Anthea Butler: In a season of reckonings, forgiveness is not forgetting

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As the toll of twin pandemics continues to mount and a divisive election looms, true absolution requires more than just words, writes an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

This year will be remembered as unforgiving. The murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Daniel Prude, along with another 161 Black men and women in the first eight months of 2020, have taken a toll on the nation’s Black community.

In debilitating congruence, 1 in every 1,000 Black people in America has died from COVID-19 since this coronavirus began to spread here. The dual pandemics of racism and the virus have been devastating for African Americans.

The Black community is often looked to as the moral exemplar, the beating heart of justice in our society. Black Lives Matter marches, impassioned pleas against police violence and prayers for justice this year are part of a long history of struggle in America, from slavery to reconstruction and the civil rights movement. Yet we African Americans are often asked to resolve and forgive the acts of racism that have been perpetrated against us.

What if enough is enough? What if this is not a time for African Americans to extend forgiveness but a time for us to receive the respect and apologies we and our ancestors who have suffered because of racism are due? Simply put, what is the role of forgiveness in public life with respect to racism?

While some are already looking ahead to the aftermath of the upcoming election in hopes of tamping down dissent, a forgive-and-forget mindset in our current public life is not the correct response. Instead, we must look at the causes of racial animus toward African Americans and at those who support officials who perpetrate hatred and division.

The last four years prove irrefutably that America is still bound by racism and violence. The current election cycle, with all the lies and the denigration of candidates and lawmakers, coupled with the engagement of white supremacist groups identified as domestic terrorists, demands sober vigilance.

Expectations of genteel, conciliatory conversations in the wake of nationwide upheaval ignore violent rhetoric from elected officials and cannot resolve racism in America. Performative apologies that hold no weight, save for assuaging white guilt, are equally valueless and, indeed, can be harmful.

Truth be told, African Americans are asked to participate in these acts of forgiveness in order to absolve people from confronting racist actions. At the same time, we are asked to be both healers and advocates for change in the face of racism that happens to us individually and to the community corporately.

The racial reconciliation projects of denominations like the Southern Baptists or the Pentecostals have relied on the goodwill of African American Christians to give weight to the events. Yet despite these public displays of forgiveness, it has been difficult to find denominations today saying, “Black lives matter.” Many cannot or will not speak out against the structural inequities of policing that allowed Breonna Taylor to be shot to death in her own home or George Floyd to be suffocated under the weight of authority.

It is not enough to treat acts of forgiveness as an individualistic endeavor anymore. Some individual extensions of forgiveness have done more harm than good. Consider the granting of forgiveness by Brandt Jean. His brother, Botham Jean, was shot in his home by then-police officer Amber Guyger after she mistook his apartment for her own.

To many, Brandt Jean’s spontaneous act of forgiveness toward Guyger at her sentencing hearing in Dallas was a symbol of Christian virtue and racial reconciliation in the face of a grave injustice. Brandt has since been lauded and upheld as an exemplar.

Admitting that at first he hated Guyger, he told CNN that his act of forgiveness has helped him let go of his anger and see the possibility of forgiving others in his life. The whole experience, in his words, “just forced me to improve my humility and freed me from anxiety.”

For many watching, myself included, Brandt Jean’s moment of forgiveness was painful and unsatisfying. Not because forgiveness was extended, but because it fell to Botham Jean’s brother to extend forgiveness to the perpetrator with no reciprocal action.

Guyger did not ask for forgiveness. She asked for mercy -- and she got forgiveness and a Bible from the judge. Months later, her lawyers have filed an appeal, stating that “her mistaken belief negated the culpability for murder because although she intentionally and knowingly caused Jean’s death, she had the right to act in deadly force in self-defense.”

Jean’s family believes that they were played for sympathy, in order for the defense to file an appeal.

This whole story is depressing, but it proves a key point. In the case of these racial transgressions, the survivors, not the agents of their despair and grief, are the ones who are asked to bear the load of forgiveness. In this case, Jean’s brother’s act of forgiveness allowed Guyger to avoid dealing publicly with the racism in the shooting of Botham Jean -- simply because he was a Black man in what she thought was her apartment.

No admission of guilt, no acknowledgment of the racism. Forgiveness offered with no remorse or changed heart in return.

For many, forgiveness is a ritual from the imperative of Scripture, extended to the perpetrators by those who have been wronged. This rite, meant to be a comfort to those who have been harmed, is then seen as a metaphor for a corporate forgiveness that absolves the structural issues surrounding the act being forgiven.

But consider one of the most famous scriptures about forgiveness from the New Testament, Matthew 18:21-35, in which the parable of the unmerciful servant is used as a metaphor for forgiveness. Often, we focus on the admonition of Jesus to forgive 70 times seven, but we don’t pay attention to the portion of the passage where the man who is forgiven goes on to be unforgiving to someone who owes him a debt and has that person thrown in jail.

When the work of forgiveness flows in only one direction, it is powerless to change the behaviors being forgiven. In today’s racially charged environment, the behaviors continue, no matter how much forgiveness is extended.

The awful story of Botham Jean’s shooting intersects with both the personal and the structural aspects of forgiveness that we must reckon with in America. While it is easy to make the personal stories of forgiveness by Brandt Jean or the surviving family members of the Mother Emanuel shooting in Charleston exemplars of Christian virtuousness, they do not deal with the structural issues surrounding that forgiveness.

Extending forgiveness isn’t simply about comforting or healing those who have been wronged. There are emotional and psychological effects for all of us, especially when there is no hope of restitution or resolution.

How do we process what forgiveness means on a structural level when so many times we are asked to think about forgiveness as an individual, Christian practice? Are these individual extensions of forgiveness doing more harm than good?

I ask these questions because in our American context, extending forgiveness for racially motivated killings, be they murders or accidents, is not situated simply in individual actions but in a history that is filled with prejudices and persecution.

Unlike South Africa, with its Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the United States has launched no comprehensive movement to deal with the history of slavery, lynching, civil rights violations, and economic and educational inequities stemming from racism. As a result, acts of forgiveness for racial injustice, no matter how sincere, stir feelings of anxiety and angst for African Americans.

These public displays of forgiveness allow us to be caught up in media moments that grant absolution for everyone without reckoning with the grievous sins and behaviors that forced the wronged individuals to offer forgiveness in order to heal. Because he forgave the murder of his brother, Brandt Jean was lauded with awards and accolades for his unselfish act.

The rest of us were left, once again, to sift through our feelings of dismay and disgust for another senseless death. Often, Black families don’t even get apologies. In the case of the murder of Breonna Taylor, they simply got a check.

Like slavery, the death of a Black person in America is not an act for which a perpetrator feels compelled even to ask for forgiveness. Payment may be given as restitution. But it does not resolve the structural issue of racism.

If Christians are to be part of the solution regarding racism and injustice in America, Black Christians have to stop dealing in displays of “forgiving and forgetting” that have come to be expected. The expectation that Black people are obligated to absolve white Americans for their racism should cease.

Forgiveness is a two-way street. It is not simply about helping those who have been wronged feel better; it should not be extended unless the perpetrators are willing to confront their own racism, ask for forgiveness and provide for restitution and reform. The futile extension of forgiveness must cease.

When families from the Charleston shooting immediately forgave Dylann Roof, I shuddered. I knew that Roof would never ask forgiveness for the act of murder he considered righteous. Why give it to someone so deeply entrenched in racism? Why give in so soon and so easily?

Likewise, in this crucial time of electoral divisiveness, should candidates be given a pass and forgiveness for racial animus? No. Leadership requires work, and respect must be earned. When political and social leaders engage in racism and sexism, that should be called out by all of us. Unfortunately, there are not enough people now with the moral courage to do so.

The psychological effect of these one-way acts of forgiveness is to downplay the anxiety and heartache that pervades our racial atmosphere in America. Black death replays over and over again on our screens, like a broken record of despair. We all know the tune, note by note, verse by verse. Nothing changes.

Meanwhile, white people can knit their brows, perhaps march and put up a Black Lives Matter sign if they are really progressive. But we all know that the rest of you will look away and tend to your own gardens.

In a nation riven by racial divisions, it is time for white people to stop expecting tacit forgiveness from Black people. We are weary. Displays of forgiveness do not lead to forgetting but to remembering all the wrongs, all the murders, all the pain, all the suffering we and our ancestors have experienced in America.

It is time for all of us to wrestle with true forgiveness in work that flows both ways, work that requires a turning away from the sin of racism. Until we do, we will continue to engage in empty pantomimes.