After the breaking of the story regarding the Charleston church shooting that claimed the lives of nine Black church attendees, the young killer was apprehended. When the families confronted the killer via satellite they spoke their remorse for their loss but also declared their forgiveness of the murderer. The daughter of one of the victims was quoted as saying:
You took something very precious from me but I forgive you. It hurts me. You hurt a lot of people but may God forgive you.
-Nadine Collier, daughter of victim Ethel Lance
Her sentiments were repeated by several other victims’ families. The conversation that ensued there after was polarized. There were those who were stunned by the families reaction and could not imagine that being part of their reaction. Then there were those who thought it profound and great that the families did not condemn their loved one’s killer.
It thought back to the murder of Eric Garner and how it became a topic of conversation because Garner’s wife was asked if she accepted the apology of the officer who murdered her husband and she responded:
“Hell no! The time for remorse would have been when my husband was yelling to breathe. That would have been the time for him to show some type of remorse or some type of care for another human being’s life when he was screaming eleven times that he can’t breathe.”
– Esaw Garner
Her response drew media attention and became a topic of discussion. Most people didn’t blame her for her response but it is the fact that it her refusal to accept the apology became a topic of the overall discussion about police brutality and the cold blooded murder of her husband.
Despite the personal opinions and feelings, I feel an interesting topic of discussion for the Black community was brought to light, one that I don’t think has ever been critically examined and questioned: what purpose does Black forgiveness serve in the struggle for equality?
Those familiar and actively involved in Christianity are familiar with the concept of forgiveness. In the Christian regard it is the life changing soul redeeming force that saves them from condemnation and it is also the imperative that the savior they worship has asked them to extend to one another. However, in the Black church forgiveness has another layer of understanding. In the Black church forgiveness is also that thing we are required to extend to our enemies despite the cost because in the end we will have secured our place in Heaven and God will smite out enemies for us – if he doesn’t decide to forgive them, which he might do because after all he forgave our wretched souls…so we can’t be mad at that.
The roots of the Black church go back to slavery when enslaved Africans were converted to Christianity. On the surface this was part of the Christian duty to go out and win souls and make fishers of men. The ulterior motive was more insidious. It was that through Christianity enslaved Africans could be made civil and passive. Those African wouldn’t dare think of rebelling against those who enslaved them if it would upset their God. Simultaneously, White Christians were absolved of any wrong from enslaving them because the Africans were descendants of Ham; cursed people. They were meant to be enslaved because it is what God wanted. They were stupid creatures much like the beasts on the farm who appreciated captivity as opposed to the sufferings their stupidity would cost them in the wild. So Christianity fortified slavery – most especially in the south.
Throughout the decades following slavery the use of Christianity as a buffer to Black rebellion and resistance endured. During the Civil Rights era, Dr. King – a southern preacher – taught a philosophy about non-violence and the power of love to overcome all. A noble perspective; however, this philosophy was perverted by those who sought the survival of white supremacy. They held Dr. King on a platform to contrast him with more aggressive and militant forms of resistance such as that seen by the Black Panthers and the Black Nationalists that followed Garvey. It was only okay for Black people to seek justice and change through non-violent measures and those with more militant affinities were made to be threats to national security (remember COINTELPRO and what they did to the Black Panthers?). Again, Dr. King’s religious beliefs rooted in southern Black church ideology about forgiveness and turning the other cheek was used to try to subdue the pending Black rebellion. It was not until later in his life as Dr. King began to question his non-violent philosophy after witnessing Black body upon Black body brutally beaten, ravaged, lynched, tortured, and imprisoned. There were very few writings Dr. King penned about these thoughts before he was assassinated (how convenient for the white supremacist who tolerated him).
It was not only in the Black church where the notion of Black sacrifice as means of changing the world was perpetuated. We can see that this notion had taken shape outside of the Black church. The best examples are the images that were perpetuated through film. Movies like Gone With The Wind and Imitation of Life are good examples of how Black sacrifice was supposed to save everyone – by everyone I mean everyone White. In Gone With The Wind Mammy dedicated her life to Scarlet and was the means by which Scarlet evolves into a mature woman. In Imitation of Life Sarah Jane abandons her culture and her mother in order to pass for White. Sarah Jane cannot be redeemed until her mother subjects herself to Sarah Jane’s cruelty one last time in an effort to tell her that she loves her and agrees to not bother her anymore. Her mother then has to go off and die alone. It is the death of the Black woman that brings Sarah Jane to the realization that she loves her mother and regrets having treated her so badly.
These same notions are played out in movies over later decades in what we know as a common piece of the plot for many scary movies where the Black person dies first or doesn’t survive to the end of the movie – most often having died while sacrificing themselves for the safety of the group or the main characters (who are most often White). It wasn’t until possibly the last 10 years or so that I can recall having seen a major horror movie where they Black character survived until the end (and they were not the main character).
I can understand the logic of Mrs. Garner’s refusal to extend her forgiveness to the officer – how genuine could it have been for a man who killed another man with his bare hands to suddenly feel empathetic to the feelings of another person. But even after she responded to the question the media continued to try to bait her into making some declaration that she wanted the officer dead. I can also understand where the families are coming from with their conviction to the principles of their faith. But why is that eclipsing the discussion about this young man who has been so indoctrinated with hate that he planned and executed a mass murder of innocent people. Why is America so concerned with Black forgiveness?
We have to ask that question and be brutally honest. It isn’t because they admire our strength and ability to forgive. It isn’t because we are somehow infecting the world with empathy and care for life. It isn’t because it’s actually significant to the exploration of increasing violence being thrust onto Black lives. It’s because the system of oppression in this country thrives from our history of gentle, passive, non-resistant acquiescence to all manner of brutality projected at us from this imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy that we call American culture.
I wouldn’t dare speak against the power of forgiveness and how empowering and liberating that can be for the individual. However, in a broader sense and a deeper analysis Black people have to pay attention to the way that the world uses what we present to it. Just because as individuals or as a culture we view things from a certain perspective does not mean the rest of the world shares that perspective or will not manipulate it to their advantage.
I’m not sayin; I’m just sayin,
An Angry Black Man