped by our Biblical understanding of history and human nature. We believed that only a power greater than ours could give meaning to our lives and that the final judgment on history lies beyond history itself, which was a comfort to a young African-American man growing up in a culture infested by a history of racism and discrimination. I remember the passion and commitment of those gathered around the table, usually a dozen or so, all trying to make sense of some scriptural idea or passage and its applications to contemporary life. I remember the intentional silence that reminded us of the sacredness of the space, the humility of the quest, and the limitation of our knowing. I remember the hard-earned wisdom of the elders, who in their own way affirmed Reinhold Niebuhr’s insight that “nothing makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we must be saved by faith.”

The themes of love, faith, hope, and forgiveness were the biblical cornerstones of our collective journey, reminding us that love is the law of life. Those prayerful discussions left indelible marks on my spirit and psyche. Even after years have passed and I am now far removed from the round wooden table around which that fellowship of friends occurred, I have tried to develop the philosophical and theological implications of my early Bible study. I have expanded my enquiry by continuing to read the Bible while studying writers as diverse as Aristotle, Augustine, Tillich, and Niebuhr.

But no amount of searching makes it easier to forgive, especially such heinous atrocities as that perpetrated by the racist Charleston shooter. Nonetheless, I have come to believe the following.

First, there is evil in the world, and we must learn to accept it as part of the human condition. However, we are charged as people of faith to embody God’s love in the face of brutality. It is our awareness of what we ought to be and also what we cannot be that fully demonstrates the full complexity of our human situation. Reinhold Niebuhr, the theological philosopher who has influenced me much, once wrote:

“We must finally be reconciled with our foe, lest we both perish in the viscous circle of hatred. To this reconciliation belongs a forgetfulness of the past which gives the foe a chance to prove the better resources of his life….Anger against evil is the necessary immediate reaction; but long-range considerations require that anger be abated in order that we may, in soberness of spirit, seek the best means of restoring the evil-doer to moral health.”

The relatives of the victims of last week’s horrific act have powerfully embodied this powerful principle of forgiveness. I marvel at their determination to forego revenge, but I cannot help asking, in the face of the horror that thrust them into the international spotlight: “Are there things that are unforgivable?” Then I recall from that Wednesday night childhood Bible Study that our forgiveness of others is supposed to be an expression of God’s divine forgiveness to us. We may not always reach that ideal, although the grace of the victims’ relatives offers us inspiration and hope, but it remains always the standard of our faith.

Forgiveness entails recognizing the poverty of our human situation and the richness of God’s grace. It requires us to recognize the dialectical dilemma of our being grounded in, and to some extent, bounded by reality, yet capable of transcending it and thus overcoming our anguish. The Apostle Paul affirms that “neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities, nor things present or things to come….will be able to separate us from the love of God.” It is on that level of meaning that the Christian faith makes sense. Our assurance of that love makes forgiveness possible. In addition, other faith traditions, such as Buddhism, affirm that forgiveness allows us to let go of the past and the sorrow that it brings and to step into a limitless future.

In this moment of grief, and in the rest of our trouble-filled lives, it is our faith that sustains us with the hope of transcendence. It may be humanly impossible to forgive, but not spiritually. I firmly believe that in Bible study, my Christian sisters and brothers in Charleston have found the strength to forgive. I cannot say with any confidence that in their situation I could as readily forgive the one who so grievously trespassed against me, but I pray that all those years of theological and philosophical seeking, beginning in those long-ago Wednesday night Bible studies, would give me the strength that I would need. In that capacity lies our hope for redemption because, as Niebuhr says, “we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.”