There may be rare exceptions, of course. A particularly prescient or pessimistic person might say to her loved one, “Mama, if I am ever murdered, I want you to forgive the person who killed me!”—but I’m guessing this scenario is exceedingly uncommon.
(Family members may believe they have great insight into their deceased loved one’s wishes, but this is not always the case—and in any event, such insight does not necessarily give the family member “standing” to forgive the one who took their loved one’s life).
So, am I condemning the members of the African Methodist Episcopal Church or surviving family members, who have chosen to forgive the shooter, despite his apparent lack of remorse? No–in fact, I think these very decent people expressed great generosity of spirit.
Furthermore, as freelance writer Rhonda Swann wrote in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel:
“To forgive is not to condone. It doesn’t let an offender off the hook. Forgiveness heals the one who forgives. It is not a sign of weakness, but of strength.”3
Just so. But then, Swan goes on to say:
“Only a strong person can look into the eyes of a murderer who took the life of a loved one and say, “I hold no malice against you in my heart.”
It is this strength that has enabled black Americans to endure slavery, Jim Crow and the systemic racism that too often denies us the civil rights to which we are entitled.”3
Swan may be right historically, but perhaps not psychologically. Holding “no malice” is not quite the same as “forgiving,” in the full, ethical sense of that term.**
One can let go of hatred for an evil doer while still choosing to withhold complete forgiveness. Genuine forgiveness is not a single act or pronouncement, but a gradually unfolding process. Indeed, in rabbinical ethics, forgiveness is not an isolated decision on the part of a “forgiver”; rather, it is a dialectical process that takes time to evolve and reveal itself—sometimes, over many years.
Forgiveness is a kind of ethical dialogue in which, ideally, the offending party should have a voice. In rabbinic ethics, full-blown forgiveness cannot occur until the wrong-doer expresses genuine remorse; asks for forgiveness; and takes steps toward repentance and reparation. One might say that, from the rabbinic perspective, forgiveness is not bestowed, but earned.4
This idealized process, of course, may never come to pass—and yet, the aggrieved party may nevertheless decide to forgive the transgressor. But one can forgive only the harm done to oneself—there is no “forgiveness by proxy” in rabbinical Judaism.4
Thus, surviving family and friends of the slain parishioners may justifiably forgive the murderer for the terrible emotional pain he inflicted on them, the survivors—but not for committing murder.