How could members of a black church forgive the man who murdered nine of their brethren? Historian Albert J. Raboteau explained the rich tradition of forgiveness within the African-American church experience at last month's Faith Angle Forum.
On June 17, Dylann Roof shot and killed the pastor and eight other members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. After the tragedy, the nation watched with wonder as family members of those slain spoke to Roof at a bond hearing, calling him to repentance and forgiving him.
"I forgive you," the emotional daughter of Ethel Lance, 70, one of the victims, told Roof. "You took something really precious from me. I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her ever again, but I forgive you!"
Raboteau, Henry W. Putnam Professor Emeritus of Religion at Princeton University, looked at this history of forgiveness in the black church through the lives of six figures: Fannie Lou Hamer, Annelle Ponder, Martin Luther King Jr., Francis Grimke, Mary Younger, Solomon Bayley and William Grimes; and concluded with a personal story about the murder of his father by a white man in Mississippi.
Due to slavery, Raboteau explained, two different versions of Christianity developed in the United States: that of the slave owners and that of the slaves. Black Christians developed "an alternative religious narrative" to that of white slave-owning Christians and their supporters that contradicted "the dominant national myth of America as God's New Israel or alternately as the Redeemer Nation."
Where the dominant national myth saw the United States as the "new Israel," slave Christians saw a better metaphor in Egypt during the time of Jewish captivity.
"While generations of white American preachers and politicians spoke of America ... as a New Israel, the Promised Land. African-Americans maintained that on the contrary this nation was the Old Egypt, 'Go Down Moses and Tell Old Pharaoh to Let My People Go' and would remain so until all of God's children were free," Raboteau said.
These were not minor theological differences, Raboteau continued, but went to the core meaning of the Gospel.
These African-American Christians "developed a radical criticism of the cultic piety of American exceptionalism," he said. "In their narrative Christianity and slavery were incompatible."