Faithful love amid terrible tragedy
In the Birmingham bombing’s anniversary, a lesson on forgiveness
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On Sept. 15, 1963, congregations gathered across the country for Sunday worship. At 16th Street Baptist in Birmingham, Ala., that historic African-American church designated the day “Youth Sunday,” where children would participate in the regular service. Yet, shortly before 11:00, a bomb planted by the KKK went off under the church’s steps. Four victims—all young girls—died.
This month marks the 60th anniversary of that horrific crime. We rightly remember it as an attack against a community based on the color of its members’ skin. We also commemorate it as an important moment in the Civil Rights Movement in America, galvanizing support that led to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Yet we should consider it, too, as a moment of violence against the Body of Christ, targeting the people of God as they gathered to worship Him. As believers, we should learn something from this event.
Not only can we learn from it; we must. Across the world, violence against the Church is increasing. We read of our brothers and sisters in Africa, especially places like Nigeria, murdered for their faith at alarming rates. Violence has come home to America as well, though certainly at nothing to the extent seen internationally. Some retain a racist component, like the Charleston shooting in 2015. Others do not, such as the shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland, Texas, and the murders at Covenant School in Nashville, Tenn. About half of the mass shootings in houses of worship over the last 50-plus years have clearly involved open animosity toward religion in some fashion.
We of course must learn how to protect Christ’s people from violence to the greatest extent possible. Churches continue to work on safety plans in response to the domestic incidents of the past few years. These efforts should not turn a church into a fortress that is unwelcoming to the unchurched or under-churched. But we can take reasonable precautions and exercise a loving but heightened vigilance.
The Church also should pursue justice when evils visit our pews and our people. After Birmingham, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. pushed hard against the segregationist forces that had enabled and supported violence against black persons in general and black churches in particular. We must use the state—itself instituted by God to pursue justice—for the good of our congregations and of the society at large.
However, perhaps the biggest point we can learn from the Birmingham attack is forgiveness. The sermon prepared for that day’s service was titled “A Love that Forgives.” It was based on Luke 23:34, where, at the Crucifixion, Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” As persons infected to the bond with sin, we all need God’s forgiveness. That forgiveness God offers to us in Christ. That forgiveness was and is a costly grace, purchased for God’s enemies (Romans 5:10) through the unjust killing of the innocent, incarnate Son of God. That Jesus intercedes with the Father for His enemies, not just in action in the Cross but by speech on it, shows the depths of love from which Divine forgiveness flows. That historic Birmingham church has demonstrated both courage and forgiveness.
In a world also infected with sin, we as a Church must know how to forgive our enemies. As the prospect of persecution grows, this need might become concrete for us much more than for our parents and grandparents. We must understand this forgiveness as part of the call to love our neighbor, knowing that neighbor, like us, is sinful. It means presenting the gospel even to our enemies, praying God would turn them into His children and thus into our brothers and sisters.
We saw an example of such loving forgiveness among believers in the recent tragedies. The congregants targeted in the Charleston shooting, for example, gave powerful witness on this front in their legal confrontations with their attacker. One believer not only offered forgiveness but, Christ-like, asked, “may God forgive you.”
When Christians respond like this to such evil, it baffles the world because such love, for enemies, isn’t just hard—it is humanly impossible. But we must remember the words of Christ, that “with God, all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26). A heart to forgive is a miracle, wrought by the work of God in our hearts. We must not neglect to protect. We must not deny justice. But we must prepare our own hearts to love through forgiveness.
The believers of 16th Baptist Church had a long, heartbreaking experience with this costly call. They continued to remind themselves to heed it, even in the wake of a horrible crime that would demand so much from them. May we remember their example.
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