Finding Mercy in the Wake of the Charleston Massacre

GRACE WILL LEAD US HOME
The Charleston Church Massacre and the Hard, Inspiring Journey to Forgiveness
By Jennifer Berry Hawes

For an idea so fundamental to Western morality, forgiveness is remarkably poorly grounded. Nietzsche, wary of all such sentimental ideas, argued that moral mandates like forgiveness are drummed into us by the beneficiaries of dominant ideologies. He had a point. If we’re honest about forgiveness, the reasons in its favor are really variations on two themes: It’s what is expected of me, and it shows I am the better person. So when one has been irreparably and tragically wronged by another, it bears asking: Who benefits from my forgiveness, and what does being the better person have to do with my loss?

These are questions Jennifer Berry Hawes means for us to linger on in “Grace Will Lead Us Home,” her soul-shaking chronicle of the 2015 Charleston massacre and its aftermath. Her book begins with a grisly, yet not gratuitous, retelling of the events at Charleston’s historically black Emanuel A.M.E. Church on the evening of June 17 that year, when Dylann Roof walked into a Bible study meeting equipped with a loaded Glock and eight magazines of bullets — a total of 88 rounds, a number neo-Nazis use to signify “Heil Hitler.” Roof spent his arsenal until he was satisfied that his racist work was done. He left nine dead and three living — witnesses to his carnage. “Grace Will Lead Us Home” recounts not just what happened that night but afterward, to the families and friends who were forced to pick up the shattered pieces of their lives — or were unable to do so.

Hawes, a reporter for The Post and Courier in Charleston, was part of a team that won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for public service for a series investigating domestic violence against women in South Carolina. She’s a writer with the exceedingly rare ability to observe sympathetically both particular events and the horizon against which they take place without sentimentalizing her subjects. In “Grace Will Lead Us Home,” the sorrow of the massacre’s three survivors, and that of the relatives left to mourn the dead, is vividly rendered but not to the point of caricature. Similarly admirable are moments when she depicts the difficulties faced by Roof’s family without compelling us to feel for them what we feel for the victims and their relatives.

Such skill is essential for Hawes’s enterprise. She is determined that we gain a comprehensive understanding of the story: Why did Roof do it? Why is America a place where such a crime can happen? Why was Charleston a horrifically poignant location for Roof’s terrorism? And, most important: Why did the survivors and family members who spoke at Roof’s bond hearing forgive him, and did he deserve it? Hawes attempts to answer all but the last of these questions, ultimately leaving that one to the reader.

Here is what one will learn along the way: Roof walked into Mother Emanuel with the express purpose of eliminating black lives. Every time he is asked why he did it, he responds, “I had to.” In his first interview with the F.B.I., he added, “Somebody had to do something because, you know, black people are killing white people every day on the streets and they rape, they rape white women.” Roof was radicalized by websites like the white supremacist Daily Stormer and accepted without reflection the claim that whites are in real danger from black people. While he was an awkward loner, and despite his defense team’s attempt to posit both mental illness and autism as explanations for his behavior, a court-appointed physician found him fit for trial.

Roof’s act happened in America, a nation in which blacks were long denied not only rights but status as human beings. It is also a nation for which guns remain a stubbornly romantic symbol of freedom. As Hawes observes of South Carolina, “A year before the Emanuel massacre, one state lawmaker even raffled off an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle at a campaign rally, and Governor [Nikki] Haley tweeted about the firearm her husband gave her for Christmas one year: ‘I must have been good Santa gave me a Beretta PX4 Storm.’”

Charleston’s role as the backdrop for Roof’s murders is especially unsettling. The city, Hawes reminds us, served as the most important receiving station for imported slaves. Charleston was also home to Denmark Vesey’s doomed slave rebellion, for which he was hanged. Before the Civil War, nearly three in four white families there owned slaves. The street where Mother Emanuel is also houses a square with a statue honoring the pro-slavery South Carolinian John C. Calhoun, and the church itself was a focal point in the civil rights movement. Thus Roof symbolically brought to bear nearly 400 years of America’s worst sins and fears every time one of his bullets plunged into one of his victims’ bodies. Roof became the most visible embodiment of disdain for blacks in a nation that perfected that attitude, in a city that peddled that attitude and that remained at best ambivalent about atoning for that attitude.

Hawes emphasizes the role of forgiveness in two registers. On the one hand, she writes, it was a personal issue, involving the reconciliation of faith with rage: Forgiveness, for the survivors of Roof’s massacre, became the idea the faithful mobilized to in order to be avatars of God’s loving grace. Felicia Sanders’s son Tywanza died mere feet from her. Hawes recounts her thoughts after she spoke at Roof’s bond hearing, following family members of victims who had just publicly forgiven him: “Roof’s destiny was in God’s hands now. Her destiny remained in her own. What if she didn’t forgive this killer? She wouldn’t go to heaven, and that’s where she would find her baby boy.”

On the other hand, there were national consequences to such actions, as the country latched onto the spectacle of blacks forgiving a murderous racist as inspiring and appropriate. Inspiring because it takes a herculean effort to not indulge rage at a man like Roof. Appropriate because forgiveness allows us all to move on.

And this is where readers will have to make a choice about the costs of moving on. I wonder at white (and some black) Americans who cheered the act of forgiving Roof. He was the crystallization of a culture of racism that not only daily endangers black Americans but that also bolsters white privilege of all sorts. To forgive Roof is to extend an act of kindness to that culture and its beneficiaries. Moreover, this is an act that has been expected of blacks enduring racism in this country since the 17th century. Do the folks who applauded forgiveness grasp that historical dynamic?

Hawes is so admirably steadfast in her commitment to bearing witness that one is compelled to consider the story she tells from every possible angle. In doing so, one could be persuaded by a third rationale cited by the survivors in favor of forgiveness: that it leads to closure. Yet one of the most haunting threads in Hawes’s book concerns the way none of the people deeply touched by all the death Roof dealt has achieved anything like closure. Roof himself was sentenced to death, which would bring the death toll of his massacre to 10. Of those people, nine did not deserve what they got.

Chris Lebron is a professor of philosophy at Johns Hopkins University and the author, most recently, of “The Making of Black Lives Matter: A Brief History of an Idea.”

GRACE WILL LEAD US HOME
The Charleston Church Massacre and the Hard, Inspiring Journey to Forgiveness
By Jennifer Berry Hawes
309 pp. St. Martin’s Press. $28.99.

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