It has been one year since the Emanuel AME Church mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, that left nine black victims dead. The shooter, Dylann Roof, a self-professed white supremacist, initially chose to represent himself in an ongoing trial that could result in the death penalty. The trial has unearthed new information, footage, testimony and raw, visceral anger from survivors and from the community. Yet throughout the last year, many families spoke of forgiveness, mercy, and grace. In June of 2015, Nadine Collier, the daughter of 70 year-old Charleston victim Ethel Lance, addressed Roof in a bond hearing. “I will never talk to her ever again,” She said. “I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you, and have mercy on your soul. You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people… but god forgives you, and I forgive you.”
Reverends Emmett G. Price III and Irene Monroe joined Jim Braude and Margery Eagan on Boston Public Radio Monday for All Revved Up to ask the question: Can you forgive someone and wish the death penalty upon them?
Price: They’re not mutually exclusive. Reconciliation, which is the bigger, broader umbrella for this notion, is both vertical and horizontal. Part of what we saw is that in their relationship with god, they desire to not necessarily hold malice—they knew that god would be the final decider in the fate of Dylann Roof. That was what you heard expressed, ‘we forgive him, we’ll put this in the hands of god.’ In the horizontal piece, that’s where the challenge is. When you get into the courtroom, you have to replay all of these facts, and now you see the anger. Now you see the kind of vehement aspect of it that is not necessarily in conflict with the fact that they forgave him, but now is where all that feeling comes out.
Monroe: See, he does not get my forgiveness. I’m of this thought: If you’re going to talk about reconciliation, there needs to be a number of steps in place. If we’re talking about restorative justice, in that regard, I’m against the death penalty. I don’t think we have the right, state-wise or individually, to take anybody’s life. But I think forgiveness is about not only a change of heart, but a change of behavior. That has to be earned. It’s not grace, which you automatically get, there has to be steps toward that. I think when you’ve been violated like that, it’s much more therapeutic to be a lot slower in doling out the grace than to do it immediately. It puts you in touch with that anger and grows into a place of forgiveness—it’s on both sides. I could not possibly give this boy forgiveness. If there’s anything to do, it’s to educate him. Obviously he’s had a toxic diet of white supremacist thought.
Jim: What do you mean, educating Roof?
Monroe: To put him in prison, he’s just going to be hardened, and he may just find a group that makes him even more racist. He’s still a kid. I would have him taking classes, and he would be in therapy.
Jim: And not go to jail?
Monroe: Well, I think he has to do time… but when we put him in jail, we just throw him there. That’s a wasted life. I think that he life is redeemable.
Jim: Why should anybody not kill anybody they want for any reason, if they know the consequence is that you go into a re-education program?
Monroe: I know what you mean, but I think if we did enough of that, we would see the value of it.
Price: I’m shaking my head… if there was anybody that needs to go to Guantanamo Bay, it’s him. I don’t believe in the death penalty— I’m vehemently against it— but I don’t think it notion of re-education… I mean, the reason he wants a trial is that he’s going to make a public, national, (if not international) statement that you, meaning people of color, black folks, you are taking our women, and you are taking over the world. In that sense, it becomes a rallying cry for white nationalists, I guess they don’t call themselves ‘supremacists’ anymore— and some of these groups that are now rising up from wherever they have been. You can’t say, ‘we’re going to grab all of you together and re-educate you’—
Monroe: No, but not all of them are going to do such a heinous act that Dylann Roof has done. I do think that when you look at other countries, and when people are being incarcerated, they really do a concerted effort to rehab them. I just think to lock him up in the hole, in solitary confinement, is saying that this is a life not worth rehabbing. It’s not to ignore the preconditions that got him there.
Price: I think he should go to the new Jim Crow, wherever that prison-pipeline that Michelle Alexander talks about, all the black male bodies that end up there, send him over there.
Monroe: I think we need to change our penal system… I think there’s a difference between teaching a lesson and ruining a life. This is a man who has been on a trajectory, who has not had many opportunities. I think we will continue to ruin his life if we don’t do something to teach him a lesson of what he has done.
Emmett G. Price III is a Professor and the Founding Executive Director of the Institute for the Study of the Black Christian Experience at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary.Rev. Irene Monroe is a syndicated religion columnist who writes for Huffington Post and Bay Windows. To hear their full interview with Boston Public Radio, click on the audio link above.