The goodness of the Black heart | #WhiteSupremacy and #Forgiveness on Blog#42

I’ve been following, with great interest, the debates that followed a grieving woman’s forgiveness in a courtroom in Charleston, South Carolina.

“I forgive you,” Nadine Collier, the daughter of 70-year-old Ethel Lance, said at the hearing, her voice breaking with emotion. “You took something very precious from me. I will never talk to her again. I will never, ever hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.”

Ms. Collier and members of the other families who spoke up forgave a young man whose unspeakable acts, borne out of white supremacist hatred, caused them horrific losses. They forgave him even before he expressed any remorse or asked for their forgiveness. They forgave a man who is just starting out in the system of justice by which he will be judged for his crimes.

In this day and age, is forgiveness virtuous or does it clash with progress? Some well-known public intellectuals asked precisely this question in social media:

Why forgive?  How? A serious discussion cannot be had without taking, at least, a very foreshortened tour of the history of African American religious thought:

From C. Eric Lincoln’s essay, The Racial Factor in the Shaping of Religion in America:

The Great Awakening

So, what is it about this tradition of forgiveness that these grieving relatives felt compelled to bestow such a gift? Professor Anthea Butler offers her insight in The Guardian:

These slave narratives in the 19th century were designed to put forth messages of Christian love and mercy, even in the face of the masters’ violence and cruelty. For many slaves and subsequent free black people, forgiveness was also a way to protect themselves from continued racial violence. A well placed “I forgive you” served as protection for vulnerable African Americans in a violent racist environment by calling out to oppressor and oppressed’s shared religious faith.

In the 20th Century, the non-violent “soul force” that Martin Luther King Jr taught was a combination of Hinduism and Christianity. Forgiveness became a big part of the civil rights movement, juxtaposed against the violence of protesters and law enforcement. King described forgiveness in one of his early sermons as a pardon, a process of life and the Christian weapon of social redemption. In MLK’s

  • Pearl’s Mom

    This a powerful essay, Rima. And it has left me pondering the “true” meaning of forgiveness. It is so differently understood across cultures. We had a wise pastor once who spoke on the subject, and he made the point that forgiveness does not contravene justice. Forgiveness does not absolve the forgiven, and justice should prevail.

  • Andy Lee Parker

    This is one of the best essays I’ve ever read. Thank you for linking it on Twitter. “White consciousness – such a thing exists – has no outlet, no avenue or infrastructure through which it might fulfill its desire to join Blacks in making the fundamental changes our society needs and finally address America’s original sin”. A brilliant observation, succinctly stated. I’d only add that a system of socioeconomic punishment is in place to discourage the building of such infrastructure. However, it must be built, based on acknowledgment of truth, before true progress is possible.

  • Very thought-provoking, to be sure. One thing: Forgiveness isn’t for the perpetrator of crimes, it is for the person who was wronged. In Christian theology, holding on to the anger in a situation is worse for the one who was wronged than for the perpetrator. Ruminating upon it can cause bitterness, and progress does not come out of bitterness. Forgiveness is an individual thing, and must be done voluntarily. No one can forgive someone who hasn’t wronged them. The power of forgiveness comes from the person who was wronged. That said, forgiveness does not preclude consequences or punishment. Forgiveness is a personal journey that one can only make for one’s self. Forgiveness transcends color, or age or sex. But it definitely requires an act of will on the part of one who was wronged. Not all forgive and there’s nothing wrong with that. But regardless of how the perpetrator behaves, forgiveness is for the persecuted. Strong or weak, it doesn’t matter. And it doesn’t make someone impotent if they choose to forgive. It is the bigger person who is able to do so.

    • Not sure why my piece elicited that response… As I point out, forgiveness is something the major religions all address, pretty much in a uniform way. The practice, itself, is also pretty much the same across peoples and religions, except when it comes to African Americans, in given situations.

      That is what I explored here.

  • bocciball

    Forgiveness can be one of the most powerful forces to heal our hearts and pain. That doesn’t mean we should forget or gloss-over horrific acts like these. But healing our own hearts is necessary to be able to continue forward in life, and that’s what forgiveness represents. (David Bee)

    • David,

      There is no question that forgiveness is important in the healing process. The point of my piece was to review the history of religion and, by extension, forgiveness in African American communities and an exploration of its place in culture and political life as it developed, through to the present day.

      It is neither a critique or criticism of forgiveness as African Americans practice it, as much as an attempt to understand it from a different cultural viewpoint.

      That said, there is a not insignificant number of prominent and not-so prominent African Americans who are questioning that kind of forgiveness so soon after such a horrendous attack. I tried to account for their feelings and views in my piece, as well as the political and social ramifications in the present day, under the present regression in race relations.

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