In Dayton and El Paso, the potential power of forgiveness

As in Charleston after its 2015 mass shooting, some families speak of forgiving the shooters even as they denounce their actions and motives.

People attend an Aug. 5 vigil for victims of the mass shooting in El Paso, Texas.

Like mass shootings in the past, police are still trying to pin down the exact motives for last weekend’s killings in two American cities. Such information might help spot – or “red flag” – potential shooters in the future. For the killer in El Paso, Texas, one pronounced motive appears to have been a fear of an immigrant “invasion,” although police are still doing a full profile. For the deceased killer in Dayton, Ohio, the motives remain unclear as police pick over his past, which includes threats of violence and his political leanings to the left.

But one motive fits both. Each dehumanized their victims out of rage, almost as if they wanted others to feel the same emotion. Empathy was not at all evident.

Yet not surprisingly, a few of the victims’ families as well as community leaders have refused to reciprocate the rage even as they grieve or demand reforms such as more gun regulation.

In El Paso, one injured survivor of the shooting, Octavio Ramiro Lizarde, said he hopes his faith will allow him to forgive. Even though he lost a young nephew, he said, “I really hope [the shooter] doesn’t get the death penalty, I hope he gets better mentally and realizes what he did and betters his life.”

As for Gilbert Anchondo, who lost a son and daughter-in-law at the Walmart in El Paso, he has chosen mercy over revenge. “The aggressor could be my son – 21 years old, confused, on the wrong path – I forgive him,” he said.

One mother of a victim, Misti Jamrowski, told CNN: “We forgive [the shooter]. We honestly forgive him. We pray for him. We hope that he finds God, because God teaches you to be loving.”

In Dayton, meanwhile, Renard D. Allen Jr., pastor of St. Luke Baptist Church, said at a public vigil that the community must start the process of finding peace through healing. “There is no weapon more powerful than the weapon of love. There is no weapon more strong than the weapon of forgiveness,” he said.

Acts of forgiveness after a massacre are rare. Yet they can be powerful. In a reminder of what is possible, both a book and documentary came out this spring that detail the forgiveness given to Dylann Roof by families of victims killed in 2015 at the black Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

The book “Grace Will Lead Us Home” by prize-winning journalist Jennifer Berry Hawes describes the face-to-face forgiveness offered to Mr. Roof at his bond hearing. It was a “deep spiritual resistance,” the type that frees the forgiver from hating the perpetrator. The forgivers placed a moral burden on him, perhaps in hopes he will respond in kind someday.

In the new film “Emanuel,” Chris Singleton, the son of one victim in the church, says his forgiveness was not a choice to “move on.” It took strength to forgive. And it allowed him to be free of anger, to spread love and unity, and to work to prevent similar tragedies.

The effects on South Carolina from the families’ forgiveness were profound. It led to the removal of many Confederate symbols, for example. It brought unity into the state in a way that it had not seen in its history, says Sen. Tim Scott. The power of faith in the community and the church was phenomenal, he says, and brought the very opposite of the shooter’s objective to start a race riot.

The impersonal hate of the shooters in El Paso and Dayton deserves a response at many levels – justice in the courts, reforms in legislatures, and denunciation of their motives. Yet none may be as powerful to prevent more shootings than forgiveness.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this editorial misspelled the name of the Charleston shooter, Dylann Roof. 

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