I am presently engaged in a lengthy course at our church (via Zoom, naturally) entitled “Struggling with Race, Remembrance, and Reparations.” Over forty of us are gathering every week to reflect on books such as White Fragility, by Robin DiAngelo, Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander. In addition, in cooperation with our local NAACP chapter we are viewing recorded interviews (an accommodation to the pandemic) with members of our small but historic African American community responding to the same questions we are engaging in circle conversations in our church. All of this is in preparation for further collaboration with them and other churches and community groups to participate in the Monuments Project of the Equal Justice Initiative at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. Our goal is to conduct widespread conversations about racial justice in our county and place a memorial to a mob’s murder of a Black resident in 1900. (You can find out more about the EJI’s project by clicking HERE.)
One of our conversations is dealing with the difficult issue of forgiveness in the context of rightful remembrance and racial justice. I prepared a brief statement about it to inform our conversation that I share with you here. The “collaborative” form of forgiveness I sketch here needs a great deal more development. Your thoughts would be most appreciated. (My “captcha” gatekeeper at the Comments below has been replaced, so you ought to be able to post without difficulty.)
Three Views on Forgiveness
In the words of Bishop Desmond Tutu, “There is no future without forgiveness.” In forgiveness we release others as we ourselves are released from the past acts that have imprisoned us in vengeance, retaliation, and broken trust.
The standard account of forgiveness requires apology from the one who broke trust. Apology must be a sincere expression of remorse that recognizes the harm that was done, demonstrates a desire to act in good faith in the future, and affirms a readiness to repair the damage to the greatest extent possible. Here, forgiveness emerges as a kind of contract between two individuals to live in a new relationship. In the midst of our long history of systemic racism White people find it hard to apologize in any coherent or convincing way, often because they cannot attach the recognized wrongs of the past to specific harmed persons in the present.
Forgiveness can also be extended unilaterally before an apology is given. Sometimes this is understood as a response to receiving forgiveness or grace from God. It is based in a wider sense that “all of us have sinned and fallen short.” Unilateral forgiveness trusts that the God who has forgiven all of us will sustain, transform, and guide both harm-doer and victim into a new, better relationship. This awareness of a pre-emptive forgiveness can bring about greater self-acceptance for both wrong-doer and victim so we can deal with the actual harms we have made and suffered in the world. In the overwhelming wake of historic white racism, the burden for this unilateral forgiveness falls on the shoulders of the descendants of enslaved Americans in a way that is often heroic and compelling, as with the words of forgiveness at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, but tends not to evoke the deep conversion necessary from the other side.
Drawing on classic Biblical perspectives, however, unilateral forgiveness can be understood not merely as an effect of God’s forgiveness of individuals but of our collective living into an altogether new age or creation. The early Christians believed they were already living in the dawn of this new creation, making release from the dead hand of the past a living reality claiming all people who would receive it. This is the context for the Lord’s Prayer’s unusual formulation of forgiveness. Here, forgiveness is no longer merely an interpersonal dynamic but an expression of the actual life of a people living in a new covenant with one another formed by the world-renewing life of God. We might call this a collaborative forgiveness, for it arises in the shared commitment to live according to the promises of a new creation. It is a recognition that the history of wrong-doing and injury is being radically transformed by the love and power of God. Discerning and living into the contours of this new reality underlies our strengthened capacity for forgiveness and a new covenant of relationships among groups as well as individuals. Recalling St. Paul’s words, forgiveness is the common work of a people being transformed by the work of God, who was in Christ “reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” (II Corinthians 5:19) This can open up a perspective that might help us navigate the difficult waters of forgiveness in the midst of our long history of racial injustice.