Forgiving the Killer of the Charleston Church Shooting: An Interview with Rev. Anthony B. Thompson

Buy your copy of Called to Forgive in the Bible Gateway Store where you'll enjoy low prices every dayWhile the murder of his wife devastated Rev. Anthony Thompson, he and three other relatives of victims chose to privately and publicly forgive the shooter. Years later, the church and community still struggle to understand the family members’ deliberate choice to forgive the racist murderer. But as Charlestonians have witnessed these incredible acts of forgiveness, something significant has happened to the community—black and white leaders and residents have united, coming together peaceably and even showing acts of selfless love.

Bible Gateway interviewed Rev. Anthony B. Thompson about his book, Called to Forgive: The Charleston Church Shooting, a Victim’s Husband, and the Path to Healing and Peace (Bethany House, 2019).

Please briefly tell a little about your wife, Myra.

Rev. Anthony B. Thompson: Myra and I met at Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolina. Myra was returning to Benedict’s campus after missing the Greyhound Bus to Charleston, South Carolina. I was leaving the campus in my vehicle when I saw her walking through the gate toward the campus. She looked a little weary and confused as if she had been crying. So I stopped and asked her if she was alright. After Myra told me she had missed her bus, I offered her a ride home because I was on my way to Charleston.

Myra did not accept my offer immediately. She told me that she knew I was Beanie’s brother because she used to visit with my sister Beanie at our house. I told her I didn’t remember and she explained that I never paid attention to her. I told Myra that I didn’t pay attention to any of my sister’s friends because they were too young.

Myra further explained to me that she knew me then, but not now. She wanted me to understand that she already had a son, was serious about getting her education to become a teacher, and was not looking for a boyfriend or to have another child any time soon. She continued to tell me about her goals in life and that I was not one of them, so I shouldn’t get any funny ideas. I stopped her and said, “Look, I only asked if you wanted a ride home.” Ten years later we were married.

By the time we got married, Myra and I were true friends and had a mutual understanding of me becoming a Reformed Episcopal Minister while she served as a First Lady in our denomination but remained a member of Mother Emanuel AME Church.

Myra grew up in Mother Emanuel AME Church and became a member at an early age. She served on the Sunbeam Choir, Youth Usher Board, Sunday school, and YPD. Myra worked diligently for the Lord and her love for the church was exemplified through her work. She was the Trustee Pro-Tempore, served as co-chairperson of the Gerald Holman unit, corresponding secretary and past PME director for the Women’s Missionary Society, member of the Stewardship and Finance Commission, Christian Education, Children’s Church instructor, Registration & Information, Hospitality, Clean-up & Repair, Elevator Construction Committee, Grant Writing Committee, Church Structural Analysis Committee, SC Annual Conference Church Planning Committee, and Properties Committee Chairperson. Myra along with other committee members worked hard, strenuous, and many long hours to assure the renovation and repair of all church properties and construction of an elevator.

Myra told me about her calling and how God showed it to her in a vision while she was attending the church where I was a pastor. And God showed her that same vision again while she attended Mother Emanuel Church one Sunday.

In 2014 Myra answered the call to the ministry in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the late Honorable Reverend Clementa Pinckney presented her to the district conference as a candidate to be licensed to preach. She delivered her trial sermon at Mother Emanuel AME Church in 2014. Myra attended and led Bible study, presided over the 2015 Lent services, and facilitated Children’s Church. On Wednesday, June 17, 2015 the day of her death, Myra’s Certificate of Licensure to preach was renewed.

What is poignant about the Bible study she led at the church the night of the crime?

Rev. Anthony B. Thompson: That was the first time that Myra taught a Bible study class at Mother Emanuel AME Church. She worked tediously and diligently to relate it to the people’s lives. Her concern was that God’s Word would be manifested in their lives to honor God. Initially, it was hard understanding why God had Myra pursue the ministry and then take her while teaching her first Bible study class.

Briefly describe what happened June 17, 2015.

Rev. Anthony B. Thompson: On the morning of June 17, 2015 Myra was finishing her Bible study lesson from Mark, 4th Chapter: The Parable of the Sower. She was excited.

We had been working on it for about two weeks and I thought she was satisfied. But Myra was a perfectionist. Although I had told her many times that the world we live in is imperfect and you’ll never get or complete anything one-hundred percent. Yet she always tried.

That morning Myra had all her Bible study material spread all over the dining room table. As I walked by she said, “Honey, come on and help me finish.” I said, “Girl, I had enough. I thought you were finished.” Myra said she wanted to make sure that her class would get the right information, and if they had any questions, she wanted to be able to answer them all correctly.

Later on, she caught me starring at her. “Why are you looking at me like that,” she asked. She had this glow about her and she was very happy. I never in my life saw anybody as happy as she was that day. When she moved, she looked like she was gliding or floating without touching the floor. I wanted to ask her why she was so happy and if she noticed that she was glowing. But I didn’t ask her because I didn’t want to spoil her moment. I decided that I’d wait for her to come back from Bible study to ask her. I just looked at her and said, “Can’t I look at my beautiful wife?” and I walked away.

Myra did not want me to attend her Bible study class. And that was unusual because we supported each other 99-percent of the time. Shortly after that, Myra was yelling, “Honey, I’m getting ready to leave.” That was my cue to walk her to the door, kiss her, and tell her, “I love you.” We always did that when one of us left the house. But I was not able to get out of the bathroom in time. I heard her at the door saying, “Come on Honey I have to go.” For some strange reason I could not get out of the bathroom in time to see her off.

Later on that evening, after returning home from my church Vacation Bible School, I received a phone call that there was a shooting at Emanuel AME Church. Later on I found myself crying and wallowing on the pavement of Calhoun Street. All I could remember saying was, “I don’t know what to do, etc…. And God said, “Get up.” And he reminded me of what I preached to my congregation so many times about if they lost a loved one who they loved more than God, what would they do?

And, hard as it was to get up, I got up! I had to get up and continue the work God gave me to do! I had to get up and be there for my congregation to let them see and know that I was alright, so that they could be alright!

Then God gave me a Scripture to preach on for that Sunday. The Scripture was Luke 17:1-4: “Jesus said to his disciples: “Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come. It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble. So watch yourselves. If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven time in a day and seven time come back to you saying, I repent, you must forgive them.” The sermon was titled: God Has a Plan and God is in Control.

Only 48 hours after the mass murder, you publicly forgave the killer. Please recount what your mind and heart were wrestling with in those hours.

Rev. Anthony B. Thompson: Two days after the Emanuel tragedy, Dylann Roof [the killer] had a bond hearing. I didn’t want to go. I didn’t have Dylann Roof on my mind. All I could think of was, did Myra suffer? Why wasn’t I there for her?

I did not want to go to that bond hearing, but my children wanted to go, and they would not go unless I did. So I went for them. I told them “Keep your mouths closed. Don’t say anything.” When we got there I sat with my head down. I wanted it to be over with so I could go back home. Then God intervened. He whispered in my ear, “I have something to say.”

Without a shadow of doubt I knew that it was the voice of God. It was the same whispering voice I heard at the age of seven that told me I’d be a preacher. So I got up immediately and listened to what God had to say. He said to Dylann, “Son, I forgive you and my family forgives you. But we would like you to take this opportunity to repent! Repent and confess, and give your life to the One who matters the most: Christ! So that
he can change it and change your ways. And no matter what happens to you, you will be okay. Do that, and you will be better off than you are right now.”

After I did that, I experienced God’s love! I experienced peace! For the first time, I knew and understood what it meant and felt like to experience the “…peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7). God’s love freed my heart, soul, and body of the burden of bitterness and anger. God healed me from the inside out. He took away all my burdens and granted me his peace!

How does biblical forgiveness differ from secular forgiveness?

Rev. Anthony B. Thompson: When we choose to forgive, we allow God to do the judging. We ask him to take over, and we give the offender and the offence to him. Trusting him. Romans 12:19-21.

Biblical forgiveness is followed by prayer for the offender’s salvation, a concern for his soul and his relationship with God. “Love your enemy…” I expressed publicly that I wanted to see Roof forgiven by God and in relationship with God.

Biblical forgiveness is unconditional. It’s complete even if only the person injured is the forgiver. Luke 23:34. It takes no forgiving/accepting/acknowledging action on the part of the offender.

Forgiveness, even for the Christian, is extremely difficult and painful. But God can be trusted to walk with and to guide the injured during the process and pain of forgiveness. Because we’ve been so forgiven by God, we, the offended, give the gift of grace, undeserved, to the offender.

In Secular forgiveness society believes that in order to forgive, we must understand why someone committed a wrong against them. We don’t need to understand in order to forgive. Society believes that the person should acknowledge their offense and apologize before being forgiven. We can forgive without appropriate response from the offender.

Society believes our forgiveness is only complete if the offender accepts our forgiveness. Scripture teaches that we can forgive without a response or acceptance from Roof. In First John 1:9 God said, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

What do you mean when you write biblical forgiveness is not optional?

Rev. Anthony B. Thompson: God doesn’t suggest that we forgive, but commands us to forgive: Colossians 3:13; Luke 6:37; Matthew 6:15. Forgiveness keeps the focus on God, not on the cruel hurtful act. It allows the forgiver to transcend the human focus of crime, injustice, and forgiveness. Science shows that forgiveness brings physical, emotional, and psychological benefits to the health, faith, etc., of the one who forgives.

What is the difference between actively forgiving and passively forgiving?

Rev. Anthony B. Thompson: I actively forgave Dylann Roof! I physically approached and verbally confronted Dylann Roof by expressing words of forgiveness toward him. I was not concerned about how he would respond or whether or not he would respond. I pray for Dylann Roof at least two times a day.

Passive forgiveness is without confrontation. The victim does not want to deal with the situation; does not want to think or speak negative about the person; may not want to interact with the person in the same way or not at all for fear of being hurt again.

Does forgiving also mean forgetting?

Rev. Anthony B. Thompson: Forgiveness does not mean forgetting. We remember the injustice in order to stop it from happening again, and to gain lessons that help us grow spiritually. But that doesn’t mean we relive the evil act or dwell on it. To forgive and forget means that you may not forget in your mind what they did to you; but in your heart you’re not scheming to get that person back, but seeking to show them the love of God by forgiving them “…as God for Christ’s sake forgave you.”

The murderer has not expressed remorse nor regret. Should that matter in biblical forgiveness? Why?

Rev. Anthony B. Thompson: No, that does not matter in biblical forgiveness because in this case biblical forgiveness is not conditional. My forgiveness toward Roof doesn’t rest on Roof’s apology or his regret/remorse. Nor does forgiveness rest on Roof’s restitution (restoration, handing back, returning), as no one can bring back the life of my wife Myra.

If a Christian doesn’t forgive, what are the consequences?

Rev. Anthony B. Thompson: One of the most significant consequences is quoted in St. Matthew 6:14 where Jesus says, “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if you forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” If you want God to forgive you, you have to “…forgive those who trespass against you.”

Some people feel that forgiving someone is like letting them off of the hook for what they did. In retrospect, forgiving Dylann was letting me off the hook. It freed me of the burdens of anger, distraught, and despair. It was the beginning of healing, peace, and the ability to move forward in my life.

Some people may think that revenge is sweet but in Romans 12:17 it says, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil.” The more you plot and wish them harm, the more harm you bring into your own life. The more you hold on to your anger the more miserable your life will be.

In Galatians 6:7 it says, “…for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” It is better to forgive. Letting go of anger at those who wronged you is a smart route to your forgiveness from God. That anger, grudge, and hate that you aim toward the person who wronged you is like throwing a boomerang at them which inevitably comes back to you.

What is the meaning of your book’s title (the emphasis on “Called”)?

Rev. Anthony B. Thompson: God called me in a whisper to be a preacher when I was seven years old, and I answered him, “No.” I heard the whispering voice of God in my ear every day and every day I said, “No.” After a while not only did God continue to whisper that in my ear, he began putting strangers in my path saying the same thing like, “You are going to be a preacher;” “You sound like a preacher;” or ask me, “Have you ever thought about being a preacher?”

God’s whispering voice and those remarks from perfect strangers continued to happen until I answered my calling by attending the seminary at the age of 33. While attending the seminary I realized that God predestined me to be a preacher.

On June 19, 2015, two days after the Emanuel Nine tragedy, while reluctantly being at the bond hearing of Dylann Roof, I heard the whispering voice of God calling me again to tell me to do something that I had no intentions of doing. He said, “Get up; I have something to say.” In that court room I got up and from my mouth came words of forgiveness toward Dylann Roof, and as a result of that I gained the ”peace of God that surpasses all understanding…” Once again I realized that God predestined me to forgive Dylann. Thus came the title Called to Forgive.

What is a favorite Bible passage of yours and why?

Rev. Anthony B. Thompson: Luke 23:34 is one of my favorite Bible passage because it reminds me that I am a sinner who needs God’s forgiveness. And out of love for a sinner like me, God gave his son Jesus, who is not a sinner, to bare my pain and suffering by shedding his blood on the cross so that I could be forgiven! This Bible passage reminds me that made that forgiveness possible for me by God through the blood that Jesus shed on the cross for my sins. And being that God forgave me for so much, how could I not forgive someone who did less to me than was done to Jesus.

What are your thoughts about Bible Gateway and the Bible Gateway App and Bible Audio App?

Rev. Anthony B. Thompson: I use the Bible Gateway App periodically to assist me in the preparation of some sermons, Bible study, and Sunday school lessons. It is very useful as it enables me to find reference books more expediently and in one location. My colleagues and I have been able to search simultaneously for different information and then share that information with each other through social media, which helps us to complete our assignments more quickly. It is a very resourceful and necessary tool.

Bio: The Reverend Anthony Batiste Thompson is the pastor of Holy Trinity Reformed Episcopal Church of Charleston. The Reverend Thompson was married to the late Myra Thompson. They have three children and six grandchildren.

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