Forgiveness in the face of murderous violence is a radical act that remains as shocking and controversial today as it was when a Second Temple-era Palestinian prophet commanded his disciplesto love and to pray for those who persecuted them and ended his mortal life praying for divine forgiveness for his own executioners.
Even the jaded American media seemed stunned by the swiftness and authenticity of the response of the Amish community to the 2006 school shooting at Nickel Mines in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, which included attending the killer’s funeral and setting up a charitable fund for his family.
“The Copts of Egypt…are made of…steel!” was the stammering response of perhaps Egypt’s most prominent talk-show host as he struggled to respond to a widow’s forgiveness in the wake of the 2017 Palm Sunday suicide church bombings. “How great is this forgiveness you have! If it were my father, I could never say this. But this is their faith and religious conviction.”
Such complete and immediate forgiveness is especially controversial when there is no remorse from the killer. What does it mean, some wonder, to forgive someone who fully intended the terror and pain they caused and was never sorry? Doesn’t justice warrant righteous anger, even hatred of a murderer?
When violence is part of a larger pattern of oppression, too, forgiveness can strike some as perpetuating injustice rather than confronting it.
These are misunderstandings of principles that aren’t hard to clarify in theory, but can be difficult to apply in concrete situations.
Brian Ivie’s powerful documentary Emanuel—produced by Viola Davis and NBA All-Star Stephen Curry, both Christians—captures the surprise of forgiveness. But it also grapples with the history of racism and white supremacy to which Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church—founded decades before the Civil War—has been witness, and which the white supremacist Dylann Roof took on his shoulders when he murdered nine African Americans in the AME church basement in the hope of starting a race war.
While the heart of Emanuel is the portrait of the survivors and family members, Ivie provides context and commentary with a blend of talking-head interviews with local journalists, officials, clergy, and others, deftly edited with archival footage, atmospheric location shooting, and brief historical reenactment.
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