Family members showed Dylann Roof mercy. Why can’t prosecutors?

(RNS) Can we, as a nation, do better than killing those who kill in order to show that killing is wrong?

Dylann Roof, right, the 21-year-old man charged with murdering nine worshippers at a historic black church in Charleston, S.C., on June 17, 2015, listens to the proceedings with assistant defense attorney William Maguire during a hearing at the Judicial Center in Charleston on July 16, 2015.   Photo courtesy Reuters/Randall Hill

(RNS) Support for the death penalty is declining, with executions and death sentences now at their lowest level in decades.

Polls show a majority of Americans are against the death penalty when presented with alternatives, like life without parole. It looks like the death penalty is on its way out, though Texas (responsible for roughly half of all executions) may beg to differ.

Nevertheless, the question must be asked: Doesn’t the death penalty still have a place in our contemporary world for the “worst of the worst,” for people like Dylann Roof?

It’s hard to find any mercy for this young man who killed nine African-Americans as they gathered for prayer, worship and Bible study in the historic Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. He spewed racism and hatred on social media and even at the scene of the crime, where he said to church members: “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”

And now he faces the death penalty — with 33 federal charges including hate crimes, obstruction of religion and firearms offenses.

Mercy seems like an unreasonable thing to ask.

But mercy is precisely what flowed from the hearts of the families of the victims after the killing. And as we consider justice for the victims’ families, it only seems reasonable to listen to what they said:

“I forgive you.”

Those were the words of Nadine Collier, as tears rolled down her face for her 70-year-old mother, Ethel Lance. And she didn’t stop there:

“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. But God forgives you, and I forgive you.”

Then there was Anthony Thompson, the husband of Myra Thompson: “I would just like him to know that … I forgive him and my family forgives him. But we would like him to take this opportunity to repent.”

Those words were said two days after the crime before the bodies of those killed were even laid to rest. Grace and mercy are hard things to justify or legitimate. They don’t seem instinctive or sensible. But they do sound like Jesus who said, “Inasmuch as you forgive you will be forgiven” and “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.”

It seems that only a profound faith in Jesus could give someone the strength to say to their transgressors, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.” Especially, when it seems like they know exactly what they’re doing.

Felicia Sanders, who survived the massacre by faking dead but lost her 26-year-old son, prayed that God would have mercy on Roof.

Wanda Simmons, granddaughter of Daniel Simmons, declared with defiant hope: “Although my grandfather and the other victims died at the hands of hate … hate won’t win.”

Even in the midst of unthinkable evil, love can still win. This truth lies at the heart of the Christian faith, as Jesus forgave those who were killing him.

President Obama went down to Charleston and applauded the mercy of the survivors, and ended one of his best speeches by singing “Amazing Grace.”

It’s noteworthy that the words of that song — “Amazing grace how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me” — were written by a recovering racist. John Newton was a former white supremacist, a captain who drove slave ships and later decried the evils of his past and committed his life to Jesus.

So now grace will be put on trial. Mercy will face cross-examination.

Federal prosecutors will pursue the death penalty.

A federal prisoner hasn’t been executed in the U.S. in over a decade. Only three federal prisoners have been executed in the past half-century. This case will raise the most urgent question: Can we, as a nation, do better than killing those who kill in order to show that killing is wrong?

Is there not a better way? After all, we do not rape those who rape, or maim those who maim. Could it be that we are beginning to see that violence is the disease, not the cure?

We know that forgiveness does not mean excusing or pardoning an offense, but forgiveness opens the door to real justice, redemption, and reconciliation. We can protect society from violent criminals without using violence. We can teach that killing is wrong without the death penalty. We can insist, as Wanda Simmons did, that “hate doesn’t have to win.”

Pope Francis has declared that we must abolish the death penalty. And it was Martin Luther King, Jr. who said, “Capital punishment is society’s final assertion that it will not forgive.”

I cannot think of a better way to honor the victims of the Charleston massacre, and the Jesus they worship, than by insisting on another form of justice for Roof.

We can do better. And we must. In the name of the victims in Charleston, and in the name of the Jesus they worship, let’s not kill Dylann Roof.

(Shane Claiborne is an activist, founder of The Simple Way in Philadelphia, and the author of “Executing Grace: How the Death Penalty Killed Jesus and Why It’s Killing Us.” Find him at

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