November 22, 2017

Forgiveness: Should it be the first word?

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Historically, black churches have nurtured the politics of forgiveness so that black people can anticipate divine justice and liberation in the next life. This sentiment shaped non-violent protest during the civil rights movement. A belief that displays of morality rooted in forgiveness would force white America to leave behind its racist assumptions. But Christian or non-Christian, black people are not allowed to express unbridled grief or rage, even under the most horrific circumstances.

For these Christians whose deep faith tradition holds forgiveness as a core principle, offering absolution to Roof is about relieving the burden of anger and pain of being victimized. In this regard, forgiveness functions as a kind of protest, a refusal to be reduced to victims. It sends the message to the killer that he may have hurt them, but they are the true victors because they have not been destroyed.

Yet, the almost reflective demand of forgiveness, especially for those dealing with death by racism, is about protecting whiteness, and America as a whole. This is yet another burden for black America.

• Stacey Patton, Washington Post

• • •

I think those of us who are Christians would agree that the ultimate word toward our “enemies” is the word of forgiveness. I wonder, however, if it should always be the first word.

Stacey Patton has written a piece in the Washington Post called, “Black America should stop forgiving white racists.” The title seems intentionally provocative, because in the end Patton does not say forgiveness should be withheld. Rather, she argues it should not be given away as quickly or easily as it seems to have been in situations like the Charleston shootings. It is the “rush to forgive — before grieving, healing, processing or even waiting for the legal or judicial systems to process these crimes — and the expectations of black empathy for those who do great harm” that Patton finds “deeply problematic.”

Stacey Patton reminds us that in many other situations, such as 9/11, the ISIS beheadings, and historic anti-Semitic acts, we have seen no such knee-jerk expressions of forgiveness. As I read her article, I was reminded of South Africa, where an approach that many think sought an appropriate balance of justice and mercy was enacted through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. That commission was specifically for the purpose of enabling “South Africans to come to terms with their past on a morally accepted basis and to advance the cause of reconciliation.” It seems to me that a process like that allows victims of violence to express their grief and tell their stories in a public context that is also designed to lead to amnesty and reconciliation. In his foreword to the report of the Commission, Desmond Tutu expressed the following:

There were others who urged that the past should be forgotten – glibly declaring that we should “let bygones be bygones.” This option was rightly rejected because such amnesia would have resulted in further victimisation of victims by denying their awful experiences.

Above, Stacey Patton rightly describes the thought process of those whose family members died in the Charleston shootings. Jesus told us to forgive. If I don’t forgive, I will become a victim, enslaved by anger and bitterness. If that happens, the other side wins. We will not let hatred and violence win, and therefore we offer forgiveness from the start.

That is a noble approach, and Patton does not discount its power. However, inasmuch as it has become the knee-jerk, automatic response of many in black America, as well as the expectation of those watching black Christians, she argues it has had the unfortunate opposite effect of simply letting white racism off the hook and more deeply entrenching blacks in victim status. Indeed, she seems to suggest that black Christians may have developed something of a “messiah” complex, imagining that their sufferings will “save” white America from its racism.

When black forgiveness is the means for white atonement, it enables white denial about the harms that racist violence creates. When black redemption of white America is prioritized over justice and accountability, there is no chance of truth and reconciliation. It trivializes real black suffering, grief, and the heavy lifting required for any possibility of societal progress.

Would the good folks of Charleston have been any less of a Christian example had they first given voice to the kind of lament that is common throughout the Psalms? Would Jesus have been dishonored had they begun their journey toward forgiveness by expressing their grief and anger directly to the face of Dylann Roof as they stood in that courtroom the other day? Is immediate forgiveness the only legitimate Christlike response?

Though I don’t agree with every nuance of Stacey Patton’s argument, I have learned that grief is a process, and so is coming to grips with the need to forgive. I don’t like the way she says below that white America needs to “earn” the forgiveness of the black community. But I do agree that we all must learn to embrace our full range of human emotions, especially in times of mourning and grieving. Deep, genuine forgiveness takes time, and in such horrific situations I would expect that extending it fully and maintaining its spirit would be a lifelong process.

If we really believe that black lives matter, we won’t devalue our reality and cheapen our forgiveness by giving it away so quickly and easily. Black people should learn to embrace our full range of human emotions, vocalize our rage, demand to be heard, and expect accountability. White America needs to earn our forgiveness, as we practice legitimate self-preservation.

Black lives will never be safe — or truly matter — and we won’t break the centuries long cycle of racial violence if we keep making white racial salvation our responsibility.

Christians believe that mercy will triumph over judgment, but that does not deny the need for appropriate judgment. And triumph may only come after a long and difficult battle.

Forgiveness should always be the last word. Be careful when it is the first.

Comments

  1. I too felt the “forgiveness” of Roof by his victims’ families was forced. I thought at the time, “Their pastor told them to say that, to be good Christian witnesses.”

    Many people were indeed touched by the families’ words, and very admiring of their ability and willingness to forgive such an atrocity. But, like Patton, I too found it “deeply problematic.” Not because I blamed the families: I felt that they believed that forgiveness was their Christian duty. But I also felt their grief should have been allowed full play, with forgiveness to come later, if ever. A couple of the speakers at the hearing were clearly struggling with the battle between their (rightful) emotions, and their wish to give a “good Christian witness.” I remember one of the women saying, “I will never see her again, I will never hold her again…but I forgive you.”

    I had to forgive a very bad thing that was done to me (but certainly not as terrible as what was done in Charleston!), and it took a long, hard, grim struggle. I remember the culmination came at the time of the Oklahoma City bombing, 20 years ago. I recall being sick at home, lying on the couch, and watching the horror of the bombing unfold, while turning over in my mind the rage and pain of my own “incident” which had tormented me so long. I said to God, “Why do I have to forgive? It’s not fair.” And then my mind connected the question with what was happening on the television, and I got a very quiet thought: “You *don’t* have to forgive. You’re free to go on hating. But look at the screen — that’s where hate gets you.”

    My actual act of forgiveness came a few days later, after many prior years of struggle. I think it takes a lot of time and processing before a person can get to forgiveness — I may be slower than most, 🙂 but even so, I think heartfelt forgiveness of the murderer of your son or daughter or mother can’t really take place immediately, even before the funeral ceremonies which might soften the grief a bit. I think the families in Charleston were trying too hard to be “good Christians.”

  2. I am reminded of a book I’ve read two or three times “Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy” by Kraybill, Nolt, and Weaver-Zurcher. It explores the Amish pattern of forgiveness, using as a primary example the forgiveness to the shooter’s family in the wake of the Nickel Mines school shooting. That incident was also remarked on in the news because it took many reporters by surpise, and the book is intended in part to show that it is characteristic of that community. In so doing the authors point to multiple earlier documented occurances of the same behavior in crimes and tragedies that were not national news.

    I recall two main points worth discussing here. One of the Amish who spoke to the authors said that they forgive in order to set themselves free – not in an eschatological sense, but in an immediate emotional sense. And many attributed the pattern of forgiveness in their lives to the frequency of saying the Lord’s prayer, which if I recall correctly is multiple times a day. I have considered adopting that pattern myself as a spiritual discipline.

    I won’t say that immediate forgiveness is the only Christian response. But it is a legitimate Christian response. And since the Amish are an (almost, if not all) white denomination/community with historical roots in white communities, there is no possibility of their doing so because of racism. And immediate forgiveness is a distinctive Christian response – lamentation and rage while legitimate would not have been seen as surprising or worthy of note.

    So that author is both wrong and revealing her own blindness and paucity of vision when she attributes the response to race patterns rather than religious patterns. This isn’t surprising, and a Get Religion (getreligion.org), the premise of which is “the press doesn’t get religion, which affects their coverage” on Sunday Jim Davis pointed to both really good news coverage (the LA Times) and vacuous useless coverage (the Chicago Sun-Times), and mixed coverage (NBC). I’ve seen some of the other Washington Post coverage of this, and we can call it mixed, with this post on the bad side.

    • Re. the families of the victims in the Nickel Mines killing, i am not sure that they had much choice but to follow the rules of their community. I have often wondeted how much anger lay behind those words, unacknowledged both within the Amish community as well as in the world at large.

      Also feel pained that forgiveness seems to be expected in this case – and it certainly does serve as a way for white folks to keep letting themselves off the hook.

    • I am, btw, surprised that Dknald Kraybill didn’t make more of the vety real expectations from within the Amish community re. anticipated forgiveness (whether the people i question were truly ready to extend it or not). Kraybill is one of the best writers on Amish culture and society, after his mentor, thd late John Hostetler.

  3. StuartB says:

    Forgiveness should always be the last word. Be careful when it is the first.

    Amen.

  4. dumb ox says:

    How about that tough love white evangelicals like to talk about? Forgive but hold accountable.

  5. Aidan Clevinger says:

    This author confuses the distinction between the forgiveness of personal or ecclesiastical enemies, which is commanded by Christ as a first resort, and without which we do not have forgiveness, and the temporal judgment which the state should render even to the repentant (depending on the severity of their crime). The grieving families of the victims displayed a love and compassion that could only be created by the Holy Spirit within them. By the same token, even if Roof were to repent and ask forgiveness, and even if he were to be absolved of sin and restored to fellowship with God, I still think the state should punish him, in whatever way is appropriate for his crime.

    I also disagree with the final point in the quote provided at the beginning. I do not think that anyone who praises the families’ mercy is trying to preserve whiteness or american social structure. Of course, I also haven’t seen anyone who has *demanded* that the families forgive, either – though I’ve seen many people commend them for their act, which is appropriate. I understand that there are a lot of social and political structures that prop up white privilege (I hate that term) in America, but let’s not turn an act of supreme virtue into an example to be used in pursuing a political agenda.

    Furthermore, I wonder if the author has understood the nature of forgiveness. Forgiveness means the setting aside of the desire and intention to punish another person, and to take up the desire and effort, in whatever way is necessary, to do that person good. It doesn’t mean giving up grief or mourning for loss. For fallen humans I don’t think it always takes the form of giving up the emotion of anger or even fury; rather, it entails ceasing the attempt or desire to visit just retribution on another person. It has nothing to do with, to use Desmond Tutu’s words by way of Chaplain Mike’s quotation, “letting bygones be bygones.” It isn’t shrugging off the wrong as though it no longer affects me. Christ, who provided the perfect example of forgiveness, cried out to God in complete sorrow of soul while on the cross, but He also prayed for His tormentors to be forgiven. The two aren’t incompatible.

    Jesus answered the question of whether forgiveness should be the first word very clearly when He said that if we do not forgive others, God will not forgive our sins. Of course, I think this also emphasizes that forgiveness isn’t a one-time action. I’m sure that the bereaved families will, for years and years to come, maybe for their whole lives, still experience moments or long seasons when they hate Roof. Such is our fallen nature – honestly, it’s a testimony of Christ’s power in their lives that they have been able to forgive as much as they have, without a miracle of God I know I wouldn’t have the spiritual strength to do so. These brothers and sisters will need the grace of God continually to enable them to forgive as often as they experience that hatred, and to be forgiven when they give into it, and I believe God will give them that grace. In this they are being conformed to the image of Christ and displaying Him to the world in one of the most powerful ways I can imagine.

    Having said all that, I think Chaplain Mike is completely right when he says that there never seems to be this impulse for forgiveness in response to atrocities committed by ISIS, al-Qaeda, etc. I’d never thought of it before, but there does seem to be a double-standard in that area. But of course the solution isn’t to say that everyone should take some time to grieve before forgiving, but rather to exhort one another to forgive in the midst of grief, no matter who the perpetrator was and no matter what culture or racial group he/she/they targeted.

    • Robert F says:

      I agree with your comment. I don’t think forgiveness means not holding accountable, or not speaking the truth regarding a condition like racism. And it is not what we have a right to expect from anyone, either for ourselves or others. Neither is it over and done with once said. I’m sure that for the survivors of this massacre, forgiveness is something that they will struggle with their entire lives, and they may even come to wish they could walk it back, and in fact they can. Those who are unable or do not want to extend this forgiveness can in on way be criticized for not doing so.

      Forgiveness, like prayer, is a practice. It’s hard, and we don’t do it well at first, and we struggle with it, and we shouldn’t use it as an excuse not to be active in life (in this case, that means holding the killer, and the racist mentality that enabled the killer, accountable, and speaking loudly and prophetically against the action and the thinking that led to it). But it is one of the practices that constitutes the Christian community, and it is founded on our already existing state of having been forgiven by Jesus Christ. Without it, the Christian community not only can’t continue to exist, but would not exist to begin with.

    • Robert F says:

      Also, Christian forgiveness is not something the individual doe in isolation. Christian forgiveness is something that is only possible as a practice of the Christian community, enabled by Jesus Christ. It has a distinct origin, and character.

      • Robert F says:

        “Forgiveness should always be the last word. Be careful when it is the first.”

        If that’s the case, we should be baptized when we are on our deathbeds, like some early Christian did, rather than as infants or when we come to believe.

  6. Tragic as this case is, there is confidence that the killer is no longer on the loose and will suffer the consequences. And the whole community agrees that the killer is the bad guy – virtually everyone is standing with the victims.

    In other cases where a black person is unjustly killed by a white policeman, there is the fear that justice will not be done.

    In the majority of cases of racial violence, there’s no religious element. This time Christians were targeted. Although the killers motives were racist, the victims’ identity would be Christian first (we hope) rather than black. And we do them an injustice if we expect them to respond as blacks first rather than as Christians. Plenty of other cases of racial injustice happen where the foremost voice heard in response can be what Patton would want.

  7. Henry Darger says:

    While this is a big improvement over your previous acknowledgement of the massacre (mixed in with Saturday’s jokes), I can’t help but notice that the focus is to criticize the behavior of the victims (apparently for forgiving their enemy in the wrong way) rather than the racism of the perpetrator, or society in general. Perhaps this is inevitable from a lily-white website (which the banner ads reflect).

    You obviously needn’t fear that the killer will go free. If you are worried that overeagerness to forgive may harm the survivors, consider that there is not just one way to handle grief (or obey the gospel). For outsiders to criticize them is presumptuous–none of us know what we would have done. For the sake of comparison, since you are a fan of Catholicism, recall how John Paul II forgave his would-be assassin.

    Consider, too, the effect on borderline racists, as they see members of this church exemplifying the gospel command. Surely this must be a powerful witness. It is a sign of strength and dignity, not of weakness.

    • Robert F says:

      I, too, think it’s presumptuous to question the choice of time and manner, and to question the authenticity, of the survivor’s forgiveness. This practice of forgiveness is one of the things that enabled the black community to survive the centuries of enslavement, the decades of Jim Crow, and the years of lingering, entrenched institutional racism. Just the other day, before this incident, an African American co-worker said to me, “My people are a forgiving people,” and he said it with the kind of gentle pride that is no sin.

    • Robert F says:

      I personally have been moved to tears numerous times by the forgiveness, and the defiance</em, of evil exhibited by the African American Church community in response to this racist, demonic atrocity. This last Sunday the pulpits of African American churches thundered with that forgiveness and defiance. Real Christian forgiveness is as fierce a thing as defiance in the face of evil. I think the African American community is showing the world what real power looks like, and it doesn't look like the barrel of a gun.

    • Criticisms noted. But I am responding not so much to the actual victims and their response here as I am to a member of their own community who is questioning whether the immediate expression of forgiveness might short circuit the pursuit of justice and social progress. I think she raises some valid points, and the impression many will have after hearing the families say “I forgive” will be to think that this is the end of the story from a Christian point of view. I work with grieving people every day, and I can tell you, it’s just the beginning.

      I also hope my response was nuanced enough to portray that I too see what they did as a “sign of grace and dignity.” And I think the author actually agrees. But I have seen too many people cover deep wounds of grief with spiritual expressions, wounds which eventually became spiritually septic and deadly to them, not to worry.

    • Henry, the fact that “there is not just one way to handle grief” is one of the author’s points, and one of the things that troubles her about the unified response of the church,

    • Patrick Kyle says:

      Henry,

      +1

      Here we have Christians publicly doing what our Lord commands, forgiving their enemy, and we have no shortage of criticism and gainsayers questioning the sincerity and/or wisdom of their acts. When will we learn to just shut up in the face of these kind of tragedies and let God, the proper authorities, and the victims work it out?

  8. Robert F says:

    Here’s are questions for anybody willing to answer: Let’s suppose that Roof has never been baptized. Then let’s say that today, he asks a representative of the Christian community, a chaplain say, to baptize him because he’s repented of his sins, and come to believe in Jesus Christ. Supposing further that, upon investigation, he seems to be sincere in what he’s said. Should the Christian community baptize him? Or would this be making forgiveness the first rather than last word, and be cause for us to be suspicious? Is not baptism itself a rather suspicious ritual, in that case?

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      > Should the Christian community baptize him?

      Yes; of course the choice is up to to the pastor/priest/chaplain who interacts directly with him.

      > Or would this be making forgiveness the first rather than last word

      No. I think you are conflating the Forgiveness of the perpetrator with the forgiveness extended by the victim(s). These are two distinct events/actions. Both need forgiveness, but for different purposes, and from different sources – they are barely the same thing although the same term is used for both.

      I believe that forgiveness is critical to victims, but in an age of sloppy language perhaps other terms are more appropriate: charity, mercy,… Forgiveness in our culture seems bound-up entirely with Guilt [which often victims may share in some portion, but other times – as in this case – they do not].

      In any case it is important to parse exactly what people mean – especially those from a different culture – when they talk about Forgiveness [and other terms]. Does an east-coast southern african american mean exactly what I [a industrial northern midwest nordic american] mean? I read Miroslav Volf for my meaning of “Forgiveness”, I do not know what they read. Nuance may be important here.

      > not baptism itself a rather suspicious ritual, in that case?

      It is a ‘suspicious’ ritual in ANY case. Any act can be fraudulent, any act can be performed for the purpose of deception or coercion. That’s just life, regardless if the context is tragic or banal.

  9. Steve Newell says:

    Christians are called to forgive others and to love ones enemies. This is a much counter cultural to our world at it was in Christ’s world during his time on earth. I heard more gospel from these families so suffered so much but their faith in Christ is stronger than their emotion for revenge. They were also concerned for the soul of the individual charged with the crime.

    Our “Christian” leaders have not shown the same type of faith that these families have shown. They are too focused on the politics and not the theological impact.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      Is it a choice between Forgiveness and Revenge? My ‘beef’ with this type of summation is that it is far too simplistic; it feels like a reaction removed from the lived event – which will be lived by many people for days and days and days… This polar choice seems so very Tidy, it leaves little space for a community or a culture to have a conversation, it always to me sounds like a way to just put something away as quickly as possible [which can be a kind of moral brutality – “no, we are done talking about that”].

  10. I also think many of you are missing the questions which are at the center of this post:

    Would the good folks of Charleston have been any less of a Christian example had they first given voice to the kind of lament that is common throughout the Psalms? Would Jesus have been dishonored had they begun their journey toward forgiveness by expressing their grief and anger directly to the face of Dylann Roof as they stood in that courtroom the other day? Is immediate forgiveness the only legitimate Christlike response?

    • I only have a few minutes, but I don’t understand the question.

      Are you asking a cultural question about whether that particular community or some theoretical community teaches its people to start with forgiveness and stuff their feelings?

      Or are you asking if Christ teaches anything like this?

      And this phrasing of “less Christian”, from whose point of view? It would be sad if anyone felt that disordered forgiveness removed them from the love of God. But, among other places, the Lord’s prayer points to the deep significance and call to forgiveness.

      Finally, the night my husband got out of the hospital after his suicide attempt, I extended forgiveness. And the next week we both started therapy. I think your pastoral concern is that some will never lament. That’s a good concern. Maybe you should have just started there or with a story from hospice. Because from where I stand, forgiveness is integral to healing whenever it shows up in the process. Starting there can be helpful.

      • First of all, I’m asking us to respond to a debate within the black community itself about this matter.

        Second, I’m asking a bigger question: is this kind of immediate forgiveness the only legitimate Christian response in a situation like this?

        I have nothing but respect, admiration, and profound sympathy for the families going through this tragedy.

        • Adam Tauno Williams says:

          > is this kind of immediate forgiveness the only legitimate Christian response in a situation like this?

          Absolutely not.

          • Exactly, absolutely not. I’m surprised that question was posed to IM. Did you in good faith believe that the IM community would say that it was the ONLY response allowed? I also don’t see anyone (admittedly I have only scanned the responses?) saying that.

            Instead, I think the better question which perhaps is what you’re actually asking is whether it is the wise response, and what it means for the black community to have a perceived (maybe real, but that article didn’t actually prove that point) practice of coming to forgiveness early and perhaps unwisely.

        • I appreciate the direction of your post, and consequent questions, Chap Mike. Pattons article was as confusing (to me, a white person) as it was helpful. The whole topic of “what should christian forgiveness look like, sound like….” is worth pursuing, for many of the reasons you, and fellow IMONKers have brought up.

          Frankly, the link to Patton’s article derailed more than detailed, a worthy discussion. That’s my take.

          IF the black community has the problem that Patton thinks it does, I would be surprised if it were limited to offenses by white terrorists, would they not also be encouraged to similar “rushed” forgiveness for black on black crime ?? Or can I bring that up….??

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      > Would the good folks of Charleston have been any less of a Christian example had
      > they first given voice to the kind of lament that is common throughout the Psalms?

      No. But I doubt most in our society would have understood it.

    • I don’t know about all of the victims’ families, but the one expression of forgiveness that I heard in context (I believe it was a daughter of one of the victims) was preceded by profound expressions of grief, pain and suffering–even anger–as she spoke directly to the perpetrator. This was no glib offer of absolution.

      I’ve also heard comparisons to the Amish families of the 10 schoolgirls who were murdered by a gunman in PA several years ago. The murderer killed himself so the families didn’t have the chance to forgive him in person, but they expressed forgiveness to the killer’s wife and parents–even meeting with them to grieve together.

  11. It’s hard to read this post as something other than “they’re doing it wrong.”

    We’re not taking into account the emotional health of each individual who has chosen to express forgiveness. These acts may have well saved their lives. On the other side may have been rage, guilt, or anything else that has the opportunity to turn inward or cause one to act irrationally in such a time of grief and crisis. We don’t know what these people have to carry, so we should be slow to comment on what they choose to release.

    We are also only aware of their public comments. Privately they may be appropriately going through all of the stages of grief, anger, lament, etc. Not all of it is ours to see.

    Finally, in this case, I believe the act of forgiveness is far more prophetic and indicting towards the perpetrator and the culture of oppression than any other act. The Kingdom is upside down. God’s kindness leads to repentance, and these Christians have given the entire world the opportunity to own their junk and repent.

    • “It’s hard to read this post as something other than “they’re doing it wrong.”

      Boy, I hope not, Sean. If that’s the way you read it, I’m a poor communicator.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      I had no problem reading is ‘something other’

      The impulse to consider a request to consider a communities’ [or individuals] responses to a crisis or tragedy as on of Moral Judgement belies the Evengelical [or just American] impulse to define all issues in terms of moral evaluation. This impulse plows right through such questions all over our society.

  12. “Forgiveness should always be the last word. Be careful when it is the first.”

    That statement summarizes a deep family problem I am experiencing. We have family situations where the offenders want to go straight to forgiveness without dealing with what has happened.

    I also wonder at times if Abraham Lincoln was too quick to say ‘forgiveness’ after the Civil War. If they had a period of ‘truth and reconciliation’, would our country be better off now?

    • “family situations where the offenders want to go straight to forgiveness without dealing with what has happened.”

      The problem with the scenario you describe is that it is the offended, not the offenders, who decide if and when forgiveness occurs. Of course the offenders want it as it lessens their feelings of guilt, but it is simply not their decision to make. The one who bleeds, not the one who plunges the knife (literally or metaphorically), is the only one who can legitimately forgive.

      Dr. Laura Schlesinger of radio fame suggested several years back that only a victim — not the family of the victim — can offer forgiveness, so the death of the victim makes human forgiveness of the act impossible. The families are in great pain, yes, but they are not the victims. The victims are the dead persons themselves.

  13. As far as the quoted author’s arguments, it seems that she is falsely equating the forgiveness of the church members towards the shooter with forgiveness from all of black society towards oppressors. I honestly don’t get it. How does the way certain people respond to their grief become a standard for how all people respond to a culture of oppression? As a person of privilege, I don’t feel that the church members’ forgiveness of the shooter in any way lets me off the hook of seeking justice for those who’ve been hurt by my privilege.

  14. Not that crazy about what I’ve read so far of Patton’s work. Might change my mind after more reading and thought. Maybe forgiveness doesn’t have to be the first word: Lamentation and the voicing of grief/anger have a place also. But forgiveness is not optional, especially not optional or dependant on what happens to the perps: what amount of justice they get, or don’t. I don’t see a lot of conditions applied to forgiveness in the bible, just a firm word that we had (at some time) better get to it for the sake of OUR souls.

    GOD has forgiven us much, we have a lot of ‘Roof'” inside of us as well.

  15. Michael Z says:

    Systemic sins like racism are like a sickness. When there’s a flu pandemic, some people are immune, some are carriers without knowing it, most people have symptoms ranging from mild to severe, and for a few people with vulnerable immune systems the effects can be deadly. Roof’s actions are the actions of an individual who was particularly vulnerable to that sickness, but the sickness itself is something that infects most members of our society. (And, it was combined with the sickness of obsession with guns and violence, which also pervades our society.)

    So in that sense, forgiveness could be a matter of saying, “Let’s stop treating this just as the actions of one messed-up individual and acknowledge that we are all carriers of this sickness – that Roof caught it from us, and his actions are just a particularly troubling symptom of it.” If the result of that forgiveness is for us to acknowledge the racism that pervades our society and that created the environment that fostered Roof, then that forgiveness is a wise step.

    As with any epidemic, you can’t just fight the worst cases – it won’t stop spreading unless enough people are immune to it that our society acquires herd immunity to racism and violence. That’s where churches ought to be able to help – by teaching their members to be salt and light, to resist that disease, Instead, we have segregated churches that glorify gun ownership and teach that if more people brought guns to church, this wouldn’t have happened. By doing that, they’ve become vectors for the social diseases that caused this tragedy in the first place.

    • “Let’s stop treating this just as the actions of one messed-up individual and acknowledge that we are all carriers of this sickness – that Roof caught it from us, and his actions are just a particularly troubling symptom of it.”

      I have refrained from commenting on this whole subject because I have an issue in how it has morphed into simply being about “racism”. Even that word itself has morphed over the years into something that is race specific, that is, that only one race suffers from it. And now that our president has stated that racism is “in our DNA” it introduces the belief that there is something constitutionally wrong with that one particular race. Maybe THIS should become a topic of discussion in some future post.

      Let me say that race WAS a motivating factor in Roof’s atrocity, but it was a motivation that grew out of other factors. I think we will find as more information comes out that he shared some of the same characteristics as most of the other young, white, male, loner perpetrators of mass murder. Most of THEM had some real, or imagined, trigger beliefs that set THEM off. That Roof’s was racism only exacerbated and already sensitive subject in this nation. I sincerely hope that this doesn’t get lost in the future discussion.

      As for the main subject of this day’s post, I agree with Chaplain Mike and have nothing contrary to say about it.

  16. dumb ox says:

    Fifty one years ago on June 21st, Michael (Mickey) Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman disappeared why participating in civil rights project in Mississippi and were later found murdered. Rather than lecture on forgiveness, we need to enter the pain and scorn of those who suffer and are mistreated.

  17. If we acknowledge the stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance – then forgiveness can’t really be the first word. These people were probably still in a state of shock while proclaiming forgiveness. A pastor must lead them to it eventually, but they must pass through the other stages; and while their actions may look very Christian to us, if premature,they may short circuit the healing process.

  18. I’m surprised how many people here take the distinctly evangelical ‘forgive first, ask questions later’ approach without batting an eyelid. The discussion at the end of the Ramble seemed to have a bit more diversity.

    I think that the opposite of forgiveness is not necessarily revenge, so the “you need to forgive or else” argument has little weight.

    Forgiveness is a transaction between two people: the offender asks for forgiveness (or not), and then the offended forgives (or not). I don’t know what thing people are doing when they pre-emptively ‘forgive’, but I don’t think it’s called forgiveness.

    I know there are verses which apparently present unilateral forgiveness, but they are not the only verses, and there are others which should at least give pause for thought:

    – If pre-emptive ‘forgiveness’ is the righteous way, why should one bother to go and seek out a brother who has caused offence? Surely you just forgive him and get on with your life.
    – We are to forgive as God forgives us: but how/when does he forgive us?
    – When did Joseph forgive his brothers?

    I think there is a chronology to the process of forgiveness, which you can’t mess with. Just as the offender immediately going: “hey, I’m sorry. There, I said it, what are you still moaning about?”, immediately ‘forgiving’ is too easy – obviously not in the sense emotionally easy, but papering over the cracks of something that has not been done right. For example, in this case, if after a long process of ‘coming to his right mind’, Roof does ultimately ask for forgiveness, what are the victims supposed to do then?

    This may sound a bit twisted, and I haven’t quite thought it through all the way, but pre-emptive forgiveness is almost denying the humanity and agency of the perpetrator – it’s cutting him out of the process completely, denying him the right to be fully guilty and feel the weight of his guilt, and implicitly denying that he is capable of ever coming to a point of repentance. Obviously, you can find it obscene that I’m pleading for the humanity of a mass murderer, but you can’t simultaneously find it obscene and applaud his victims talking about just loving him.

    Personally I’m not convinced that non-believers are universally ‘impressed’ or touched by this kind of forgiveness. I think it is more regularly met with an uncomprehending shrug, if not outright rage at what looks like terrible injustice. In any case, I don’t see many people in the media militating for immediate forgiveness of rapists, bankers, or terrorists.

    “He committed Himself to Him who judges righteously”.

    (Sorry if I have offended anyone here. I live in a place where race is not such a big deal as it is in the US. Not everything is seen/analysed/judged through the lens of race, it is possible – pray that it comes to your community too).

    • Danielle says:

      “This may sound a bit twisted, and I haven’t quite thought it through all the way, but pre-emptive forgiveness is almost denying the humanity and agency of the perpetrator.”

      Oh, but this is one of the beauties of it. In committing the offense, a perpetrator exercises agency.

      In deciding to forgive (or not), the victim reclaims his agency. Forgiveness in this context is both grace-ful and defiant. The victim decides what to do. The victim, even while living in the shadow of the offense, has broken some of its power to control him. He selects the response, he determines the meaning of the event to him – and perhaps, too, to others.

      The perpetrator can now decide what he is going to do with such knowledge.

    • I’m, for one, am not accepting “forgive first, process later” as an evangelical. But the question was about the exclusive legitimacy of that approach. Maybe the black community thinks that’s the only approach, that would be sad and not true. But the post seems to say that forgiving first precludes processing later. My push back from personal experience is that that’s not universally true.

      I don’t know the racial composition of IM commenters. I’m Chinese-American currently living in a dominantly white community. My impression, however, is that most commenters are not privy to the actual ethos of the black community. This conversation is as odd to me as asking the IM community to comment on the Christian Chinese/Chinese-American ethos on parenting.

      I didn’t even know that evangelicals are supposed to forgive first and stuff it. I assume some people do that and I assume some people never forgive. Forgiveness is hard, but is our call from Christ who empowers us to it. That much I believe.

      I’m not saying this isn’t a valuable discussion, but this is one of the few IM posts that really falls flat for me.

      • Sorry Andie. I can only attribute some of what you say to poor communication on my part. As someone who works with grieving people all the time (from all sorts of backgrounds), this situation and the debate about forgiveness which was raised by another person in the black community is most interesting to me, and I thought maybe we should examine what we really think about forgiveness and how we practice it as Christians.

    • Rick Ro. says:

      “Forgiveness is a transaction between two people.”

      That might be the way the world looks at it, but I don’t think that’s the way God looks at it. nor the way we should look at it as Christians. And even if you disagree and think it *IS* a transaction in the Kingdom world, I think forgiveness in the Kingdom means the two people involved can be massively apart in terms of what they give up as part of the exchange. Just look at the master who forgave his servant’s massive debt.

  19. With the understanding that grief is a process that can be shortchanged, buried, and even all together bypassed to the detriment of the person who is suffering (and seriously, I get this on a personal level), I’ve been viewing these words from the victims not necessarily as forgiveness pronounced and exercised once and for all, but as the will to eventually forgive.

    I believe the victims have had to resolve in their heart of hearts that they will work towards forgiveness so that deeper, darker thoughts and emotions don’t take over later. I believe part of that resolve was to verbalize forgiveness to the perpetrator, speaking the word and faith and trusting that it will become reality later on.

    It’s just my take. I never believe in speeding up the grief process. But I do think these people were able to do something special with the grace and love of God enabling them, and I take them at their word.

    I do hope they enter the political, systemic narrative when they are good and ready. And not because I think they will go easy on white people. I think they have prophetic truth to offer because of the dark places they have walked through (like most people of color in this country).

    • We are definitely on the same page, Sean.

    • Nice post; it doesn’t have to be either/or: prophetic voice OR forgiveness.

    • Rick Ro. says:

      One of the better takes on the situation. Thanks, Sean.

    • Thank you, Sean. You put it a lot better than I did, and I think you’re right.

    • Robert F says:

      Agree.

    • I can get behind this.

      As I said above, the opposite of forgiveness is not revenge, or even bitterness.

      If the offender will not or cannot listen, you have to take it to God and say: “I’m letting go of this, now it’s a problem between you and him, I need to get on with my life”. But that’s still not what I call forgiveness.

      But that’s not an imperative, “you must do this straight away or you’re not a good Christian”.

      The problem with the ‘good Christians forgive right now’ approach is that you can end up adding insult to injury by making the victim also guilty of ‘not forgiving’.

  20. David Cornwell says:

    Sean, agree with what you are saying.

    Jesus says nothing about a process we need to go through before granting forgiveness. The forgiveness we are asked to exercise as His followers is personal and spiritual, but also at the same time intrinsically connected to our relationship to Christ and His Church, and on another level than the ordinary psychological or judicial kinds of forgiveness we are so often concerned with.

    They are able to offer this forgiveness through grace; the same grace that Jesus offers to us. It is unearned and undeserved. They will still need to process the psychological stages of grief. And the political authorities will still need to move society toward legal justice.

    Jesus says nothing about hanging on to a refusal of forgiveness until the process reaches a certain point.

    This is hard stuff. Ask anyone who has been wronged.

  21. Marcus Johnson says:

    This still seems like one of those moments in which we’re trying to tell folks how to grieve. I don’t see how it becomes our right to dictate those terms to anyone, or to critique folks on their grief. It is especially insulting to the families to suggest that this act of forgiveness was “easy” for them; in my experience, it never is easy, especially when it’s done publicly.

    Nowell (with the best of intentions, I’m sure) seems to be equating forgiveness with absolution. She suggests that Black rage and Black forgiveness are polar opposites, and that the assumption by a White-dominant society that forgiveness absolves acts of racism should dictate how Black folks forgive. As a Black man and a follower of Christ, that offends me. For me, forgiving is about my relationship with God, and it is an act that doesn’t rely on other people (especially White folks) understanding why I do it for it to be valid or effective. It is also not a single act. I’ve been the victim of racism years ago, and I’m still forgiving that person. I’m not weak, and my act of forgiveness didn’t preclude me from being angry or seeking justice or using the legal system; it just meant that when I had the choice to let the pain and anger swallow me up, or surrender that pain to God so that I could continue to be functional, I chose the latter.

  22. Anon in California says:

    The statements of forgiveness offered are so distinctively Jesus shaped that I wept when I heard the words of my brothers and sisters – love and truth offered through devastating pain. I wonder if I could I do the same thing myself?

    Generally the reaction of the Charleston area – love and unity and support – has impressed me. But anecdotally it has dismayed my more political oriented friends. The subtext I hear in such conversations as this is “But this was such a good opportunity to blame white America and advance my political aims… wasted on forgiveness and love.”

    Ah foolish Jesus who wasted a good opportunity to call out the oppressive systems of the day by saying (prematurely) on the cross “Forgive them, for they know not what they do!”

    • I anticipated this statement. Yes, Jesus offered forgiveness when the authorities directed their wrath at him personally. But what did he have to say about the oppression the Jewish leaders exercised over the common people, the ones he loved? Matthew 23 doesn’t have many words of forgiveness for them.

      • Anon in California says:

        I’m not in a million years saying anger at injustice is un-christian. Or to put it in positive terms: part of the Christian witness is exposing injustice and standing against it.

        Nor am I demanding anybody react in a particular way to tragedy. I take your point about different ways of processing grief to heart and I would never demand of somebody “Express forgiveness! Right now!”

        Which I think is the point. The author you linked to describes the “demand” for forgiveness and I don’t see it. I see people *shocked* by the forgiveness offered – it didn’t even occur to them that it could be! And I hear people – not just this author – whose first concern is the political shape of things disappointed by this forgiveness. There is a certain sense of “buuuut you’re letting them off the hook! We could have USED this!”

        To some people white racism and systems of power are much more important than fictional religious concepts like grace. From that vantage point it makes sense to be disappointed that grace was offered when the victims could have focused on more important matters (even if we must say so very tactfully due to the suffering of the victims).

        But how should *Christian* folks respond when we see our brothers and sisters made the victims of evil yet outrageously offering Gospel grace in the face of tragedy? Is this it?

        • Good comment, Anon.

          This has been one of the most vibrant and thoughtful discussions we’ve had here in some time. I appreciate that we all agree on one thing: forgiveness is not a simple matter.

  23. Rick Ro. says:

    Hmm…it’s easy to make forgiveness your last word when it’s your dying word (see Jesus, Stephen). It CAN’T be your last word when you’re going to go on living and the life taken isn’t your own but the life of a loved one. I would never criticize someone who somehow manages to forgive sooner than later.

  24. Somehow the author seems offended and diminished in her abilities and freedoms to express herself fully because ot the way some have chosen to express their grief. Somehow the quick expression of forgiveness has cheapened the whole thing for her. Why should it ?? Who exactly is telling her that her response MUST be just as theirs, and on their timetable ?? She answers none of these questions, as far as I can tell, in her article.

    Among the many flaws in her article: “white america needs to EARN (my caps) our forgiveness, as we learn to practice self-preservation.” Not how it works, Ms. patton, this is not biblical forgiveness, it’s her brand.

  25. On a different but related note, Americans l-o-v-e their sentimentality. Without implying anything about the what the victims have said, you can already hear responses to the words of forgiveness that are commending it with a cheap, Hallmark sentimentalism. It’s really unhelpful. I dread the moment when the Facebook memes about it start appearing. To go through real victimization and forgiveness is anything but a sentimental process.

  26. Clay Crouch says:

    Far be it from me, a 58 year old white, middle class, southern male, to tell another human being what to feel and how to respond to something as heinous as murder committed in the name of race.

  27. Frankly, I’m suspicious of any question that presumes “legitimate” “Christian” responses.

  28. Christiane says:

    grace . . . it has a life of its own

    we may start out ‘faking it’ that we forgive, but what that does is that, even in our acting without sincerity,
    we have opened a portal for a grace that recognizes that in ‘faking it’, a part of us wished for our action to be real even if we can’t summon the ‘grace’ on our own . . .

    in short, the willingness for it to appear ‘real’ carries with it a genuine hope for a healing that would come anyway . . . and that hope is all God needs to act on our behalf, to make up the vast difference between our inability and His power to heal . . .

    an example of this comes from a story told by Corrie ten Boom of meeting her old concentration camp guard after the War, and he heard her speak, and came up and begged her forgiveness for his evil treatment of her and her sister Betsey, who died in that camp:

    ““Even as the angry vengeful thoughts boiled through me, I saw the sin of them.
    Jesus Christ had died for this man; was I going to ask for more? Lord Jesus, I prayed, forgive me and help me to forgive him….Jesus, I cannot forgive him. Give me your forgiveness….And so I discovered that it is not on our forgiveness any more than on our goodness that the world’s healing hinges, but on His. When He tells us to love our enemies, He gives along with the command, the love itself.” ( Corrie ten Boom, The Hiding Place )

    Out of suffering, we find ‘grace’ emerging. Why question it? God uses our weakness in the ways we cannot understand, as long as we hold within us a hope for good to come. I would let it be.

  29. Somehow in all this, Roof seems to have been made a representative for the whole of white America. I object. There is ingrained racism that must be dealt with, but laying this act of insanity and evil at the feet of “whites” is just plain wrong. I’m no psychologist, but isn’t it possible that racism was the excuse and not the reason for this killing?

    • Jim, I think you have a good grasp of this, tho you won’t score points with those pushing agendas. Roof was a troubled child, dysfunctional and inept, and it only got worse as he got older. If this was a hate crime, the hatred was probably of himself most of all, and that is not easily dealt with. He was not comfortable making friends, but such as they were, many were black. He does not appear to be the target of racial animosity tho much of his young life was lived as a minority amongst a predominantly black community. I’m guessing that his family is suffering their own share of pain and grief along with the families of the dead. The bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America reports he was apparently connected with that church body, which hit home with me and perhaps others here. I doubt if we will ever know the full story but it is not a happy one for anyone involved. God bless us all.

      • Robert F says:

        I don’t think it’s unheard of for underprivileged white youth, full of resentment, frustration and self-hatred, to have their bitterness and anger with their own situation channeled against black people by racist ideologies. I think this is the usual way that racist ideologues and ideologies cultivate and exploit the grievances of one ethnic community against another, here in the US and around the world, now and throughout history. Close familiarity with the “target” community in no way precludes it from becoming the scape-goat of those manipulated into this kind of racist mentality. The most obvious example is how many Christian Europeans turned against their Jewish neighbors and friends under the influence of racist Nazi ideology. Racist ideology and self-loathing go hand in hand.

        • Robert F says:

          In Roof’s case, he may have been exposed to racist/white supremacist ideologies that told him that the reason he couldn’t find a girlfriend was because “they are raping our women”; and the reason he couldn’t get a decent job was because “they are getting all the jobs we should be getting”. Admittedly, this is speculation, because I don’t know the facts in this particular case, but this is the way it works with racism and hate crimes. Troubled, dysfunctional and inept young men are the life’s blood of white supremacists and neo-Nazis.

  30. THANK YOU Marcus Johnson, for your post above. Best thing I saw written in this thread, and a much better view of forgiveness than what I read from Patton. Nice work.