How Can We Forgive Those Who Hurt Our Children?
Loving thy enemy and turning the other cheek are lessons this mom isn't sure she wants to follow.
Words: Michelle Hite
When Mrs. Ella C. Demand prepared the September 15, 1963 Sunday school lesson for the children who worshipped at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, forgiveness was her theme.
The curriculum for that day centered on the 12 sons of Jacob who were so envious of their father’s favorite son Joseph that they sold him into slavery. Rather than match his brothers’ treachery with vengeance, Joseph forgave them. If Mrs. Demand remained faithful to curricular suggestion, she would have encouraged those young people in her charge to prepare themselves as worthy instruments of God’s calls to service. They would have been encouraged to purify their hearts and minds in order to do God’s will through forgiveness.
While we don’t know how eager the children were to answer God’s call in this way, we do know that there was general excitement because that September Sunday was the church’s Youth Day. It was a day when the children would take center stage as ushers and readers of the Word. They had big responsibilities and they delighted in the magnitude of these important tasks.
Five girls—Addie Mae Collins and her sister Sarah, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley—gathered before the Ladies’ lounge mirrors in the church basement to make final adjustments to their hair, to tie their bows, and to straighten their starched white dresses when a bomb detonated, killing all but Sarah.
Just over two months later when President John F. Kennedy was killed in Dallas, Texas, Maxine P. McNair, Denise McNair’s mother, was moved to offer condolences to Jacqueline Kennedy. In her letter, Mrs. McNair provides some insight into how she may have interpreted the Sunday School lesson that had been her daughter’s last.
“Isn’t it strange,” Mrs. McNair writes, “how people with so much to give to the world are taken?” Continuing she notes, “That’s God’s will however and not for us to question.”
Rather than curse their grave misfortune, Mrs. McNair urges Mrs. Kennedy to do as the Sunday school manual suggested and trust that they were being called into a service higher than they might understand.
Fifty years after these awful days, churches around the world were encouraged to honor the lives lost and ravaged on September 15 in Birmingham through careful consideration of the same lesson Mrs. Demand used on that ill-fated day. The tragedies calling us to follow Joseph’s example unfortunately still beckon, and if I’m honest, I am forced to admit how hard it is for me to answer with love.
Children remain unsafe at church, in gated communities, and in schools all across this nation. Watching President Obama’s 2016 State of the Union tears for the Connecticut children killed at school recalled my own experience on that December day. I drove right past my son's preschool heading toward nearby Johnson Park to finish listening while reporters offered bitter, angry news about a fatal shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
How could this be? How could Friday, this most routinely longed-for school day, turn so dreadful? I had thought. That very morning, I had walked my own beautiful, tall, long-fingered 3-year-old into his classroom where a cheerful aide thought he misunderstood her when she asked his age. “No, Miles. How old will you be on your birthday tomorrow?” she asked.
Tomorrow was Saturday. My husband and I had arranged to leave goodies for Miles’s class on Friday in advance of a small celebration for just the three of us on his actual birthday. We thought we had adequately planned for this most regular of special days. We placed brightly-colored plastic sunglasses, mini bottles of bubbles, outsized baubles, and toy cars in cellophane bags for each of Miles’s classmates to enjoy.
Who would have thought that a mom who had prepared so carefully for a joyous celebration like we had could now be facing a horror like Sandy Hook? I could imagine her, wail for her, and weep for her as though I carried her grief. Knowing that we were different, that I was not her, I needed a separate place to privately grieve and show respect for the Sandy Hook mothers and fathers who could no longer hug their babies like I could. I drove to Johnson Park because I needed to distinguish the boy whom I could take home from school from the one I might have lost that Friday. I needed to honor the absolute difference between what I could only imagine, and for what those parents lived and lost.
I just don’t know what to make of words like "purpose" and "meaning" when your mother love has been so cruelly diluted by deadly violence. As the mother to an only child, no others could give me purpose if I lost mine, and if I am being honest, I do not believe myself noble enough to be moved to do so for yours.
Yet, so many mothers have done just that. Women like Mamie Till-Mobley, 14-year-old Emmett Till’s mother, who disclosed the ugliness of white supremacist violence as it appeared on her son’s bloated body when it was pulled from Mississippi’s Tallahatchie River and made available for all to see in a glass-topped, open casket in Chicago; like Camille Bell who founded the Committee to STOP Children’s Murders to pressure Atlanta city government to seek federal assistance in finding the predator killing children like her own 9-year-old son Yusef; like Beulah Mae Donald who sought damages from the United Klan of America after they lynched her 19-year-old son Michael; like Mary Wilson who worked to end gang violence and to stop the merciless gun violence that made her son, Chicago basketball sensation Benjamin Wilson, one of its casualties. These women have inserted themselves into the social, economic, and political systems that arm killers and that make the consequences of lethal violence against children negligible.
For these mothers, living beyond the loss of a child meant living in service. Rechanneling their grief and anger into activism gave them purpose. As moved as I am by these examples of extraordinary courage and dignity, I am very aware of how much I never want to know whether I could be that brave. Theirs is an unenviable nobility, an unwanted forbearing that I admire but find nearly impossible to imagine replicating myself.
Yet, even though I know my own limitations, I send my son to a Christian school, support his bible study, and talk to him about God. Unlike Mrs. McNair whose spiritual integrity shows her acting in the lineage of Joseph when she encourages Mrs. Kennedy’s faith in God’s love, my willingness to love and to trust are heavily constrained by our relative safety and peace.
When Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Aiyana Jones, Rekia Boyd, Michael Brown, and Sandra Bland were killed, I faced my hypocrisy each time knowing that I fear my need to offer forgiveness more than I fear my own death. The capacity to offer forgiveness implies the life of a survivor who can act within the spirit of mercy, who can show compassion toward someone who lacks remorse, who can accept the possibility that people can change for the better. Unlike pessimists who question whether real transformation can ever occur, and distinct from those who refuse the possibility that any living person can forgive another on behalf of the dead, I believe that despair can destroy recovery. That it can snatch away any hope one might have of leaving her bed. Despite the can-do optimism informing American sensibilities about the possibility of overcoming any conceivable challenge, despair calls us to embrace another, less attractive, idea—that to be human just might mean living and dying without consolation.
Some stories end in tragedy. They end with people who take profound grief and sorrow to their graves. They end with people who find forgiveness a hopeless antidote to loss, and so find it irrelevant.
When Mrs. McNair closed her letter to Mrs. Kennedy, she acknowledged the possibility of elusive comfort.
“May God’s infinite wisdom comfort and guide you,” Mrs. McNair writes, thus signaling her wish for Mrs. Kennedy.
I find this tender hope, this gently conveyed possibility that someone might understand how I could forever lay in pieces, a welcome alternative to the nearly impossible dictates of forgiveness.