The late Christopher Hitchens wrote a best-selling bromide against religion entitled God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. In that book, he claimed "As I write these words, and as you read them, people of faith are in their different ways planning your and my destruction, and the destruction of all the hard-won human attainments that I have touched upon. Religion poisons everything."1
Richard Dawkins takes a similarly dismissive view of religion in general and Christianity in particular. In chapter six of his book The God Delusion. Dawkins seeks to lay out how an evolutionary paradigm can account not only for self-preservation ,but altruistic actions such as older relatives caring for younger ones or acts of altruism that result in mutual benefit of both parties.2
Dawkins, Hitchens, Sam Harris and other atheists have all claimed that they base their beliefs on reason and evidence. They hold up evidence as the highest ideal. But the ruthless murders of black parishioners in Charleston have provided evidence contradicting the position that religion is detrimental to humanity. It is proving that Christianity has the power to transform a story into something very different than the expected narrative.
Different than expectedWe have watched in horror as cities like Ferguson or Baltimore erupt into violent protests and citizens riot after the death of a single black man. In each of those cases, there was some considerable gray area as to the actions of the officers involved: Michael Brown had just stolen from a convenience store and wouldn’t comply with the officer’s requests. Freddy Gray was under arrest and was being transported when he died from injuries that may or may not have been inflicted accidentally.
In Charleston we have nine people attending a Bible study who were mercilessly shot by Dylann Roof with the intent, according to investigators, "to start a race war."3 Outrage over these events should have been more acute than the others, yet there have been no riots. What was the difference?
AME Elder and interim pastor Rev. Norvel Goff, Sr, explained, "A lot of folk expected us to do something strange and break out in a riot. They just don't know us because we are a people of faith, and we believe that when we put our forces and our heads together, working for a common good, there is nothing we cannot accomplish together in the name of Jesus."4
While the lack of looting and rioting is in itself noteworthy, that wasn’t the most amazing thing to happen in Charleston. Just 36 hours after Roof slaughtered them, the victims’ family members stood in court, stared directly at roof and they forgave him. CNN quotes victim Ethel Lance’s daughter as she said to Roof , "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."5
Felicia Sanders was in the church during Roof’s rampage. She saw her son Tywanza die while trying to reason with him. She and her daughter only survived by playing dead. Yet, Sanders looked at Roof and asked God for mercy for him. "Every fiber in my body hurts, and I will never be the same. As we said in the Bible study, we enjoyed you. But may God have mercy on you."
These Christians were doing something that was the opposite of poisonous, something that in the natural order would make no sense at all. They were following the example of Jesus, who taught that we should love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Jesus forgave his murderers from the Cross and his followers at the Emmanuel AME Church would seek to do the same.
The power of their actions was noticed by those both inside and outside the faith. Jewish columnist Jonah Goldberg wrote in his column, "Not being a Christian, I can only marvel at the dignity and courage of the victims' relatives who forgave the shooter. If I could ever manage such a thing, it would probably take me decades. It took them little more than a day."6 Charles C.S. Cooke tweeted the video of the families offering forgiveness and commented:
Did the fact that Christians who followed their Lord’s command poison things in South Carolina or is this evidence that directly contradicts that claim? There is no way for Dawkins, Harris, or the other New Atheists to spin this as some kind of evolutionarily advantageous action. It isn’t. In fact, forgiving a threat instead of destroying it would be evolutionary deleterious. It makes no sense given a naturalist accounting, but it makes all the sense in the world given a supernaturalist accounting.I am a non-Christian, and I must say: This is a remarkable advertisement for Christianity. https://t.co/rmMgD5S013— Charles C. W. Cooke (@charlescwcooke) June 19, 2015
For those atheists who say they’re all about reason and evidence, here it is. Anyone issuing a retraction yet?
References1. Hitchens, Christopher. God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. New York: Twelve Books, 2007. 23.
2. Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. Print. 217-218.
3. Ellis, Ralph, Greg Botelho, and Ed Payne. "Charleston Church Shooting: Questions Swirl around Suspect Dylann Roof." CNN. Cable News Network, 19 June 2015. Web. 24 June 2015. http://www.cnn.com/2015/06/19/us/charleston-church-shooting-main/index.html.
4. Rodriguez, Vanessa. "Peace, Not Rioting at Charleston Church." Christian Examiner. Christian Examiner Newspapers, 22 June 2015. Web. 24 June 2015. http://www.christianexaminer.com/article/defiant.forgiveness.sends.message.to.charleston.mass.murderer/49132.htm.
5. Ellis, 2015.
6. Goldberg, Jonah. "In the South, Grace and Dignity after Charleston Church Shootings." Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 23 June 2015. Web. 24 June 2015. http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-0623-goldberg-charleston-dignity-20150623-column.html.