On the evening of 17 June 2015, a tragic mass shooting happened at the Emanuel African American Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. During a routine Bible study, young white supremacist, Dylann Roof, entered the building and opened fire, killing nine people and injuring one. He later admitted that he had hoped to ignite a race war. He was sentenced to death by a US federal court and to nine consecutive life sentences without parole by a state court.
A few days after the shooting, relatives of the victims were given opportunity to address Roof at his first hearing. Nadine Collier, daughter of a seventy-year-old victim, looked directly at him and, voice breaking, said, “I forgive you. You took something very precious from me. I will never talk to her again. I will never, ever hold her again. But I forgive you. God have mercy on your soul.” One by one, relatives of victims followed her lead and offered forgiveness to Roof.
Reactions to the expressions of forgiveness were varied. Some came to appreciate the power of forgiveness. The 2019 documentary Emanuel explores the subject of forgiveness through the lens of the Charleston shooting. Others were sceptical, feeling that forgiveness swept justice under the carpet. Some latched onto the story as a way of highlighting a perceived weakness of Christianity.
Christians considering the responses of relatives cannot help but think of Jesus’ own words from the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
Chronologically, these were the first words that Jesus uttered from the cross. It is probable that he spoke them as the Roman soldiers nailed him to the crossbar. At the peak of physical pain, he thought not of himself but of those who needed forgiveness through the very act he was experiencing. J. C. Ryle observes, “As soon as the blood of the Great Sacrifice began to flow, the Great High Priest began to intercede.”
Perhaps most directly, Jesus was praying for the very soldiers who were crucifying him. They did not know what they were doing (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:8). Unlike the Jewish Sanhedrin, they did not have the benefit of Old Testament training and had not been exposed to his consistent teaching over the past three years. They were acting under strict orders from the Roman governor. For them, his was a routine crucifixion, an act that they had become accustomed to. Failure to obey orders would have resulted in their own execution. Rather than harbouring bitterness against them, Jesus prayed that his Father would forgive them.
But, of course, they were not the only ones who required forgiveness. Others crowded around the cross. There were the religious leaders who so despised him. There were the priests who had purchased his blood with silver. Members of the Jewish populace who had called for his crucifixion and Barabbas’s release were watching. In the distance, Pilate sought to salve his conscience by blaming someone else for the order he had given. At least two of his disciples, who had abandoned him in the garden, were secretly watching. Nicodemus and Joseph, two undercover disciples, were perhaps also nearby. Yet no one protested.
In short, there were a lot of people who needed this word of forgiveness. Scores of groups and individuals had done nothing—active or passive—to stop the crucifixion. In a sense, they all bore blame. And yet Jesus was not bitter. He prayed that they would experience forgiveness.
Of course, those who crowded the cross that fateful morning were but representative of humanity at large. It was sin—the sin of humanity—that put Jesus on the cross. We all bear blame for crucifying the Son of God. We are all guilty and stand in need of forgiveness.
“They do not know what they do,” said Jesus. Imagine that! Imagine the depths of human depravity that people could ignorantly, yet gleefully, murder the sinless Son of God. How far humanity had fallen from the uninterrupted fellowship with God with which they were created. How dreadful sin is!
The marvel of this saying from the cross is that there is forgiveness available to rebel sinners. Forgiveness was offered to the disciples who had abandoned him and fled in the garden. Forgiveness was offered to Pilate, who had ordered his execution. Forgiveness was offered to the Roman soldiers who had nailed him to the cross. Forgiveness was offered to the Jewish religious leaders who had conspired to have him killed. Forgiveness was offered to the crowds who had called for Barabbas to be released and Jesus to be crucified. Forgiveness was offered to the two criminals crucified with him. Through the cross of Christ, forgiveness is offered to everyone who has sinned and has come under the sound of the gospel.
The relatives of the Charleston victims were not doing anything unusual. They stood in a long line of Christians who have followed the great example of their Lord. As Stephen prayed for the grace of forgiveness for those who stoned him (Acts 7:60), so have scores of Christians extended the offer of forgiveness to those who have opposed and sinned against them. We can—we must—forgive those who sin against us because Jesus forgave those who sinned against him.
The famed Baptist evangelist F. B. Meyer writes,
In uttering this first cry from the cross, our Lord entered that work of intercession which he ever lives to continue on our behalf. He thinks, not of himself, but of others; he is occupied, not with his own pain, but with their sins. He makes no threat but instead offers a tender prayer of pleading intercession.
Seven weeks later, on the Day of Pentecost, three thousand of those who had crucified Jesus (Acts 2:36) repented and believed. In the days and weeks that followed, thousands more believed, including a great number of the priests (Acts 6:7). God answered Jesus’ intercession! The answer to his prayer has continued down the centuries, for we, too, are the fruits of his prayer: “Father, forgive them.”