Forgiveness does not make repentance unnecessary. It makes repentance possible.
I have come to believe in the power of forgiveness to affect positive, holy transformation.
But what about when it doesn’t?
What happens when forgiveness does not break open hearts and lead to repentance? What happens when forgiveness gives an aura of relief and safety to those perpetrating aggressions but doesn’t ease the burden of those who have been wronged? What happens when forgiveness is folded into a ritual of complacency with injustice?
Let me back up.
I want to talk about my understanding of forgiveness and where it comes from. But then I want to express how that understanding has been challenged as I have listened to the voices of people of color and realized how forgiveness has often been met with inaction, how requests for forgiveness have perpetuated violence, how even those who ultimately believe in forgiveness have seen it weaponized. This is about how my eyes are being opened by those who have the intelligence of being on the underside of white privilege, perspectives that white people like me would do well to read for ourselves.
What Forgiveness Should Be
When we are in the midst of violence and rivalry, we often double-down on our anger, convinced in our hurting that our violence is just and righteous. In the fog of pain and fear, we rarely recognize the damage we do to others as fighting escalates. But an unexpected word of forgiveness can stop the escalation of violence in its tracks. As the adrenaline of violence drains, we lay down our weapons – words or otherwise. The disarming act of forgiveness can clear our minds to see beyond our own pain to the pain of others, creating space for reconciliation.
Or, sometimes, we already know that we are in the wrong. But we are afraid to admit it, wanting to cling to our justifications, terrified that admitting our wrong will lead to anger and turn others against us. Forgiveness is a shelter of healing in those cases. It frees us from the negative influence of fear and the paralysis of guilt. Forgiveness says to us, “Stop! Don’t be afraid! I know the worst of you; I know the pain you have caused. And I still love you. I am giving you the freedom to live into the goodness for which you were born.” The compassion of forgiveness can burst our hearts open and help us to repent. In the security of forgiveness, we can turn around and repair the damage of our fear and self-serving by working with and for those we have harmed, recognizing our destiny is not against each other but bound together.
Where Does Forgiveness Come From?
My understanding of forgiveness, like all good things, is that it originates in God. For me, while forgiveness has been given, received and revealed in all times and places, the ultimate revelation of forgiveness is the cross.
Reading scripture through a Girardian lens helps me understand that it is a story of humanity’s entanglement in violence and God’s self-revelation as our pathway out of our self-destruction. From the beginning, humanity has been caught up in cycles of violence that have periodically ended in a sacrificial purge. As relational creatures, we imitate each-other’s desires, leading to competition, leading to conflict. Throughout history and today as well, escalating violence has threatened to engulf humanity. The ancient solution to conflict, still regularly employed, is for warring parties to channel their hatred and violence onto a scapegoat, an outside party onto whom they could shift all their anger and hate. The murder or expulsion of the scapegoat provided such a cathartic euphoria that people were led to believe their own violence was righteous and justified, ordained by God.
Jesus was the ultimate scapegoat. He threatened the over-and-against structuring of humanity by bringing people in from the margins. He embraced the unclean and drew the weakest members of society – children – to himself. He chastised the power structures that exploited and destroyed lives. In his crucifixion, humanity united against him. The enemies, Pilate and Herod, came together over him. His embrace of the outcasts led others to cast him out. He died a criminal and a blasphemer. Once again, those who put him to death believed wholeheartedly that their violence was sanctioned by God.
But the resurrection changed everything. Because in rising over the powers of death and hate, Jesus offered life-renewing forgiveness. In doing so, he did not simply let those who killed him off the hook. His death sent a message. “You think God is with the killers, on the side of the powerful. But I, the crucified One, am God, and I stand with the victims. I have become a victim to lead you all out of your victimization and victimizing. I offer you a new way, a full way, to be human. In casting out others, you have cast out God and fragmented yourselves. I offer not stand-apart holiness but communal wholeness. Instead of dividing against each other, unite in me – unite in Love – and live for each other as I live for you.”
When Forgiveness Fails
So if forgiveness frees us to see and admit our faults and gives us the space we need to become our best selves, living with and for others, how do we account for continued systems of oppression perpetrated by those who claim to be forgiven, specifically the persistence of racism?
Christianity’s sordid relationship with racism is essential context for recognizing the depths of racism in this country and for seeing how Jesus’s incarnation and crucifixion have been perverted and weaponized against people of color since before the United States became a nation. Without reiterating all of that now, I will simply affirm with James Cone that “no American Christian can understand completely the full theological meaning of the American Christ without identifying his image with the recrucified black body hanging from a lynching tree.” There is a gruesome irony in the fact that, in the name of Christ, living reflections of him were lynched hundreds of times over, and continue to be lynched today.
Christ stands with the oppressed. And people of color have been oppressed throughout our nation’s history and continue to be oppressed today. A nation where the median household wealth is 15 times higher for white people than it is for African Americans, where the prison population is 5 times higher for African Americans than it is for white people, and where police kill unarmed or non-threatening African Americans with impunity, is not a land of liberty and justice for all. Moreover, it testifies to a failure for white Christians in particular, who like all Christians affirm the forgiveness of God in Christ, to live into the fullness of our forgiveness. The continued oppression, degradation, and unjust arrest, injury, and murder of people of color signifies a failure of white America to repent.
If we recognize the simple fact that generations of slavery, lynching, criminalization of black skin, segregation, lies, redlining, denial of access to governmental benefits, under-representation in education and employment, and more lies have lasting economic, social, and psychological consequences, then we should realize that racism is still a very deep, persistent problem. And if we recognize Christ in the marginalized and maligned, we must recognize him in peoples of color marginalized and maligned in the United States and around the world. And, fellow white people, if we do recognize Christ in people of color, we must make every effort to amend the generations of violence that have conferred a dividing racial advantage upon us. If we do not, we are not following the light of Christ’s forgiveness out of our violence.
Yet even while the violence of systemic racism persists, white America continues to ask forgiveness of African American victims of violence without doing our part of turning our nation, so infected by racism, around. Parents of African Americans killed by police are asked if they forgive their children’s killers. Families of the Charleston 9 were quick to forgive Dylann Roof. With all of this forgiveness, why is white America still trapped in the paralysis of fear? Why is it still plausible that not only will police officers claim that they “feared for their lives” when shooting unthreatening African Americans, but juries will still consider that a valid defense? Forgiveness in these cases is not affecting conversion but becoming part of a placating ritual that is keeping white America blind and complacent. Is it any wonder that some people, both people of color and allies, are expressing doubt in the power of forgiveness to reconcile race relations?
In the matter of race relations, if anyone doubts the power of forgiveness, it is because unless white people are actively doing the work of dismantling racism (and some are, but far too few when it is incumbent on all of us), we are squandering our free gift. In doing so we are not only distancing ourselves from people of color (and even if we have friends of color, we keep a distance if we don’t dismantle the system), we are distancing ourselves from God. We are not living into our new identity in Christ that is with and for everyone.
But because of the forgiveness we have already received, we can do the work of dismantling racism without fear or guilt. First and foremost, we can listen to the stories of people of color. We can learn our history. And we can teach that history to our children. We can petition for a more diverse curriculum in our children’s schools. We can raise our voices against privatization and gentrification. We can seek to learn how policy proposals will affect communities of color, and lend our voices to theirs for advocacy and protest. And we can learn and speak out against microaggressions and insidious biases. There is always much, much more.
We do the work of antiracism for the whole human race, because relationship of oppressed and oppressor is a trap for all of us. We were made for better. We were made for Love.
So if people doubt the power of forgiveness, it is because we have given them plenty of reason to doubt. Let’s give people a reason to believe in forgiveness. Let’s get to work.
Editor’s Note: This article originally stated, “A nation where the median household income is 15 times higher for white people than it is for African Americans…” A reader has pointed out that the article I cited was talking about assets, not income. That is a big difference and I apologize for the mistake. I have changed the word “income” to “wealth” which is the word used in the article to which I linked. There is a substantial income gap between African Americans and white Americans but it is not as high as I stated. Calculating from the median income given in the article, that gap is about 36%.
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