Almost 1,000 people braved the winter cold to attend the July 25, 1993, Sunday evening service of St. James Church in Cape Town, South Africa. As a young duo began a worship song, the rear sanctuary doors were flung open, and Pastor Ross Anderson heard what he first thought was the pop of firecrackers. Quickly realizing two men at the back of the sanctuary were firing guns into the crowd, he shouted, “Get down,” as congregants dove under pews.
Multiple shots pierced the air, followed by two ear-shattering booms. Then a young congregant, Charl Van Wyk, pulled out his own gun, stood up and fired two shots at the attackers, hitting one of them in the hand. The gunmen retreated and sped away in a car with two others who had been waiting outside. As the worshippers slowly came out of hiding, they discovered that their beloved house of worship had become a house of death.
In addition to spraying the room with bullets, the attackers had lobbed grenades into the aisles—grenades wrapped with six-inch nails to ensure maximum damage. In just 30 seconds, 11 people had been killed, and 58 injured in what quickly became known as the St. James Massacre. The attack was one of the most shocking acts of violence during a violent period in South Africa’s history as multiple groups tried to influence the negotiations that would formally end the country’s apartheid regime. The St. James attack was meant to send a message of terror and jeopardize the already tense negotiations; instead, it allowed for an even stronger message to be displayed: the power of forgiveness.
In the United States, September 1 is being marked as the National Day of Forgiveness, according to National Day Calendar, and the response of the St. James Church to the 1993 attack can serve as a model for how “to embrace healing, understanding, and unity by encouraging forgiveness and fostering empathy.” The story of how this church embodied forgiveness— while never condoning evil—is explored in a short documentary, The Night of the Storm: The St. James Church Massacre, that was produced to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the attacks.
Soon after the attacks, several church members who were injured or lost loved ones publicly reconciled with the attackers. Van Wyk, the parishioner who halted the attack by returning gunfire, ministered to the perpetrators in prison before they were granted amnesty in the late 1990s by South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In The Night of the Storm, Van Wyk states, “God has given us the ministry of reconciliation. So we must first reconcile with God, and then we need to reconcile man to man.”
Craig Smith, who lost his mother in the attack, remembers the “spirit of forgiveness” that permeated the church in the aftermath of the massacre. “God’s way is the better way,” he says in the documentary.
Pastor Anderson used the documentary to help explain why and how the church acted the way they did in the aftermath of the attacks. “We here at St. James attempted to pay back evil with unconditional love. Love is the only force that can transfer an enemy into a friend and ... bring genuine peace.”
Frank Retief, now the 81-year-old Pastor Emeritus of St. James, wrote a book, Tragedy to Triumph, about the massacre and the importance of forgiveness. In Night of the Storm, Retief explains, “Forgiveness is available on the basis of justice. Even God deals with us like that. As Christians, we often say if you come to the Lord Jesus Christ, you’ll be forgiven. But that forgiveness isn’t free. It cost Christ something. A price had to be paid for forgiveness. We felt like justice needed to be done to the perpetrators, but nonetheless we would forgive them. We would not take justice or revenge into our hands. ‘Revenge is mine, says the Lord’.”
As the church’s conciliatory reactions to the attack became public, worship services were soon packed with seekers attracted to the church’s strong expression of Christ’s love. When St. James Church gathered this past July 25 to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the massacre, hundreds of people gathered in the same sanctuary where the shooting had taken place to remember and pray and worship. They watched The Night of the Storm, which recounts the terror but focuses primarily on how the church had glorified God’s name through their efforts to forgive the perpetrators. Tears were shed in remembrance and grief, but people left uplifted by God’s grace and mercy and the power of forgiveness.
In today’s polarized culture, forgiveness is often derided as “weak” and only for “losers.” This is an especially popular stance on social media, where popular figures encourage their followers to always be ready to fight and to never offer mercy or love or forgiveness to “the other side.”
On an individual level, granting forgiveness to those who have wronged you can feel like enabling bad behavior or minimizing the very real hurt and suffering they have caused. However, most of us want to receive forgiveness when we do wrong. And Christians know we have been commanded to forgive. In Matthew 18:21–35, Jesus recounts the parable of the unmerciful servant, which outlines a very clear directive: God has gone to great lengths to forgive us and thus we are to forgive others.
So how can we follow the path God laid out for us when it comes to forgiveness? In one of his last published books, Forgive: Why Should I and How Can I, Timothy Keller writes that “three basic dimensions” must be present in Christian forgiveness: the vertical which is “God’s forgiveness to us”; the internal, which is “our granting forgiveness to anyone who has wronged us”; and the horizontal, which is “our offer to reconcile.” If we don’t forgive others, Tim poses, then our motives will be distorted and we will react to life from a space of bitterness and spite. We will give power to and be controlled by the sins others have committed against us, and we’ll navigate life through that lens.
More than 20 years after the St. James church gained worldwide attention for their extraordinary acts of forgiveness, the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, also became known as a church that forgives. In 2015, nine churchgoers—including the senior pastor—were murdered during a Bible study in a racially motivated attack by 21-year-old Dylann Roof. In a move that sent shock waves through the country, several families of those who had been murdered publicly offered forgiveness to Roof. And in the weeks and months that followed, the church’s ability to forgive was demonstrated to be genuine through many words and deeds.
As was stated in the 2019 award-winning documentary Emanuel, “Some people see the families’ forgiveness as an act of submission. But that act of forgiving people is the greatest act of love that one could ever experience.”
Pastor Dimas Salaberrios, producer of the Emanuel documentary, got to know the families of the victims well and says, “They weren’t religious phonies, they relied totally on the presence of God to get them past the hurt and the hate and their hearts were moved toward compassion. They saw the humanity in him (Roof). They pleaded with God for his soul to be saved, and they knew their loved ones who were killed would want them to not have hate in their hearts.”
Forgiveness is not an act that is meant to condone, ignore, or enable bad behavior. Rather, forgiveness is a biblical mandate that can also release us from bitterness and anger at those who have wronged us. National Forgiveness Day is an ideal day to reflect on any unresolved hurt and assess whether bitterness has taken root in our hearts. And we can look to the survivors of the St. James and Emanuel attacks for inspiring examples of how forgiveness can be offered—and the benefits it brings.
In Night of the Storm, Pastor Retief explains why his church was determined to forgive. “I don’t want the drama of that horrible event to get the last word … the Sovereignty of God should. As Christians, we have that assurance that he is the judge, and we aren’t.”
And Pastor Salaberrios offers encouragement for anyone trying to forgive. “You have to grab hold of Scripture during those moments of pain and keep going to God and giving it to God. You can’t let the root of bitterness filter in, and you can’t wallow in the darkness, or it will eat you alive. You’ll get stuck. But through Christ you can walk free.”