Forgiveness and Justice
June 17, 2015 nine people were murdered in Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Just two days after the shooting, family members of those killed addressed and publicly forgave Dylann Roof, the shooter, at his hearing.
Unfortunately, this incident is one of many stories surrounding the politics of race here in America. However, this story stands out for a few reasons: the blatant racism that motivated the shooter, the fact that it took place in a church, and the fact that the surviving family members so quickly and so publicly offered forgiveness to the man that hurt them so deeply.
Not too long after the shooting, I saw a Washington Post article on Facebook by Stacey Patton called “Black America Should Stop Forgiving White Racists.” The main point of the article is that black people are forced by the media to forgive those who have killed their loved ones, murderers and the police alike, and that this forced forgiveness lessens the consequences or punishment for these people who deserve to suffer the proper repercussions for their actions.
Author Stacey Patton writes,
After 9/11, there was no talk about forgiving al-Qaeda, Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden. America declared war, sought blood and revenge, and rushed protective measures into place to prevent future attacks.
As the Atlantic Monthly, writer Ta-Nehisi Coates noted on Twitter: “Can’t remember any campaign to ‘love’ and ‘forgive’ in the wake of ISIS beheadings.”
No one expects Jewish people to forgive the Nazis or contemporary anti-Semitic acts. But black people are held to an impossibly higher standard. This rush to forgive — before grieving, healing, processing or even waiting for the legal or judicial systems to process these crimes — and the expectations of black empathy for those who do great harm is deeply problematic.
As Patton continues, she uses the Charleston families as an example because they publicly forgave the man who took their family members from them. There appears to be a sharp double standard in the media when it comes to issues of violence and other hate crimes against black Americans. However, Patton completely misses the heart behind the forgiveness extended by the survivors and she reduces the concept of forgiveness to one that is conditional, in this case on the current struggle against racial injustice.
This raises the question: can forgiveness and justice coexist?
Stacey Patton would say, in the way forgiveness is demanded of black families, no. It is true that no one should be forced to forgive anyone; that does not mean, however, that forgiveness is not the right choice, or that it lessens consequences for actions or should undermine justice.
Forgiveness is not an expression of faith for everyone, but in the case of the Charleston families, forgiveness is an expression of their faith in God. If we ignore this fact, we fail to understand the sincerity behind the forgiveness offered.
In an article in Christianity Today, Michael Wear writes, “An understanding of the religious and theological reason for forgiveness does not preclude questions or skepticism, of course, particularly if you have not experienced the forgiveness of God for yourself. But that does not grant us the right to whitewash the motivation for forgiveness we witnessed in Charleston.”
To “whitewash” the forgiveness of the Charleston families erodes the meaning of forgiveness in society. In discussing these issues, especially in the media, there is a muddling of forgiveness and mercy combined with a weak display of justice that supports the systemic oppression of black people and all minorities. But forgiveness was never meant to discount or sweep aside justice in the name of making amends.
To forgive is to acknowledge that you have been wronged and to choose not to harbor resentment toward the person who wronged you. In the Bible we’re told to forgive unconditionally. Peter asks Jesus if he should forgive someone up to seven times, and Jesus answers, seventy times seven. He says this to mean we should continually offer forgiveness when someone wrongs us, part of that forgiveness being not keeping track of how many times you’ve forgiven them.
Forgiveness does not lessen the consequences of one’s actions, but it also does not invalidate justice; justice is needed to right the wrong. The ultimate picture of both forgiveness and justice is Jesus. God saw that it was just to punish our sin by death, but Jesus took on the weight of our sin, the consequences we deserved, and died in our place. Justice was served when Jesus died on the cross, and when He rose again three days later, His forgiveness gave us a chance to believe in Him and receive eternal life. “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
I do not think I could extend the same forgiveness as quickly as the Charleston families did, but I think that forgiveness was the right choice. We do not forgive because we seek to appease white America who feels guilt and shame for not speaking out that black lives matter. We do not forgive to advance the idea that if we forgive, we will all grow into bigger and better people and we will progress as a society. We forgive because we have faith in God, a God who is just and seeks justice, and a God who forgives us when we do not deserve to be forgiven: “…but God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
The Charleston families have been openly criticized for offering forgiveness to the man who caused them so much pain, but they are being criticized by a society that sees the situation in black and white–literally. Stacey Patton and many others paint the issue as “us vs. them,” as an issue of white aggression and black reactionism. It is true, the media should not demand or pressure forgiveness out of anyone; this is insensitive and wrong. The larger issue at hand, however, that of forgiveness, is larger than any category we use to identify ourselves. Forgiveness transcends people groups and social and political issues.
Choosing to forgive is not a sign of weakness; rather, choosing to remain angry is the easier option. While our justice system is able to punish wrongdoings to some extent, it is reactive rather than proactive. Forgiveness, on the other hand, creates the opportunity to mend broken relationships and rebuild a society torn apart by hurt and racial injustice. We cannot dismiss the power in the forgiveness the Charleston families extended to their aggressor.
The courageous forgiveness extended by the Charleston families was to mirror the forgiveness that God extends to each and every one of us. God’s forgiveness has given us access to a restored relationship with Him. The families demonstrated their faith that God will forgive them and can forgive Dylann Roof. While their forgiveness did not erase the consequences of the hateful actions of Dylann Roof, it should also not impede justice from being carried out fairly and swiftly.
There is pain and there is suffering because lives have been taken.
A woman who identified herself as the daughter of Ethel Lance said, “I will never talk to her ever again. I will never hold her ever again. You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. But God forgives you. I forgive you.” 
The same love that motivated God to forgive us dwells within these people. It is that love that propelled them to step out in faith and publicly offer forgiveness to the man who hurt them so deeply. It is that love and forgiveness we cannot pass over in this discussion. It is not trivial, nor is it passive. It is from a place of forgiveness, coupled with firm justice, that we are able to learn from the suffering produced by our mistakes and reform our hearts and minds in order to truly transform society. While we work tirelessly in the fight against racial injustice, we must remember that it is God’s forgiveness and justice that truly restore and heal the deepest wounds.
1 Patton, Stacey. “Black America Should Stop Forgiving White Racists.” Washington Post. June 22, 2015. http://www.washingtonpostcom/posteverything/wp/2015/06/22/black-america-should-stop-forgiving-white-racists/.
3 Wear. Michael. “Stop Explaining Away Black Christian Forgiveness.” Christianity Today. June 24, 2015. http://www.christianitytoday. com/ct/2015/june-web-only/stop-explaining-away-black-christian-forgiveness.html?share=GpuHt9nuBUpS9JYPW1AHW0eeUcd3qGYA
4 Matthew 18:21-22 (ESV)
5 Romans 3:23 (ESV)
6 Deuteronomy 10:18, 32:4; Psalm 9:7, 33:5, 37:28, 89:14, 97:12, 99:4, 103:6, 104:12, 111:7; Proverbs 16:11, 21:3; Isaiah 5:16, 30:18, 33:5, 61:8; Zephaniah 2:3; Matthew 12:18; Revelation 15:3, 16:5, 16:7 (ESV)
7 Romans 5:8 (ESV)
8 Patton, Stacey. “Black America Should Stop Forgiving White Racists.”
Emani Pollard is a junior in the ILR School at Cornell University. She leads a Cornell Faith and Action (CFA) Bible study and enjoys drinking tea year round.
Image by Anna Kang – UCBerkeley TAUG, Spring 2015.Tags: Black Lives Matter, Dylann Roof, evil, forgiveness, justice, love, race, shooting, Stacey Patton, Ta-Nehisi Coates, terrorism, violence