Forgiveness Is Hell: The Better Punishment for Dylann Roof

February 1, 2017

In June 2015, days after white supremacist Dylann Roof shot and killed nine people at a Bible study at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, the public response from surviving church members was striking.  One attendee of a prayer vigil for the victims told the BBC World Service [1],

“What he was going to accomplish, he did the opposite.  And so we’re smiling and laughing at him, while yet praying for him.  And he can’t stop us from praying for him, and he can’t stop us from loving him.  So he’s got to live with black people loving white people, and white people loving black people.  And I think that is hell for him.”

I heard several things at once in this brief yet potent statement.

It immediately brought to mind what Martin Luther King so powerfully said [2] about nonviolent resistance formed by agape, which enables one to say to one’s “most violent opponent,”

“We will match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. And do to us what you will, and we will still love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws because non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. And so throw us in jail, and as difficult as that is, we will still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children and as difficult as it is, we will still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators and violence into our communities at the midnight hours and drag us out on some wayside road and beat us and leave us half-dead and we will still love you. But be assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. And one day we will win our freedom: but we will not only win freedom for ourselves. We will so appeal to your heart and your conscience that we will win you in the process and our victory will be a double victory.”

The spirit of Reverend Dr. King proved to be alive and well in Emmanuel AME Church, evidenced as well by representatives of the victims’ families at a court hearing [3], who spoke with both audible pain and resolute forgiveness to the young man who had killed their loved ones.

“And I think that is hell for him.”

This reflects at the same time a deep irony that exists as long as the victory King proclaimed remains a hope as yet unconsummated.  It is the same irony that St. Paul pointed to in his letter to the Romans (12:20, quoting Solomon in Proverbs 25:21-22): “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.”

I recall a similar response to another church shooting some years ago where the pastor, asked if he thought the shooter would go to hell, replied, “He’s probably been living in his own personal hell for years.”
Particularly apropos of the racially motivated Charleston shooting is a sentence that stuck in my mind from Rob Bell’s book Love Wins [4] (which has often been mistakenly described as an argument for universalism): “A racist would be miserable in the world to come.”

Indeed, for someone repelled by the vast unity-in-diversity that is the communion of saints, heaven itself would be hell.  Already in this world, for someone who chooses to live in the hell of hatred, forgiveness is indeed the most burning response that can be offered – while always holding out the hope that, for him too, it can be a healing burn, if he allows it to be.

“What he was going to accomplish, he did the opposite.”

By murdering innocent people at a historically black church, Roof had openly intended to “start a race war.”  But as some residents of Charleston have pointed out, both after the shooting and more recently in response to his receiving the death sentence, the opposite happened.  Having to live with that knowledge for the full span of his life would be a far more fitting punishment for such a hateful crime than being put to death.  As long as he lives unrepentant of that hate, he will continue to live out his years in a hell of his own making.

And if he ever does repent, there will be much rejoicing in heaven.

Julia Smucker 

A version of this article previously appeared in Vox Nova on June 21, 2015.