THR Web Features   /   June 25, 2015

The Incomprehensible Witness of Forgiveness

John D. Inazu

Flowers and memorials outside Emanuel A.M.E. Church, Charleston, South Carolina, June 20, 2015 (cropped); jalexartis via flickr

“You took something very precious from me, but I forgive you.”

Last week, the family members of those massacred in Charleston bore witness to their faith through the incredible act of forgiving the perpetrator. The ensuing days have brought a spate of commentary that misconstrues their acts and questions their agency. Pundits, of course, have gone out of their way to avoid directly impugning the family members. They have focused instead on the media, the narrative, white people, racism, religious traditions, and religious groups. Roxane Gay comes closest to critiquing the act of forgiveness itself: “There are some acts that are so terrible that we should recognize them as such. We should recognize them as beyond forgiving.” She, for one, is “done forgiving.”

Gay is still left with a “deep respect” for those who uttered forgiveness. But if forgiveness really merits condemnation or skepticism, then why not focus on those who gave it instead of deflecting, deconstructing, or downplaying their acts? The scandal of forgiveness does not lie with the media or the narrative—it lies with the very nature of Christian forgiveness: “Just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Col 3:13, NRSV). And when Peter asked Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus replied, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times” (Matt. 18:21–22).

Gay speculates that the media attention on forgiveness comes from a desire “to make sense of the incomprehensible.” To the contrary, forgiveness of the kind we have witnessed can only be incomprehensible. Violence has been done and cannot be undone. It has created what the political philosopher Hannah Arendt called the “predicament of irreversibility.” No punishment that awaits the perpetrator, Dylann Roof, will right this wrong or restore “justice.” But forgiveness can cancel an unpayable debt. It is an immeasurable—an incomprehensible—act. It may be the most God-like power we possess.

Forgiveness is not the same as legal accountability, which is a function of the state. That is one difference between the personal acts of forgiveness in Charleston and the state as enforcer of the law. Lawbreakers often harm individuals, but they also incur a debt to society by breaking its laws. In rare instances, the state can absolve that debt through something akin to “legal forgiveness”—a pardon or some other act of leniency. But in most cases, and certainly in this one, the state properly pursues legal accountability.

The family members in Charleston knew this difference between personal forgiveness and legal accountability. When they addressed Roof, they said: “Repent, confess, give your life to the one that matters the most, Christ. So that he can change it, and change your ways no matter what happens to you.” “May God have mercy on you.” “I pray God on your soul and I also thank God that I won’t be around when your judgment day comes with him.”

Nor is forgiveness reconciliation. Reconciliation is only possible when forgiveness meets repentance. And meaningful social change requires the kind of social reconciliation that can only emerge through aggregated instances of both forgiveness and repentance. In South Africa, during the process of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the failure of widespread repentance among whites to match widespread forgiveness among blacks constrained the possibilities for meaningful change. The United States now confronts a similar challenge: Awe-inspiring forgiveness without repentance will not bring reconciliation. Dylann Roof will not be reconciled with the families of his victims absent his repentance. And no matter how many black Americans forgive the unpayable debts owed to them by white Americans, white America will not be reconciled with black America without repentance.

Forgiveness does not displace legal accountability, and forgiveness without repentance does not bring reconciliation. But forgiveness is more than a “discourse” (Xolela Mangcu), a balm for mental and physical health (Matt Schiavenza), or a means of survival (Roxane Gay). It is not simply “noble” and “impressive” (Damon Linker). These well-intentioned efforts to domesticate forgiveness—to make it comprehensible—ultimately fall short. As Michael Wear wrote yesterday in Christianity Today, “the critiques of forgiveness in recent days are strikingly similar to the critiques against nonviolence during the civil rights movement.” Those behind the critiques—then and now—have “misunderstood the allegiances of the black Christians they criticized.” In fact, those offering forgiveness see “no conflict between forgiveness and full-throated, sacrificial advocacy for change.”

Forgiveness, as Bishop Desmond Tutu has written, helps us to recognize “that we inhabit a moral universe, that good and evil are real and that they matter.” Tutu continues:

This is a moral universe which means that, despite all the evidence that seems to the contrary, there is no way that evil and injustice and oppression and lies can have the last word. For we who are Christians, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are proof positive that love is stronger than hate, that life is stronger than death, that light is stronger than darkness, that laughter, joy, compassion, gentleness and truth, all these are so much stronger than their ghastly counterparts.

That is the witness of the family members of the martyred saints in Charleston. It is a witness motivated by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, a witness of profound hope and profound other-worldliness. It is the incomprehensible witness of forgiveness.