or many people, the forgiveness offered to Dylann Roof, the man charged with killing of nine black members of Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, at his arraignment by the families of his victims is impossible to understand – and worthy of veneration. “I forgive you” said Nadine Gardner, daughter of slain church member Ethel Lance. “I will never ever hold her again. But I forgive you, and may God have mercy on your soul”.
But how could someone forgive such a heinous crime so quickly, so easily? The answer lies in part with Christian interpretation of the New Testament, a history of racialized violence and the civil rights movement.
Black churches taught us to forgive white people. We learned to shame ourselves
Forgiveness is a spiritual practice and biblical mandate from the New Testament that many American Christians engage in as a part of their faith. Familiar scriptures (such as Jesus forgiving the Romans while hanging on a cross, or saying that forgiveness should be given 70 times seven) are staples of Christian teaching and theology. Forgiveness is enshrined in the Lord’s prayer – forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. These scriptures point to the power of forgiveness not only as a way to absolve transgressions, but to ensure that the person extending forgiveness will be forgiven of theirs. For many Christians, these teachings form the foundation of their Christian faith, even when that forgiveness can be difficult to give.
Historically, narratives of forgiveness were part of both the anti-slavery movement and the civil rights movement in America. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, for instance, was based loosely on the life of the Rev Josiah Henson, who forgave his master that wanted to sell him and beat him after Henson begged him not to.
I fell down and clung to his knees in entreaties. Sometimes when too closely pressed, he would curse and strike me. May God forgive him!
These slave narratives in the 19th century were designed to put forth messages of Christian love and mercy, even in the face of the masters’ violence and cruelty. For many slaves and subsequent free black people, forgiveness was also a way to protect themselves from continued racial violence. A well placed “I forgive you” served as protection for vulnerable African Americans in a violent racist environment by calling out to oppressor and oppressed’s shared religious faith.
In the 20th Century, the non-violent “soul force” that Martin Luther King Jr taught was a combination of Hinduism and Christianity. Forgiveness became a big part of the civil rights movement, juxtaposed against the violence of protesters and law enforcement. King described forgiveness in one of his early sermons as a pardon, a process of life and the Christian weapon of social redemption. In MLK’s words, “forgiveness is not an occasional act, it is a constant attitude”
History and scripture are just the foundations for the stunning words of forgiveness from the families of those murdered at Emmanuel AME, expressions apparently driven by sincerity and theChristian witness of the surviving family members. However, forgiveness deployed in the context of American race relations become part of the ritual of what I call racial forgiveness.
Racial forgiveness is different than a theological premise; it is a cultural ritual in America which functions to atone for the past racism (as with the apologies from various denominations, such as Southern Baptists, in the 1990s) or in an attempt to provide African Americans a way to move forward and acknowledge historic and recent racial pain. These public acts of racial forgiveness are important, but they can also bring about ritual forgetting when co-opted by individuals or groups with little interest in atonement.
This ritual forgiveness and forgetting is one of the reasons America’s conversation on race is stilted, disingenuous, and dangerous. In a culture of ritual forgiveness and forgetfulness, no one is called to account for historic deeds done against others, and history is viewed as a malleable story to support the forgetting. That is why the conversation about the Confederate Flag and its meaning are simply swept away as a “cultural matter” or history, when the reality is that the flag was a symbol of resistance to the Union and, later, used as a way to continue the culture of the Confederacy and terrorize Africans Americans.
Forgiveness unfortunately, can birth forgetting: by the time the arraignment ended, the ritual forgetfulness had already begun. Politicians like Jeb Bush claimed not to understand why the shooter would want to kill black people and conservatives claimed that the shooting “was an attack against Christians”.
How long will forgiveness and the subsequent forgetting be a means to derail sustained efforts to confront racism in America? For black people, there is no forgetting of the history of American racism, or the complicity of Christians in that history. When a white man walks into a black church, sits for an hour, and then allegedly shoots nine black people dead, no amount of forgiveness given for his murderous act by the families of the dead can absolve America of its violent history of racism, no matter how much those complicit in that racism might hope for it.