He was walking home from an Easter meal on Sunday when a man walked up to Robert Godwin Sr., asked him to say a name and then shot him in the head. To add to the horror, the killer recorded the shooting and uploaded it to Facebook. Thousands of people saw the slaying before it was removed over an hour later.
The family’s grief, particularly that of Godwin’s children, was on display, too. But so was their love. In a baffling demonstration of grace, three of his children publicly forgave their father’s killer the next day. His daughter Tonya Godwin-Baines said, “each one of us forgives the killer, the murderer. … We want to wrap our arms around him.” Godwin’s son said, “I forgive him because we are all sinners.”
What seemed like an impossible act was the fruit of faith. “Our father … taught us about God,” Godwin-Baines said. “How to fear God, how to love God and how to forgive.” In the aftermath of his gruesome death, Robert Godwin Sr. is still teaching people about the fear of God and forgiveness, and his audience just got a lot bigger.
A history of forgiveness
Forgiveness is a hallmark of the Christian faith, a powerful act African American Christians facing racism have continually offered.
The families of the murdered Emanuel Nine famously forgave the killer who visited a weekly Bible study at the historic Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston in 2015. After an hour of hearing God’s words of love and charity, he began shooting. By the time he finished, nine women and men had been killed. Days after one of the most blatantly racist and deadly attacks in recent memory, the families of the victims stood in front of the shooter and forgave him.
They, too, cited faith in God as the reason they could forgive.
The sister of Depayne Middleton Doctor, one of the people killed in the attack, said it this way, “For me, I’m a work in progress. And I acknowledge that I am very angry. But one thing that DePayne always enjoined in our family … is she taught me that we are the family that love built. We have no room for hating, so we have to forgive. I pray God on your soul.”
Like the families of the Emanuel Nine, the children of Robert Godwin Sr. were a family that love built.
In his new book called “Dream With Me,” longtime civil rights activist John Perkins writes about how forgiveness in the face of injustice created a turning point in his life.
In Brandon, Miss., in 1970, Perkins was in the process of helping bail out others from jail when white officers locked up him up, too. Not only was Perkins illegally detained, but in between swigs of moonshine whiskey, white police officers punched him, kicked him and even shoved a bent fork down his throat. Amazingly, Perkins found the strength to love through his faith.
“While I lay on the floor of the Simpson County Jail in Brandon,” he recounts, “I made the decision to preach a gospel stronger than my racial identity and bigger than the segregation around me.” Instead of harboring hatred, Perkins forgave his enemies and dedicated his life to justice and reconciliation.
Forgiveness doesn’t forget truth, grief and justice
It’s tempting to hear the words of forgiveness from Robert Godwin Sr.’s children and think all is now well. It’s not. Forgiveness doesn’t mean hurrying past the hurt or condoning the crime.
People often misunderstand forgiveness when it relates to issues of race. We tend to push for the “I’m sorry” and hugs part without dealing with the harm or talking about how to heal from it. I hear comments like this: “Why can’t minorities just get over it? Yes, racism was bad, but that was a long time ago. It’s the people who won’t stop talking about it who make it an issue.”
Part of why racial minorities and their allies “won’t stop talking” about race is because the nation has never adequately dealt with the truth of racism. Even today, prominent universities are only now considering the racist history of their institutions and renaming buildings that had been dedicated to preserving the memory of white supremacists and slaveholders.
The nation right now is dealing with a resurgence of pseudo-scientific racism that never really went away, it just went underground for a while. But the hurt that hate causes gets pushed aside in the rush for reconciliation. Truth telling must come ahead of forgiveness.
In the case of Robert Godwin Sr., the truth is obvious. A beloved father and friend was randomly murdered, and it was recorded on a video. But knowing the truth doesn’t mean forgiveness is easy. Grief is part of the process, too.
After 10 years of trying to sort out what it means to forgive, researcher Brené Brown finally untangled the problem: “In order for us to forgive, something has to die. We have to grieve something.” For the family and friends of Robert Godwin Sr., they have to grieve the loss of someone they loved. They will never get him back. Forgiveness requires feeling the weight of sorrow and realizing life may never be the same.
At the same time, their act of forgiveness opens the door to their own healing. Robert Godwin Sr.’s killer may have had a gun, but his children disarmed him with their forgiveness. In releasing their anger and lingering as long as necessary over their pain, they stripped him of his power to continue harming them.
Forgiveness requires truth and grief, it also requires justice. In the Bible, justice is that process of restoring what was lost and repairing what was broken.
On Tuesday, police spotted the man suspected of killing Robert Godwin Sr., but before they could apprehend him, he killed himself. The killer can’t serve a prison sentence. He can never make restitution for taking a life. He’s gone, and he’s not coming back.
What does justice look like now?
Maybe justice comes with preventing crimes like this in the future through more accessible mental health care. Maybe justice is tighter monitoring so horrendous crimes like this aren’t broadcast on social media. Or justice might simply be knowing that the killer will never again take a life. Whatever it looks like, the hope of justice makes forgiveness a possibility.
The promise of Easter
Robert Godwin Sr. was killed on Easter, the most important day of the liturgical calendar for Christians. It is the time when believers worldwide commemorate the death of Jesus Christ who gave his life for his enemies. Scripture teaches that on the cross Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
But the cross doesn’t just symbolize forgiveness. It is also a sign of justice. Christians believe that Christ endured God’s justice for all the rebellion of all the people who believe in him. On the cross Jesus also let out a cry of anguish. “’Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ or “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34).
Jesus didn’t skip grief or justice on the way to forgiveness, and neither should we.
Jemar Tisby writes about religion, race and culture as president of the Reformed African American Network, and he is the co-host of the “Pass The Mic” podcast. Follow him on Twitter @JemarTisby.