Dylann Roof’s trial in Federal District Court on 33 criminal charges is expected to begin on Wednesday, December 7. In June of 2015, in an act of shocking barbarity, Roof murdered, in cold blood, nine congregants of the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Federal prosecutors are seeking the death penalty. State prosecutors will do the same when Roof stands trial in South Carolina.
As the New York Times reports, the decision to seek the death penalty is opposed by many; indeed, only 31 percent of African American residents of South Carolina believe that Roof should be executed. Several arguments against the death penalty are reported by the Times. Some claim that Roof will not be punished enough if he is allowed an early death by execution, while others argue that the inevitably protracted appeals process will put the families of victims through a cruelly unnecessary process of reliving their loss over again.
Another position mentioned by the Times is one that I have argued for here at Public Discourse before: that capital punishment is by its nature immoral, for human life is never to be intentionally taken. Let us call this position, following John Keown, the inviolability of life view. It rules out capital punishment as always wrong even if not, as we shall see below, always unjust.
I am not here concerned with that claim, however. Instead, I want to make an argument that takes the importance of mercy as its starting point and that recognizes the importance of the actions of those most immediately affected by Roof’s crimes.
Mercy, Sin, and Forgiveness
In The Name of God is Mercy, his published conversation with reporter Andrea Torelli, Pope Francis quotes with approval the words of Pius XII, who declared that the tragedy of our day is that we have lost the sense of sin. To this, Francis adds that we have lost also the concrete experience of mercy and forgiveness.
We should see the two losses as linked: without the reality of sin, there can be no need for mercy, much less forgiveness. For mercy is linked in God’s love and goodness—and hence in our own love and goodness to the extent that we emulate God—to the overcoming of sin in and through love. Forgiveness is one way in which we do this.
I’ve said that mercy involves a kind of overcoming of sin. As Germain Grisez puts it, “God’s mercy is his steadfast love, by which he continues to love his creatures despite their sins and does everything necessary to save fallen humankind. This steadfast love overcomes sin, the greatest evil, and so is the greatest mercy.” The same is true for human love in the face of evil, if it is to be truly God-like: love is mercy not simply by being and doing good, but by being and doing good in the face of evil so as to draw good out of it.
Such evil may be of two sorts. It may be evil of which the agent is not the moral cause—some bad suffered by the agent, such as disease, poverty, loss. Or it may be the moral evil of sin. As I noted earlier, a paradigm of mercy in the context of sin is forgiveness, especially when it brings about reconciliation and restores community between the sinner and the one sinned against.
We can see in this description the root of the idea that mercy in an important way goes beyond justice. In the justice of punishment, order that was ruptured is restored by suppressing the will of the wrongdoer in a way commensurate with his previous overstepping of the limits put in place by law. The law restricts the unbridled exercise of will; the wrongdoer exceeded those restrictions; and hence restraining his will restores order and a kind of equality between himself and the rest of society.
In a limited sense, this description matches the description of mercy, for good is indeed brought out of evil in the restoration of order. But the fullness of mercy seems to go beyond this by offering, in the face of sin and evil, the possibility of a fuller reconciliation and equality than that made possible in the order of law. And on occasion such an offer must go beyond and depart from what the strict order of justice might demand.
Dylann Roof and His Victims’ Families
This brings us to Dylann Roof. Note first that were we to see Roof’s actions as merely those of a deranged human being, someone with no control or conscience, then we could not envisage even justice toward him, for his actions, bad though they were, would not have been wrong and sinful. But if we think of Roof as morally responsible for his actions, then he is clearly deserving of justice.
And justice might well, in this case, be served by the death penalty. This could be true even if, as I believe, no one could morally inflict that penalty. Full justice might not be ours to provide. But put principled opposition to the death penalty to the side for the moment, and suppose it could be not only just but permissible. There is still the case for mercy to be made.
That case was in fact made by the families of Roof’s victims, less by argument than by action. In the immediate aftermath of the massacre, in Roof’s first court appearance, several of his victims’ family members spoke to Roof. The daughter of one victim, Ethel Lance, said:
I forgive you. You took something very precious away from me. I will never get to talk to her ever again. 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. If God forgives you, I forgive you.
And the mother of Tywanza Sanders said,
We welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible study with welcome arms. You have killed some of the most beautiful people that I know. Every fiber in my body hurts and I’ll, I’ll never be the same. Tywanza Sanders was my son. But Tywanza Sanders was my hero. Tywanza was my hero. . . . May God have mercy on you.
The impact of these acts of mercy and forgiveness was remarkable. At the time of the Charleston Massacre, race relations in the United States seemed on the decline, especially in light of the events in Ferguson, Missouri. South Carolina could have likewise become a scene of protest, anger, and vengefulness. But instead, the aftermath was one of the state’s finest moments. Citizens both black and white came together in prayer and solidarity for the victims of Mother Emmanuel Church; and state lawmakers and citizens finally came together to take down the Confederate flag from the statehouse grounds.
The impact was also personal. In the face of incredibly evil acts, the families of Roof’s victims somehow found it possible to overcome their manifest anger and pain to offer mercy and forgiveness to the person directly responsible for their suffering. Few of us can say that we have done the same in the face of vastly lesser provocations. Fewer still could say they would do the same in their shoes. Yet they provided a model for us and became the embodiment of the finest that humanity has to offer.
And who can say what impact their actions will have, or are having, on Dylann Roof. Racism involves a belief in the diminished humanity of others, yet what finer embodiment of humanity will Roof ever know than these offers of forgiveness? Is it too much to hope that repentance and reconciliation may one day be possible, even in this case? The families of Roof’s victims do not seem to think so.
Mercy for Roof
Those acts of forgiveness and mercy cannot be undone by any decision made by the state or federal governments. But the decision to seek the death penalty stands in sharp contrast to the actions of those most deeply affected by Roof’s actions. And while punishment does not redress the imbalance between the wrongdoer and his victims but rather between the wrongdoer and society, it still seems to me that society can take its cue here from those who first showed mercy and forgiveness.
Roof’s actions were perhaps the most awful and striking instance of violence motivated by racial hatred that our country has seen in a long time. They took place in a state whose history is marked by slavery, segregation, and residual racial hatred and discrimination. And they took place, as noted, in a nation that is undergoing its own struggles over race to this day. How could anything good come out of that?
Our limited political and moral imagination is quick to suggest that the best that can emerge is justice, a justice served by treating Roof’s crimes with the severity they deserve. But the families of Roof’s victims were not concerned with what he deserved, or what was owed to them or their deceased loved ones, but rather with what their understanding of Christian love demanded. That understanding was uncompromising, and it bore, and may yet bear, more good fruit.
Could the federal and state governments follow a similar course? They could: showing mercy to Roof by refusing to impose the death penalty would respect the acts of both his victims, who showed him welcome, and their families, who showed him forgiveness. It would respect the wishes of the majority of African Americans in South Carolina. It would, in its deference, preserve as a model for personal action the brave stand taken by those who acted out of love rather than hate in the face of hate, who did not return violence with violence. In these ways, good could be drawn from evil, and the sinfulness of Dylann Roof’s actions could be overcome by love.
Christopher O. Tollefsen is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and a senior fellow of the Witherspoon Institute. He is the author of Lying and Christian Ethics (Cambridge, 2014).