The world witnessed an astonishing display of forgiveness in Charleston last week.
Relatives of those gunned down by Dylann Roof got a chance to confront the terrorist who ripped a gaping hole in their lives. According to the Washington Post:
One by one, those who chose to speak at a bond hearing did not turn to anger. Instead, while [Roof] remained impassive, they offered him forgiveness and said they were praying for his soul, even as they described the pain of their losses.
It was a powerful, breathtaking sight. I affirm their right to forgive. I am, quite simply, awestruck by it. Someday I’d like to ask them if they could teach me how to be a Christian, because they clearly understand the way of Jesus much better than I do.
But let’s not all pile on the “forgive Dylann Roof” bandwagon yet. Some of us—most of us—have no place there. Specifically, if you are white like me.
It’s not my place to forgive Dylann Roof, for one exceedingly obvious reason: I am not one of his victims.
It’s not my place to tell others—least of all members of the black community—they should forgive Roof either. I haven’t experienced anything remotely like what they’ve experienced.
I have no idea what it’s like to live in fear because of the color of my skin. I don’t know what it’s like to be profiled, targeted, stereotyped, harassed, and threatened on a daily basis. Me and my ancestors have not had to spend our entire history “literally dying to be human,” as Carvell Wallace put it.
The choice to forgive an oppressor is the victim’s alone.
Forgiveness is central to the Christian experience—our salvation would not be possible without it. But it is not for the oppressor to dictate terms of forgiveness to the oppressed.
And let’s be honest: on the continuum from “oppressor” to “victim,” I am much closer to the former than the latter. I may not be Dylann Roof. I may despise racism. I may sign a petition to take down the Confederate flag. But every day I benefit from a system that privileges whiteness.
Perhaps the real reason it’s so tempting to join what Broderick Greer called the “white Christian rush to forgiveness” is because it lets me off the hook a little too easily. After all, if Dylann Roof can be forgiven for what he did—and he’s not even sorry!—then maybe I don’t have to feel so bad about my white privilege, my racial bias, and my failure to fully confront them. The rush to forgive Dylann Roof blinds me to the lesions of white supremacy that scar my own soul.
Finally, it’s not my place to forgive Dylann Roof (or tell others to) because by doing so, I risk misappropriating the very notion of forgiveness.
That’s what I learned from this eye-opening conversation between Mallory Ortberg and Carvell Wallace. (Warning: there’s strong language in the full piece, but frankly, if that’s what troubles you, then we need to have a chat about priorities.)
Many of us see forgiveness as closure, as the end of a story. Once forgiveness is offered, we can all go back to our lives. To quote Ortberg:
In the broad Christian context I grew up in, saying “I forgive you” was generally understood to be a complete act. You forgave someone when you were DONE wrestling through what they had done to you. And it meant that you were, if not over it completely, at a certain amount of peace, and that things were, generally speaking, “okay.”
That’s a problem, because forgiving Dylann Roof does nothing to address the systemic racism that poisoned his soul—and to some degree poisons mine as well. It does nothing to dismantle the structures designed to keep black people “in their place.”
Forgiveness may be followed by a renewed effort to combat racism. But forgiveness does NOT make the fight against racism unnecessary.
A lot of people forget that forgiveness of racists among black people is something that WE DO IN ORDER TO KEEP OUR SOULS INTACT… We have to forgive the sinner because the accumulated resentment could destroy us, but that will never mean that we don’t fight tooth and nail against the sin.
It’s nothing to do with the offender and it’s not about granting a pass to anyone. It’s more about clearing your heart of hate SPECIFICALLY SO YOU CAN CONTINUE TO FIGHT.
America has a long history of raping, robbing, enslaving and killing people and then urging those same people to find and express forgiveness and peace. So when I hear “pray for peace” from a white person in the hours after Charleston, it lands very, very wrong.
I do not forgive Dylann Roof. Nor will I ask anyone else to. Rather, my responsibility is to find and name the unseen prejudice lurking in my own heart—to repent and seek forgiveness for the ways I have contributed, intentionally or otherwise, to an oppressive system.
Image: #StandWithCharleston by All-Nite Images on Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0