I have been wrestling with forgiveness this week. To be honest, I have been wrestling with forgiveness for twenty years, but the murders in Charleston this week brought the old tension to the fore. I too have suffered the loss of a family member by brutal murder, and like the families of the victims in Charleston, I made a choice to forgive. But I think that there’s a fundamental confusion in the media and in the general consciousness about what forgiveness is and who it’s for.
I’ve watched people celebrate the victims’ family members for having the courage and strength to forgive the man who killed their loved ones. At the same time, I’ve heard the exhausted calls of activists who are sick of being expected to forgive atrocity after atrocity when nothing changes. Why should forgiveness make murder okay? Murder is never okay. Black Girl Dangerous hits the nail on the head writing about oppressive forgiveness narratives:
I’ve never seen anyone talk about Americans forgiving Al Qaeda for 9/11, but black people are always supposed to forgive, because the taking of our lives isn’t worth holding a grudge, right?
Meanwhile, clueless allies take comfort in black people being able to forgive, and tell others that we [society, ‘uppity’ black people, anyone who talks about racism] need to concentrate on healing. Implicit in their words is the idea that trying to change the systemic racism that gave rise to this atrocity is contrary to, or detracts from, that healing. What’s important, these people say, is that the families have forgiven. Who are we to make a call for change if the families are willing to let go of the pain?
This is a misunderstanding of forgiveness. Forgiveness isn’t for us. Forgiveness isn’t even for Dylann Roof. Forgiveness is for the victims and their families. It’s a way of both reclaiming and transforming power.
Forgiveness is never required. Nobody should ever feel pressure to forgive until and unless they’re ready and willing. There are two things to know about forgiveness. 1) It doesn’t change anything. 2) It changes everything. It doesn’t change what happened, but it does change you. It can be the most profound thing a person ever does, and to misinterpret it is to cheapen it.
I was thirteen when my stepsister Rachel was abducted, raped, and stabbed to death. She was twenty-five. She had been missing for two days, the door of her apartment left wide open and her cat running free. The police came to our house late at night to tell us the news.
There is no way to describe the loss of innocence I experienced. It wasn’t just that I was young; the trauma gripped my parents in the same way. To know — not just in theory, but closely, intimately — that another human being is capable of such brutality and evil… It shakes the foundation of your world. When you watch it on TV, it’s distant; it’s just a story someone else is telling about a stranger you will never know. When it happens to you, there is no such comforting numbness. You can’t forget it next week or next month, as we as a nation most certainly will with the Charleston murders. Twenty years later, I remember Rachel’s death.
And I remember the forgiveness. It was not serene or merciful on my part. I bear no resemblance to Mother Theresa. I didn’t do it because it was the right thing to do. And perhaps most importantly, I didn’t do it for the man who killed my sister. It had nothing to do with him; he was just the catalyst. I forgave him because there was no other choice that would preserve my own humanity.
What I remember is the anger. I’d never felt hate before. I’d never felt rage boiling through my veins or dark, violent fantasies of wanting to stick a knife in the man’s gut and make him suffer. I wanted to cause him as much pain as he had caused us, as much pain as the loss of Rachel would continue to cause for the rest of my life. The thoughts, the violence in my own self scared the hell out of me.
I lost control for a while there. I did nothing but react, react, react. Clearly this man was evil. I needed to kill him. Maybe if I could just hurt him enough, I’d feel better.
There was a breaking point. I was screaming, sobbing, punching everything around me. My father put me in a martial arts hold so I wouldn’t hurt myself. He put his arms around me and just held me.
In the middle of that storm of rage and grief, a choice opened up before me. I could hold onto this bitter black violence that was already rending my soul, or I could let it go. If I held onto it, I could see it would eat me alive. It would destroy me.
The choice to forgive the man who murdered my sister was the most selfish choice I’ve ever made. It was solely about me and my own survival, my own sanity. Sometimes an evil is just too big to be processed any other way than through forgiveness.
It was also a choice about the kind of world I wanted to believe in. You see, you can believe that people are evil, or you can believe that people are fundamentally good but they do evil things. I was raised to be a Quaker. We believe that there is “that of God” — ie, good — in every person. By extension, we get the traditional Quaker testimony of equality. We are all children of God, so we are all deserving of the same rights and respect. From this, we get the testimony of nonviolence — to attack another person is to attack that of God in them. The equality testimony has led Quakers to work on prison reform, abolition of slavery, and peacemaking over the centuries.
All of that’s nice in theory. Ideals are often left it the dust when real life and real violence occur. How can you look for the God, the good, in someone who has just taken your entire life and childhood away? How can you call that person anything but evil?
Here’s what I learned that day about the equality testimony that day: it’s not just that everyone has good in them. We all have evil in us as well. What I learned that day is that I am capable of murder. I wanted to murder. I have darkness on my soul, same as Rachel’s killer does. It’s a different kind of equality, but it brought me to my choice.
I can believe in a world where there are beings of evil who destroy people’s lives. That’s a world with no true hope of lasting peace or happiness. Or I can choose to believe that people are fundamentally good, but they do extremely evil things because of drugs, delusions, or cycles of violence and poverty. For me, it was an act of faith to choose the latter. There is no evidence for it. People will bring up Hitler, or child abuse, or Jeffrey Dahmer when you talk about the fundamental goodness of humanity. I’m a social worker; I know the evils that people are capable of committing. But I can decide that the person who commits evil is evil, or I can have faith that they too are a child of God and respond accordingly. That choice affects who I am and how I act in the world, and I have never had cause to regret it.
Forgiveness is a choice to see the humanity in the other person and respond to that, rather than to the evil they perpetrated. Forgiveness doesn’t let the perpetrator off the hook, or preclude punishment or incarceration. The man who raped and murdered Rachel will never be released from prison, and that’s very comforting to me. Dylann Roof has forfeited his right to be a member of society, but he hasn’t lost his right to be a human being. The victims’ families recognized that.
Forgiveness was my way of transforming an atrocity, of not letting the person who set out to hurt Rachel and my family “win” by poisoning my soul. It was a refusal to let him have the power to shake my faith in the goodness of humanity.
Forgiveness doesn’t take the pain away. There’s still a gaping wound there where your loved one once shone. A lot of things happened in the years after Rachel’s death. Our family splintered, as families often do after the death of a child. Some relationships never recovered; others limp along, still wounded from that time. We still feel the effects twenty years later. But sometimes I think how much more painful it would have been if we hadn’t been able to forgive, if we had held onto that pain and rage and let it eat us up. I think we would have perpetuated the cycle of pain much more than we did.
I remember the sinking feeling in my gut after the planes hit the Twin Towers. I saw my country going through the loss of innocence I’d gone through five years before, and I knew that we as a nation weren’t going to take the forgiveness route. Nobody would have asked us to forgive; how can you ask someone to forgive something like that? We were grieving and we struck out at the nearest convenient target. We kept striking out, and striking out. We kept killing people, even civilians, in the name of our pain and revenge. We took the fight to a whole new country on the most tenuous of evidence. Thousands of our soldiers died. After all that, do we feel any better? Did we gain anything? I think that we, as a nation, need to learn to forgive. It’s the only way I know of truly transforming pain.
At the same time, I’m also very aware that white people cannot ask black people, or Native people, or any people we have oppressed, to forgive us. Forgiveness is something that is offered freely and has very little to do with the perpetrator. It transforms the person who does the forgiving, and gives them back some of the power that we took from them.
But what I really want people to understand is that forgiveness doesn’t let anyone off the hook. The people who say “forgive and forget” are the people who are missing the point of the transformative power of forgiveness. The families of the Charleston victims have done something heroic, something that they should never have had to do. Let’s honor that by taking it as seriously as they do.