JOHNSON: Forgiveness in the midst of hatred and violence

FILE – A group prays at the site of a memorial for the victims of the Buffalo supermarket shooting outside the Tops Friendly Market on Saturday, May 21, 2022, in Buffalo, N.Y. Funeral services are set for Friday for three of those killed: Geraldine Talley, Andre Mackniel and Margus Morrison. They are among the 10 people killed and three wounded May 14 when a white gunman opened fire on shoppers and employees at a Tops Friendly Market. (AP Photo/Joshua Bessex, File)

“The Bible tells us to forgive … we’re going to have to forgive the gunman because we’re here.” 

This was the unwavering answer a friend of Buffalo, New York, shooting victim Heyward Patterson gave to a CNN reporter in a recent interview. The reporter pointed out that the alleged Tops Market shooter was “clearly full of hatred,” and Patterson’s friend affirmed without reservation that had the beloved deacon of State Tabernacle Church of God survived he would have forgiven his killer. In another story that emphasized forgiveness, Adrian Alonzo, the uncle of 9-year-old Robb Elementary School shooting victim Ellie Garcia in Uvalde, Texas, paraphrased Ephesians 4:32 in his interview with CNN’s Dana Bash. “We must forgive one another just as God has forgiven you,” Alonzo said, as he teared up in between his statements. He stressed that as a Christian he had no animosity in his heart for the Robb Elementary gunman. A third feature story I came across that highlighted forgiveness was on 77-year-old Buffalo victim Pearl Young. Young’s cousin, MSNBC Know Your Value style contributor Monica Barnett, expressed that Young was a vibrant and devoted member of Good Samaritan Church and “would have been one of the first people to forgive the perpetrator and pray with him.” “I don’t know the words she would have shared,” Young wrote, “but I imagine they would have been exactly what he needed to hear.” 

Many of the news stories coming out in the aftermath of the Buffalo and Uvalde shootings are focusing on either tightening up gun control laws or advocating for pro-gun activists pushing back against such legislation. This is the ongoing media narrative that we will continue to see with yet another tragic incident of gun violence occurring on the Saint Francis Hospital campus in Tulsa, Oklahoma. As broadcasts of the Tulsa killings flooded our social media timelines and smartphone updates, hearing and reading the stories I found on forgiveness represent the hope and healing that we need to move forward in a time of immense heartache and agonizing sorrow. A lot of people view forgiving the atrocious murders committed by the Tops Market and Robb Elementary shooters as a sign of weakness, but the opposite is true. Forgiveness denotes the firm resolve not to be incessantly distraught by anger and bitterness, even when you have suffered a devastating loss like the families of the Uvalde and Buffalo shooting victims. Now, forgiveness isn’t easy, and it probably was not the instant reaction of many of the relatives as it was for Adrian Alonzo while he is still grieving his niece, Ellie. I’m sure many relatives and close friends of other victims initially felt like Monica Barnett, who honestly admitted that she wanted “to scream, cry, yell at the top of (her) lungs, kick something (and) smack someone” upon learning that her cousin Pearl Young was gunned down at Tops. This is the response that most of us would have through our carnal nature, but when we forgive because we know that God has forgiven us, as Alonzo passionately stated, we can get to a place of spiritual peace provided through grace and divine love. 

For others who saw the CNN interview of Alonzo or who read Barnett’s tribute of how her cousin would not have hesitated to pray for the Buffalo shooter, forgiveness may seem outlandish due to the sadistic manner in which these innocent people were slain. Yet, as I have reflected on these uplifting stories amid so much heart-rending pain, I kept thinking about what the friend of Patterson said regarding the Buffalo gunman who is in custody. I think that one of the main reasons Patterson’s friend touched on forgiveness is because the Buffalo shooter is still alive, and if he comes to a sincere place of repentance God will forgive him, as 1 John 1:9 teaches. This does not mean that he should not receive just punishment for his crimes, but that through God’s mercy his soul would be cleansed where the evilness of racial hatred would no longer reside. This would truly be a miraculous occurrence, and it’s something I believe those strong in faith who loved Patterson and Young are praying for. 

Dr. Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the English department at Ohio State University’s Lima campus.