Forgiveness. After the horror of last week’s massacre at Emanuel AME Church in Charlotte, many were moved, comforted, and inspired by the expressions of forgiveness offered by the families of the dead toward the shooter. It was a powerful statement indeed, at a time when there seems to be very little grace and very little forgiveness in our culture at large. However, as with so many things involving race in this country, this “forgiveness event” was not unambiguous. An African American colleague of mine, the Rev. Dr. Maurice Charles, wrote, in a post called “Costly Forgiveness vs. Cheap Grace,” that “the readiness to laud forgiveness too early and too often horrifies me.” For people with “their backs against the wall” (according to Howard Thurman, those who live under the constant threat of violence), speedy forgiveness is one way of keeping one’s soul from a state of constant rage. Maurice says it so well: they are “faced with the hellish choice of lashing out in a destructive rage or freeing themselves from the power of hell by reaching into their ravaged souls and finding there a shred of forgiveness.”
Another article, written by Kiese Laymon, talks about hard conversations with his grandmother about the habit of forgiving white folks and the shame that black folks internalize. Roxane Gray, in her article, “Why I Can’t Forgive Dylann Roof,” echoes my friend Maurice, “Black people forgive because we need to survive.” Still others have written about the forgiveness offered by black people to white people that they cannot afford to offer to their own. (Please read the articles linked below. They speak much more eloquently and poignantly than I ever could.)
As I wrote in my response to John’s post about Karma, I believe in Grace. I depend on Grace. To coin a line from one of my student’s sermons, grace isn’t a get-out-of-sin-free card. Well, OK, it is, but it’s mostly a fundamental freedom from fear of condemnation in order to be able truly and courageously face down our demons, name our sins, recognize our complicities. Grace enables us to consider that we can be different, that we can, as the Prayer Book says, amend our lives.
As someone who survived two decades in an abusive marriage, the question of forgiveness has haunted me. The horrible phrase, “forgive and forget” (where did that even come from? It’s not in the Bible!) gave—and still gives—me the willies. I cannot forget that my ex-husband is occasionally and unpredictably violent; I make sure never to be alone with him. There is the quote, sometimes attributed to Anne Lamott, that says that not forgiving is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die. And yet, I wonder whether we white folks, in our rush to embrace this public act of forgiveness—black people forgiving a white person other than ourselves—are closing off the space for something equally Biblical: righteous anger.
There is an aspect of forgiveness that is about freeing myself from being destructively bound to a person who has offended or hurt me, but anger can do that as well. It was anger—anger taking the place of fear, and self-doubt, and self-recrimination—that helped me take the steps—slow, costly steps—to leave my first marriage. It was anger—anger that sometimes needed to be more for the sake of my children than for myself—that convinced me that it was misplaced compassion that kept me tied to a wounded, traumatised man. I do not hate my first husband, nor do I wish him ill. He is a generous, hard-working, justice-loving man who was damaged by a dysfunctional family and an oppressive government, a man who, most days, tries his best to make the world a little better. But my life is better, healthier, and freer without him. That didn’t happen through forgiveness. It happened through anger and a fierce realization that I had to take a stand for my children and for me.
The African-American folks in my life—my friends and colleagues, my children’s friends—do not, I assume, hate me, nor wish me ill. (And that assumption alone speaks volumes about white privilege.) I’m friendly and hospitable, and our racist history is, as we whites are wont to say, not my fault. But I have never had anyone cross the street when they saw me coming. I have never worried for myself or my children in an encounter with a police officer—or anyone else with a gun. I have never had anyone question my professional credentials for the color of my skin. I have never suffered the other myriad indignities and outright offenses and exclusions that they experience every day, that don’t make headlines, and with which they simply deal. Am I willing to hear their anger? Am I willing to allow (oh, that word makes me uncomfortable, even as I type it) them to take a stand for their own children—or for their own selves? Am I willing to be unforgiven, at least for a while, so that anger can speak its truth?
This is not what I intended to write. I meant to write about my thoughts on forgiveness in general and as a Christian practice, which clearly must wait for another day. I am grateful for my friend Maurice, and Kiese and Roxane, whom I do not know, for giving me a path to understand better, both my own journey toward freedom and the long, hard, not-yet-over journey for African Americans struggling to stay sane, and true, and alive. Forgiveness is, indeed, what Jesus commanded (and I’ll get to that in some other post), and a path to freedom. But anger, and its sister, fierce truth-telling, are another, just as biblical path.
Here are the articles I cited: “Costly Forgiveness vs. Cheap Grace”: http://pressedbutnotcrushed.com/imago/costly-forgiveness-vs-cheap-grace
“Black churches taught us to forgive white people. We learned to shame ourselves” http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jun/23/black-churchesforgive-white-people-shame?CMP=share_btn_fb
“Why I Can’t Forgive Dylann Roof” http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/24/opinion/why-i-cant-forgive-dylann-roof.html?_r=0
Here’s another, very clear and straightforward unpacking of these questions:
“Not Off the Hook: The White Myth of Black Forgiveness” http://the-toast.net/2015/06/23/misunderstanding-black-forgiveness/