As an African American, the act of forgiveness appears to be our immediate go-to place in the face of unimaginable racial honor done to us. Black Christians give away forgiveness like it’s confetti, and white Trump evangelicals give it away sparingly, if at all.
While forgiveness – in religious or non-religious contexts – is foundational to growth, healing, and restorative justice, there are various ways in which we use it in our lives and society. Either it can enhance healing and create positive change, or it can cause tremendous harm by maintaining the status quo.
We also must know that there is a distinction between individual forgiveness and institutional forgiveness.
Take Botham Jean’s murder in his own apartment at the hands of (now former) Dallas police officer Amber Guyger. Botham’s younger brother, Brandt Jean, took the witness stand at her sentencing hearing and spoke directly to Guyger, stating, “I know if you go to God and ask him, he will forgive you,” and then hugged her before she was led off to prison. He could never have fathomed the social conflagration he would ignite from offering forgiveness – and a hug – for his brother’s killer.
“I love you just like anyone else, and I’m not going to hope you rot and die,” Brandt told Guyger in the courtroom. “I want the best for you because I know that’s exactly what Botham would want for you. I think giving your life to Christ is the best thing Botham would want for you.”
Some saw Brandt’s action as demeaning and dismissive of Botham’s murder, especially in light of the numerous unarmed Black males killed at the hands of white officers across the country. Many queried, if the roles were reversed, would Guyger’s white family do similarly for a Black murderer. Others contested that Brandt’s actions were that of a good Christian the racial implications were not the point. Brandt’s efforts have been compared and lauded to that of the parishioners of “Mother” Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC, who forgave white supremacist assassin Dylann Roof after he committed a mass shooting there, ending the lives of 9 worshippers. Roof’s motive was the start another civil war.
This is an example of individual forgiveness. I understood Brandt’s act of forgiveness as healing himself and honoring his brother. Forgiveness, in this instance, is a gift you give yourself for healing. It’s a feeling of inner peace, and a renewed relationship with self.
On the other hand, Judge Tammy Kemp giving Guyger a hug and her personal Bible before Guyger began her prison sentence, I found unforgivable. Kemp turned to the scripture John 3:16 and told Guyger, “This is where you start. He has a purpose for you.”
Kemp’s actions are an example of offering institutional forgiveness, acting as a magistrate on behalf of both God and the state of Texas. As a guarantor of justice, Kemp represents the laws and values of our American court system. Kemp collapsed the separation of church and state in her courtroom by giving Guyger a Bible, further devaluing a flawed judicial system that already disproportionately and unfairly treats Black and Brown lives trafficked through it.
Many felt Kemp, who is African American, should have known better in this era of Black Lives Matter. The appearance of absolving a white officer is akin to Kemp siding with the country’s culture of policing. Forgiveness is one of the essential tenets that runs deep in the theology, prayers, and songs of Black Christianity. In the face of continued racial violence done to us, I now must question if our religion’s teachings of forgiveness over the last centuries are serving society well in the present day, particularly with the resurgence of white nationalism.
When families of the Emanuel church victims stood in court in 2015 and stated, one-by-one, that they forgive Dylann because their religion advises them to do so, the nation was in awe. In awe, too, Roof’s family said, “We have all been touched by the moving words from the victims’ families offering God’s forgiveness and love in the face of such horrible suffering.”
However, four years later, family members of the victims are still struggling. Jennifer Berry Hawes captures their struggle in this year’s book, Grace Will Lead Us Home: The Charleston Church Massacre and the Hard Inspiring Journey to Forgiveness. Hawes questions the moral mandate of expressing forgiveness by black people as deriving from dominant and racist ideologies that serve the ruling class. “So when one has been irreparably and tragically wronged by another, it bears asking: Who benefits from my forgiveness, and what does being the better person have to do with my loss?” she states.
The expectation of forgiveness is quickly drawn along marginal lines within religion, race, class, gender, and sexuality. Within these marginal groups, too often, their learned theologies within the praxis of forgiveness prevent people from fully recognizing pain and suffering, individually or collectively. Consider this, in addition to the lingering effects of trauma, grief, and even rage that come from marginalization.
Embracing the Christian belief of redemptive suffering symbolizes the mettle of one individual’s personal strength. Offering absolution is a personal matter. However, as one whose identity intersects several marginal groups – Black, female, lesbian – I must also raise Hawes’ question: “Who benefits from my forgiveness?”
I no longer allow my Christian indoctrination to cause me to automatically forgive, without self-interrogation of why I should. I must remember, while Christianity is not a toxic religion, the form of Christianity taught to my ancestors was not to make us better Christians but rather better slaves. I now make the distinction between blind obedience versus reasoned faith.