The lessons taught to my ancestors was not to make us better Christians, but rather better slaves
Black Christians give away forgiveness like it’s confetti, and white Trump evangelicals give it away sparingly, if at all. As an African American, the act of forgiveness appears to be our immediate go-to place in the face of unimaginable racial horror done to us.
While forgiveness is foundational to growth, healing, and restorative justice—whether religious or nonreligious—there are various ways we use forgiveness. Either it can enhance healing and create positive change in our lives, or it can cause tremendous harm by maintaining the status quo. And, there is a distinction between individual forgiveness and institutional forgiveness.
Former Dallas Police Officer Amber Guyger fatally shot Botham Jean in his apartment. His younger brother, Brandt Jean, could have never fathomed a conflagration would ignite from offering forgiveness and a hug to his brother’s killer, but Brandt took the witness stand and spoke directly to Guyger, stating, “I know if you go to God and ask him, he will forgive you,” before hugging her as she was led off to prison.
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 Guyer’s white family do similarly? Others contested that was not the point, because Brandt’s action was that of a good Christian; his efforts have been compared to that of the black parishioners of the “Mother Emanuel” AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, who forgave white supremacist assassin Dylann Roof. Roof’s motive, meanwhile, was to start another civil war.
Brandt’s act of forgiveness, as I understood it, was for his own healing and the honor of his brother. “I love you just like anyone else, and I’m not going to hope you rot and die,” he 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.” Brandt’s action is an example of individual forgiveness. 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, I found it unforgivable that Judge Tammy Kemp gave Guyger a hug and her personal Bible before being led off to prison. Kemp turned to John 3:16 and said, “This is where you start. He has a purpose for you.” Kemp’s actions are an example of offering institutional forgiveness on behalf of her actions. As a guarantor of justice, Kemp represents the laws and values of our American court system, but collapsed the separation of church and state in her courtroom, further devaluing a flawed judicial system that disproportionately and unfairly treats black and brown lives. Many felt that Kemp, who is African American, should have known better in this era of Black Lives Matter. Her actions toward Guyger would be perceived as absolving a white officer and siding with the culture of policing.
In the face of continued racial violence done to us, I now must question if our church teachings of forgiveness of the last centuries are serving us well in this new century, particularly with the resurgence of white nationalism.
Forgiveness is one of the essential tenets that runs deep in the theology, prayers, and songs of black Christianity. When families of victims of the South Carolina church shooting stood in court in 2015 and stated, one after another, that they forgive Roof because their religion advises them to do so, the nation was in awe. Also in awe, 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.”
Four years later, though, family members of the victims are still struggling. Jennifer Berry Hawes captures their struggle in the 2019 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?”
The expectation of forgiveness is quickly drawn along marginal lines within religion, race, class, gender, and sexuality, to name a few categories. Embracing the Christian belief of redemptive suffering symbolizes the mettle of one’s strength. Still, too often within these groups, the theologies and praxis of forgiveness avoid fully reckoning individual or group pain, suffering, and the lingering effects of trauma, grief, and even rage. Offering absolution is a personal matter. However, as one whose identity intersects several marginal groups—black, female, lesbian—I must also ask the question posed by Hawes: Who benefits from my forgiveness?
I no longer allow my Christian indoctrination to forgive automatically override my self-interrogation of why I should. I now make the distinction between blind obedience versus reasoned faith. And, 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.
Check out Rev. Monroe’s latest “All Rev’d Up” podcast on Kanye, The Evangelist at allrevdup.org.
Rev. Irene Monroe can be heard on the podcast and standing Boston Public Radio segment ALL REV’D UP on WGBH (89.7 FM). Monroe’s syndicated religion columns appear and the Boston voice for Detour’s African American Heritage Trail. She is a s a Visiting Researcher in the Religion and Conflict Transformation Program at Boston University School of Theology.