Wrestling with Reconciliation
When nine church members were shot and killed at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC in June 2015, the response was unanimous—shock, horror, outrage. But in the past few months, with the conviction of Dylann Roof in December and the sentencing in January, the responses—and particularly the responses of the surviving church and family members—have become more varied. Some church members, in addition to numerous law enforcement officials, applauded the jury’s recommendation to execute Roof. The jury’s decision seems a seminal step in the nation’s journey towards racial justice, as this is the first time a person has been given the death sentence for a federal hate crime.
But to other friends and loved ones, like Rev. Thompson, the justice of Roof’s death sentence doesn’t bring any peace. “His sentence won’t affect the way I live, won’t bring my wife back,” he said in an interview with The New York Times. Instead of supporting the death penalty for Roof, Rev. Thompson opted for something unthinkable: forgiveness.
Less than two days after Roof murdered his wife Myra, Rev. Thompson forgave Roof at his bond hearing. And even after reviewing all of the evidence presented in Roof’s trial, Rev. Thompson reiterated that decision. “I have no intentions of taking that back,” he said.
Dan Simmons Jr., son of one of the victims, made a similar statement when he addressed Roof directly at his sentencing hearing. “I forgive for your act, for your actions,” he said. “Know you have an opportunity to ask for forgiveness. Know that God will forgive you.”
This kind of forgiveness is staggering, especially in a country so challenged historically and currently by racial tension. It is right to pursue justice for the many racial injustices of the past, and for the injustices that continue in the present. But there are also many wrongs that white America cannot possibly redress, and can only be covered by forgiveness. At The Oaks, we want be a part of both. We pursue justice by maintaining diversity among our families and students, because every child deserves a high-quality education. But we don’t just want to be a place that is diverse; we also want to be a place that facilitates greater racial unity.
This is never easy, but Oaks students and families are learning how to breach the divide. Sometimes this happens simply when students of different races sit and learn together in the classroom. But this also happens more explicitly, such as when parents engage in conversations on race at Saturday school, or when the 7th graders learned about forgiveness from someone who knows: Holocaust survivor Eva Kor.
Each fall, the 7th grade humanities classes travel to Terre Haute, IN, to visit the CANDLES Holocaust Museum and to hear Eva Kor’s story. Eva was 10 years old when she and her twin sister, Miriam, became test subjects of Dr. Josef Mengele’s twin experiments at Auschwitz. Though both Eva and her sister miraculously survived, she did not talk about her experiences for decades after the liberation in 1945. And it took years of talking, searching, and sharing her story at the museum before Eva could forgive the Nazis when she returned to Auschwitz for the 50th anniversary of the liberation.
Some people opposed Eva’s decision, believing that it minimized the horrors of the Holocaust. But to Eva, forgiving the Nazis was not about diminishing the past, but about freeing herself from it. “Forgiveness is the best revenge,” she said. She explained that as a victim, she felt completely powerless, and that it was only in forgiving Mengele and the Nazis that she took away the perpetrators’ power over her life. “I had the power to forgive the angel of death, and he could do nothing about it. All the pain I’d carried for 50 years was lifted off my shoulders. I was free of Auschwitz and Mengele.”
And Eva Kor’s determination to live in freedom hasn’t wavered—not even when she attended the trial of Oskar Groening, a former SS officer who worked at Auschwitz. Eva was one of the plaintiffs in the case, bringing charges in what may turn out to be one of the last Nazi trials. And even while she was pursuing justice by bringing the truth to light, she still offered forgiveness by shaking Groening’s hand.
Mr. Thompson also found a way to pursue justice and practice forgiveness regarding the murder of his wife. Though Mr. Thompson attended Roof’s trial, he also made it clear that he was not concerned about the sentencing. “He is not a part of my life anymore. Forgiveness has freed me of that, of him completely,” he said. “I’m not going to make him a lifetime partner.”
Eva Kor and Mr. Thompson set a remarkable example, especially for us at The Oaks Academy as we seek reconciliation in a culture growing more and more divided. They offer us hope that there is a way forward, a way to find freedom from the past by seeking justice and finding forgiveness.