Forgiveness is an important virtue in many religious theologies. And not just religious theologies, but cultures, communities, and individuals across time and space, have long-prized this virtue we call “forgiveness.” In the lay sense, I would define forgiveness as absolving a wrongdoer from offenses committed.
I grew up and am a practicing Catholic; an African Catholic no less, whose parents instilled not just the values of faith, but the intellectual understanding and reasoning behind a lot of theology. That is to say, faith is not something I approach without “reason,” and the two were never considered oppositional values in my upbringing. They often worked alongside each other, and in my life, they still do.
Indeed, my understanding of forgiveness largely centers on a Christian-Catholic context – seeking the sacrament of reconciliation. Or what many simply know as, “confessing sins to a priest.” I will refrain from explaining too many theological lessons. But do understand that the priest is not the person to whom we confess, but rather the person through whom we confess; confessions are for us, but they are always to God.
Reconciliation is something I imagine as different from lay forgiveness. It allows the Christian, the Catholic, to be closer to God. Because when the confession is true and honest and meaningful, reconciliation is not just asking for forgiveness for one’s offenses, it is a commitment to change for the better. Forgiveness, in the lay sense, doesn’t always seem to require expectations of change.
Consider how often and how quickly in the face of heightened awareness of racism and discrimination in interactions with institutions in the United States – most notably the police institution – Black American communities across the country are expected to simply and always forgive. I cannot think of a recent case where family members of the deceased who had endured racial individual and/or institutional violence, were not asked within mere days of the incident, if they would forgive the perpetrator(s).
And when Black people don’t forgive immediately or outrightly – as was the case with Michael Brown’s mother who called officer Darren Wilson who killed her son, the devil, or the mother of Sandra Bland who says she is ready for war – it raises the old, White American fear that Black people will one day seek revenge for transgressions past. Indeed, is there anything scarier to Whiteness in the American imagination than an angry Black person (seeking retribution and/or justice)?
The preferred response to Black pain, is silence, meekness, and of course, forgiveness. We saw this as a nation when the families of those who were massacred by Dylann Roof expressed their forgiveness within days. But this event of forgiveness made me entirely uncomfortable. I will never be in the position to tell others how to go about their faith. And as a Christian, I understand the impetus to forgive.
But within the racial contexts of the United States, within the framework and culture this massacre took place, and in consideration of the variables – a young, White man with twisted views on race and reality, the assault on the Black church, Black victims of a crime of racial hatred, etc., I cannot say that I was part of the (often White) observers who lauded the community’s immediate forgiveness. I say this, with my Catholic-Christian values not too far away from my heart and my reasoning.
Black people are expected to forgive, and not just to forgive, but to forget. Forgive and forget slavery. Forgive and forget Jim Crow laws. Forgive and forget the institutional racism that was created and still persists. Forgive and forget the assault on Black bodies throughout history and in the present. Aside from Native Americans, who are oftentimes entirely ignored, there is no other group, I think, of which America demands forgiveness of societal crimes gone unpunished.
Forgetting to me, is entirely out of the question. Forgetting is why many in this culture and throughout the world, live in a(n) (a)historical amnesia in viewing cultural events, and trying to understand why things are the way they are. But even lay forgiveness, for all its importance as a virtue, seems inadequate. It seems to free White fears from Black rage, but demands no changes to the causes of Black rage.
That is to say, there is no reconciliation; there is no commitment to change. Sometimes, there is even no admittance of the need to change. Or there is deliberate ignorance entirely to the wrongdoings committed.
In Catholic practice, to make a good confession, it requires an examination of conscience of the individual. It requires that the individual meditate and reflect on one’s sins. It is absolutely pivotal that before one enters the confessional, they feel true sorrow for their transgressions.
Were a Catholic to go into the confessional, and ask for forgiveness from God, via the priest, knowingly omitting a mortal (grave) sin committed, it would be sacrilege; it would be a bad confession. Were a Catholic to go into confession with no intention to change from one’s ways, it would be a bad confession. While I cannot speak to God’s forgiveness of any human’s soul, the Church would see such a confession as invalid.
Oftentimes White Americans’ confessions – a rare event anyway – of its sordid racial past and persistent institutionalized racist treatment of Black Americans – has been sacrilegious; it has been invalid. And under these conditions, reconciliation cannot be experienced.
In the wake of news that the prosecutors in the Dylann Roof case will be seeking the death penalty, the realities of theological and social virtues such as forgiveness and mercy, are considered and discussed within the context of the American judicial system. A system that is arguably often seen as prizing retribution over justice, much less mercy. Different bodies of course, also matter here.
But does believing that Dylann Roof should not face the death penalty because one does not believe in the justice of the death penalty constitute admission that his crimes are forgiven in the all too familiar American way, where crimes against Black Americans are concerned? I certainly hope not. Because I do believe Roof should face punishment. I just do not believe that punishment should be with his life.
This is not to ask the society or particular communities for forgiveness of Roof’s crimes or the crimes of American racism. I neither have the power nor the desire to do such a thing. It is rather to advocate for the possibility of societal reconciliation, a reconciliation which brings about a manifestation in institutions and individuals the evidence that Black lives, do in fact, matter.
For this to happen, America needs to go into the confessional, and it needs to make a good confession.