She asked for my forgiveness. Though she had not been involved in the plot, had not planted the box of dynamite or placed it under the steps of the church, though she was a child perhaps old enough to remember but not to act or fully understand, though I wasn’t even born as it was September 15, 1963, didn’t live in Birmingham, Alabama, was never of member of the 16th Street Baptist Church and did not know any of the four little girls personally as we had not been playmates or classmates and were not related, still she asked for my forgiveness. Because this woman whom I had never met before and had no way of knowing that she carried this sense of guilt was socially colored white and I socially colored black, she felt the need to apologize and perhaps, to apologize to any other African American that she might encounter.
She was vulnerable. I did not realize how vulnerable until later in the conversation. I told her that she did not owe me an apology or any one else for the actions of members of the Ku Klux Klan: Bobby Frank Cherry, Thomas Blanton, Herman Frank Cash and Robert Chambliss. She was not a member of the Klan, did not agree with their tactics and had not done anything wrong to me. She didn’t owe me anything as we had just met minutes before; there had been no time for an offense, except those from the past that she had brought to the conversation. The four little girls she identified with most because she had lived there. She felt that she was guilty just for living in Birmingham during the time of the bombings, for being socially colored white and “looking” like those who had committed such an awful and cowardly act in the name of hatred.
She had mouthed the words, “I’m sorry.” I told her that I didn’t accept her apology and that if she had offended or harmed anyone in the name of race, then it was to them that she owed the apology. She needed to be specific and only own what she have done. “This is what Christ will judge you for,” I said. She had heard my presentation on the race-less gospel at the Children, Youth and a New Kind of Christianity conference and had seemingly come for absolution. But there was nothing to reconcile. Instead, I offered her my friendship and reminded her of the freedom found in Jesus Christ: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus… (Romans 8.1).” She was crying now. I hugged her and said that Christ’s “love covers a multitude of sins” and racism and prejudice are not excluded (I Peter 4.8).
We may not be able to forgive the sins of race but Christ can and will.