On Thursday, a black pastor shared the story of how he forgave the white supremacist who murdered his wife. The Rev. Anthony B. Thompson, pastor of Holy Trinity Reformed Episcopal Church of Charleston, S.C., lost his wife in the horrific shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on June 17, 2015. Thanks to his belief in Jesus Christ and the story of Jesus’s crucifixion, Thompson was able to forgive the heinous murderer in a public display of God’s unfathomable mercy.
Speaking in Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol for a National Day of Prayer event, Rev. Thompson praised God for sending Jesus to show His love. “He came unto his own and one of His disciples betrayed Him for 30 pieces of silver. He still went to the cross out of love, and they made a crown of thorns and pushed them deep into His head until He bled,” the black pastor narrated.
“He took our pains, He took our sufferings. Never said anything. Never curse them back, never hated them. He stayed on that cross out of love and He prayed for them and for us. He said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ Can you do that?” Thompson asked pointedly.
“Can you bless those who curse you? Can you do good to those who hate you? Can you pray for those who mistreat you? Can you love your enemies?” Then he got personal. “Can you love someone who hates you because of the color of your skin? Can you love someone who hates you for being gay or for being different? Can you love someone who physically and sexually abused you?”
“God asked me that question one day, very difficult. On June 17, 2015, a young white supremacist named Dylann Roof killed my wife and eight people at Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina,” Rev. Thompson recalled. “And God asked me, He said to me, ‘Can you love Dylann? Can you love that man who killed your wife?'”
“Forty-eight hours after that horrific tragedy, I was at Dylan Roof’s bond hearing, and I had to answer God’s question,” the pastor said. “It haunted me, and as I approached the podium I thought about myself and I said, ‘God I am a sinner, just like Dylann.’ And I said to Dylann, ‘Son I forgive you. My family forgives you. But we would like you to take this opportunity to repent. Repent, confess, and give your life to the one who matters the most, that’s Christ. So that he can change your ways, change your attitude, and no matter what happens to you, you’ll be okay.'”
Thompson may have forgiven Roof, but the racist murderer’s ultimate sin is before God. Roof must still repent and accept Jesus’s forgiveness, but perhaps the black pastor’s astounding mercy will urge the white supremacist to realize the evil of his acts and the possibility of God’s forgiveness.
This black pastor’s countercultural act of forgiveness might disgust people. How could this black man forgive the white supremacist who hates him for the color of his skin? How could he forgive the man who murdered his wife in cold blood? Modern Americans find it hard to forgive someone for offensive tweets, let alone racist terrorist mass murder.
Yet to true Christian men like Thompson, the more important question is, how could he not forgive this man? How could a sinner forgiven only by the grace of Jesus Christ withhold forgiveness to those who mistreat him? Christians understand that we are sinners, and God has already forgiven us. How can we withhold mercy from those who mistreat us?
In the Lord’s Prayer, we ask the Father to “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” This echoes Jesus’s parable in Luke 7:36-50, where a debtor who had his large debt forgiven refuses to forgive a smaller debt owed to him. The debtor’s unforgiveness rightly disgusts the listeners — and it justly lands him in jail.
As Thompson noted, Jesus set the example by forgiving the very people who demanded His crucifixion. As He lay nailed to that instrument of agonizing death, Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). This black pastor follows Jesus, and so He strove to mimic Jesus’s example.
Even so, American culture rightly views white supremacist terror as one of the worst possible evils, and Dylann Roof as a horrific kind of devil. Yet when Rev. Thompson forgave the man who murdered his wife, a strange thing happened to him.
“I’ve got to tell you, God’s peace is real, because after I forgave Dylann, I experienced God’s love, I experienced God’s peace,” the black pastor said. “For the first time, I knew and understood exactly what it meant, what it felt like to experience the peace of God which passes all understanding.”
Thompson continued, saying God “freed me, He freed my heart, He freed my soul and body of the burden of bitterness, rage, anger, and malice. He healed me from the inside out, and I’m here to tell you that He took away all my burdens and gave me peace, peace you can have tonight.”
This black pastor who did the unfathomable asked his audience to follow Jesus’s example and his own. “Let God free you tonight. If someone has done you wrong, if someone has done something that caused pain or suffering in your life, don’t try to get them back,” he invited. “Show them the love of God … forgive them.”
He concluded with the words of Colossians 3:12-13: “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”
Thompson’s book, Called to Forgive: The Charleston Church Shooting, a Victim’s Husband, and the Path to Healing and Peace, will be released in June of this year. Watch the video of the event below. Rev. Thompson’s speech begins around the 1:19:00 mark.
Follow Tyler O’Neil, the author of this article, on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.