There is a deep anger and sadness that has engulfed the United States, especially among black Americans, in the wake of the massacre at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina, where 21-year-old white racist Dylann Roof killed nine people. I too share in that anger and sadness. Within this anger and sadness, however, some of the families of the victims found the strength to forgive Dylann Roof. One by one the families addressed the killer in a Charleston courtroom advancing forgiveness and the Lord’s mercy to the killer.
These acts of forgiveness, did not come without controversy. As there are many who celebrated the victims’ families act of extending forgiveness, and view it as a noble deed, the act has also spawned a firestorm of negative response among many. Many black Americans, for example, believe that Dylann Roof does not deserve the dignity of forgiveness, especially in light of where his motivation to commit this horrible act came. There is a zeitgeist of hatred and racism that is directed against black and brown bodies, embedded in the conscious of White America, which has and continues to inform the worldview of many. Others argue that the wound is much too fresh to offer forgiveness. Forgiveness, they argue, is a process, not simply an utterance.
Should Dylann Roof be forgiven is the question? Answering this question is not an easy task. I don’t know what the victims’ family meant when they utter the words “I forgive you” to Dylann Roof. And I maintain that people who oppose their act, themselves don’t know that either. The concept of forgiveness is a complex one. Does saying “I forgive you,” means that I forgive in the same sense as saying that “I promise.” As it is understood, saying that ‘I promise,” means just that. “I promise.” Saying that “I forgive you” however does not mean to literally forgive. This is not the context in which saying “I forgive you” is understood. Thus, the answer to the question above can only be answered within the understanding of these two questions. What is meant by forgiveness? And what is the context in which the victims’ family meant to employ it?
The act of forgiving can be either unilateral, which means that only one person is engaged in the act of acknowledging that the deed committed was indeed wrong, usually the victim, or it can be bilateral, which is grounded in the act whereby the wrongdoer acknowledges the wrongdoing and both victim and wrongdoer accepting that the deed was wrong. It is important to understand that the forgiveness given by the victims’ families to Dylann Roof is not bilateral. That is, Dylann Roof gives no acknowledgement of his wrongdoing. Thus, their forgiveness is unilateral. This then means that the victims’ forgiveness to Dylann Roof is their emotional response to the harm inflicted upon them. It is basically a shift in the victims’ thinking towards the person who has done them wrong. It is a shift in the mind such that the victims’ desire to take revenge or cause harm is decreased and the desire to act in a good manner is increase. It is in essence the desire to let go of ill-will against the wrongdoer. This concept of forgiveness is considered to be the “therapeutic” concept of forgiveness.
For me, thinking of forgiveness within this context means that the act of forgiving Dylann Roof is appropriate. Within this context, forgiveness does not mean minimizing justice nor does it means excusing the wrongdoer’s action. Instead, it points to the victims coming to term with the pain and suffering experienced at the moment. Forgiveness in this sense is essential to the healing process, and is meant not for the wrongdoer, but for the victims themselves.
Is this what the victims’ families meant by their act of forgiveness? There is a part of me that believes this to be the case. However, there is but another concept of forgiveness that must be considered here. I must deal with the reality of the Christian theological worldview of the victims’ family. Is their meaning of forgiveness understood within the Christian theological context? If this is the case, then I am on the other side of the debate. Let me explain.
Forgiveness within the Christian understanding is associated with the death of Christ, and implies giving the wrongdoer a fresh start. That is, Christ offered humanity everlasting forgiveness in the act of his self-sacrifice: Dying on the cross for our sin. Jesus then became the example per-excellence to follow. This means that as a Christian, you are obligated to forgive. “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, you Father will not forgive your sins,” Matthew 6: 14-15, NIV. In other words, if you are a Christian, not forgiving is to miss the mark.
There is a troubling aspect to the Christian understanding to forgiveness, and it is this troubling aspect, I believe, renders it not applicable to moral repair. As a Christian, what does it mean to say that God has forgiven someone? According to Christian doctrine, it means that by dying on the cross for our sin, God has absolved the sin of the sinner, never again to be associated with it. In essence, we are given a new start. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more,” Hebrew 8:12, NIV. This is what Christianity’s forgiveness encompasses as demanded in Matthew 6:14-15.
Thus, like God forgave us, never to remember our sins again, in like manner we must forgive. That is, from a Christian perspective, forgiveness is absolving the wrongdoer from blame, placing the event in God’s hands and moving on. It is returning to God the right to take care of justice. This, I believe, is not viable. To achieve real moral repair, the matter of human justice must remain in the hand of human beings, and not placed into the realm of the supernatural.
Within both these contexts of forgiving, is the goal of overcoming resentment and anger: Overcoming the urge to take revenge. This is, in my view, a good thing, despite my urge to call bullshit on that, as it concerns with this tragedy. There is the part of me that is saying we must remain angry. The fact is that black and brown people have been forgiving those who have wronged us as along as we can remember, yet there remains a zeitgeist of racism and bigotry in the United States, that not only informs many White Americans’ worldview, but has also become embedded within laws and policies of the country. Like the individual Dylann Roof, White America, as a whole, has not acknowledged its acts of wrongdoing against black and brown bodies. In this sense, White America has not provided Black America any reason to forgive. Why is there then an expectation of Black America to forgive? Why shouldn’t we not be angry?
Forgiveness is indeed a necessary aspect of moral repair, and should be present as the victims go through the healing process. I believe that therapeutic forgiveness is the forgiveness the victims’ families in the Charleston church massacre should pursue. As is mention above, the essence of therapeutic forgiveness seeks not to minimize justice nor absolves the wrongdoer of his or her wrong, but instead provide the victim with a venue to deal with the pain and suffering. On the other hand, despite the Christian’s concept of forgiveness seeks to provide the victims with a therapeutic outlet, this concept takes human justice away from human beings, absolves the wrongdoer of the wrongdoing, and extends a fresh start to the wrongdoer.