The recent events at the Emanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina, were on the hearts of believers last Sunday. It was Father’s Day, but instead of celebrating, the families of innocent victims who were gunned down after a church Bible study were in mourning. And the church mourned with them.
When I say “the church” mourned with them, I am not just referring to the church family at Emanuel, although I know they are experiencing an unimaginable grief. In addition, we all mourn. We do so because we are a part of the same kingdom and have been washed clean by the same blood.
I am inspired by the reaction of my brothers and sisters at Emanuel. They were stricken with grief, but in the midst of their pain they managed to be obedient to Jesus’ command to love and forgive their attacker. This doesn’t mean they aren’t angry, or that they don’t care about justice. But they have chosen to trust God with the outcome and let Him dispense any vengeance that is required.
The church family of Emanuel AME are showing the world what it means to be a follower of Jesus. I think our role, in addition to sharing in their grief, is to make sure we proclaim their works as an example of Christ-centeredness.
But let’s return to the topic of justice for a moment. This horrific incident raises the question of how Christians should respond to violent offenses. Certainly, we have the right to defend ourselves against our attackers. We would be taking Jesus’ words “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:39) out of context if we interpreted this to mean we were supposed to let others perpetrate lawless acts of bloodshed.
As far as prosecuting those who hurt us, and as long as we have a reliable system of justice in government, we should respect the processes being led by those in authority (Titus 3:1). If the system is flawed, we should seek change, but not with a vengeful spirit. Vengeance belongs to the Lord (Romans 12:19).
In the case of the good people of the Emanuel church, they would have had a biblical right to protect themselves had they been able to predict the actions of their killer. And now their family members can pursue justice through the courts. They should not have to seek vengeance to find justice. And they are even free to plead for mercy for the killer, should they choose to do so.
These principles apply to everyone in our society. How then, are followers of Jesus different?
For starters, leaving vengeance in the hands of God is huge! This requires a high level of confidence in God’s power, and incredible patience as we wait for the outcome.
But beyond the justice we witness here on earth, the chief difference between a believer and a non-believer is the ability to leave eternal matters up to God, and even feel compassion for those whose souls are in danger. We might say the hottest parts of hell are reserved for those who commit evil crimes, and this might be true. But the journey into the final presence of the Lord is a complicated one, and none of us can know the heart for sure.
Should we be angry? Absolutely! Can we seek the full extent of justice? We certainly can. Genesis 6:9 tell us, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.” (Genesis 9:6)
Yet, as we seek justice, we should remember God’s tender mercy toward us. We cannot presume to judge the eternal souls of others when our personal hope is rooted in the grace of God.
This is what strikes me about my brothers and sisters in Charleston. They are processing all of these biblical principles at a time when they are in shock and the eyes of the world are upon them. I suspect not everyone will say and do the right things in the days and months ahead. It would be unfair for any of us to have such a lofty expectation. Still, for now, somehow, these wonderful believers are keeping everything in balance, and they are showing the world what it means to know Jesus.
There are plenty of people around who wear the name of Jesus who don’t have any business being quoted on the news. But the people of the Emanuel AME church are lifting up the name of Jesus. For this reason we should celebrate their witness and lift them up as a testimony.
Right now, they are the Jesus people see.