When the relatives and friends of those Dylann Roof killed in Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church offered him forgiveness, many, especially Christian leaders, applauded their selfless virtue. Others, however, were more skeptical, not necessarily of the forgiveness extended, but rather the forgiveness expected by the public.
“Why is it that the parents of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Jordan Davis, and the widow of Eric Garner were all asked in interviews if they’d forgive the white men who killed their loved one?” one person asked. “After 9/11, there was no talk about forgiving al-Qaeda, Saddam Hussein, or Osama bin Laden.”
Some wondered if the public, particularly white America, is obsessed with forgiveness because we want absolution. We want to be able to say, “What a beautiful ending,” and move on with this story without examining our own complicity in racism.
Forgiveness should not be “cheap grace”
Michael Wear does an excellent job unpacking why it is hugely problematic when critics “explain away” black Christian forgiveness as merely the product of white supremacy.
But it seems that the fairest critics aim their arguments not at the actual act of forgiveness by the relatives of the victims, but at the public discourse around it, which seems to dilute forgiveness into what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace,” which is “the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession . . . grace without the cross.”
These criticisms are cause for all of us who liked, shared, or re-tweeted stories of the forgiveness of Roof to pause and examine our motives.
Part of what triggers this difference in reaction is a clash in discourse. The discourse of social justice activism today is largely in terms of systems and structures. In this discourse, you care about fairness and “equality” in “power,” about who is “marginalized” and who is at the “center” — you want justice.
The discourse of mainstream Christianity tends to be in terms of individual hearts and minds, which means a gravitation toward words like “love,” “compassion,” and “forgiveness.”
Forgiveness cannot be decoupled from hard justice work
For Christians, our ideal world is not one in which we are all equal in power and leave each other alone to mind our own business. It is, rather, one in which we are fully reconciled to one another in heart and mind. (Think of how churches or Christian organizations tend to hold “racial reconciliation” events, as opposed to “racial justice” events.)
It is a vision that includes structural justice, but goes a step further towards relational “wholeness” between all things — humans, the environment, animals, and God.
Oftentimes, however, some Christians jump straight to the relational plane and immediately call for “reconciliation” and “forgiveness,” stepping over the deep and hard work that needs to be done to actually enact justice and accountability on an individual and systemic level, without which full reconciliation is impossible.
A year ago, I attended an event on racial reconciliation at New Life Fellowship Church in Queens — what follows is a rough recounting from my fading memories.
The panelists recounted “racial reconciliation groups” that they experienced where whites and people of color gathered together to learn to “love and understand” one another. Whenever someone of color began talking about systemic factors that marginalize people of color, the white participants would say, “Oh, we’re not here for that kind of talk. We are here to love one another.”
One of the panelists, an African-American woman, wondered, “Is racial reconciliation then just about having a black friend? If so, then you can’t be friends with me until you know my people’s history and understand why the present is the way it is.” Another panelist, a Latino pastor, said to the crowd, “If you want to love me, then march with me on immigration issues.”
Forgiveness is not a great ending
If we read about how Roof was offered forgiveness and think, “What a great ending to this story,” then we have made a grievous mistake in many ways.
First, we separate the individual from the system. We confine the shootings to an event that happened between Roof and his victims and neglect to reflect upon the ways in which we participate, even if passively, in the stereotypes, values and power-structures of racism.
Second, we misconstrue the very nature of our salvation. When Christ forgives us, and we accept it, his merciful act begins a new life — and not just a new individual life, but a new world and social order. For Christ came not just to offer a renewed “personal relationship with God,” but also to redeem systems and structures. He came to offer not a forgiveness that leads to a passive acceptance, but one that leads to repentance. A repentance buoyed by hope in the Spirit’s transformative power.
So while much of the media has yet to fully understand the religious motivation behind the forgiveness of Dylan Roof, we Christians have to get right what happened in Charleston — for the sake of the victims, for the sake of our society, and for the sake of our salvation.
The opinions expressed in this piece belong to the author.
Image courtesy of The All-Nite Images.