August Reflection: The Miracle of Mother Emanuel
by the Rev. John F. Hoffmeyer
The great German-American Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt said that forgiveness was the greatest miracle, because it interrupts the predictable playing out of the consequences of the past. Forgiveness, she explained, frees both those who forgive and those who are forgiven from being bound by the consequences of a past wrong. Forgiveness initiates something new.
The public acts of forgiveness practiced by some of the family and fellow church members of the nine persons murdered earlier this summer while at Bible study at Mother Emanuel in Charleston are a miracle, a new beginning. What makes this new beginning all the more remarkable is the longer and broader context. Consider only one small slice: the church building’s immediate geography. The building of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston is located on Calhoun Street. One block away, in Marion Square, is a statue in honor of John C. Calhoun, for whom the street is named. Calhoun, whom the public school U.S. history instruction of my youth taught as one of the three giants of the U.S. Senate in the decades prior to the Civil War, considered slavery in its Southern U.S. form a “positive good.” His reasoning was that such slavery formed “the most solid and durable foundation on which to rear free and stable political institutions.” He argued that Africans, before being brought to slavery in the U.S., were in “a low, degraded, and savage condition,” but that under the “fostering care” of slavery, they had ascended to a “comparatively civilized condition.” Calhoun judged that “comparatively civilized condition,” together with the numerical increase of the enslaved population, as “conclusive proof of the general happiness of the race” (“On the Reception of Abolition Petitions,” U.S. Senate, February 6, 1837).
For African American church members to forgive a racist white murderer whom they welcomed into their midst — that is a miracle! For that forgiveness to emanate from a church on Calhoun Street, next to the Calhoun monument — that is a further miracle!
Paul wrote to the Corinthian church that “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor. 3:17). The Spirit works the freedom to begin anew, the freedom to make possible a new beginning by practicing forgiveness. As the German Lutheran theologian Eberhard Jüngel likes to say, such freedom is contagious health. The positive contagion spreading from Mother Emanuel is a powerful presence of the Spirit of the Lord. We need nothing less than that presence of the Spirit, for in contending against racism we are contending not against mere “blood and flesh,” but against “spiritual forces of evil,” as Ephesians 6:12 puts it.
The Rev. Dr. John F. Hoffmeyer is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia