During a recent visit to the USA, I attended an event entitled “The Language of Forgiveness” in a Festival of Faith and Writing in Calvin College, Michigan. It was an interview by a journalist Jeff Chu with two people of colour, an Episcopalian priest Kelly Brown Douglas and a poet lecturer Shane McCrae.
As they discussed the issue of forgiveness, Douglas commented that when someone forgives, two things happen – firstly, the “forgiver” often experiences a freedom within him or her self, secondly by forgiving another person, the person who has been forgiven receives an invitation to consider what he/she/they have done, to experience remorse and to repent/to turn away from what they had done. McCrae suggested that forgiveness involves “making oneself vulnerable for the same thing to happen again”. He also said: “forgiveness is the root of hope”.
Chu raised the issue of forgiveness in relation to the Charlestown killing in which 9 people at a Bible study in a Baptist church were shot dead by teenager Dylan Root. Both panellists reflected on issues raised by the various responses from the families of those killed in that shooting. One of the concerns which Douglas raised was that the sin of white supremacy would not be named and that “white America” in hearing the response of forgiveness from some of the families would think they were off “the hook”. The forgiveness of the families she argued should be the catalyst to work for a day when the conditions no longer exist which created Dylan Root. She believed there was no easy grace or “cheap grace” in Bonhoeffer’s terms.
In the context of the Charlestown killings, both interviewees went on to suggest that America was not comfortable talking about the “uncomfortable”. Douglas pointed to the origins of the state and the structural effects of “white supremacy” (the presupposition that “white was best”) which had allowed for a legacy of slavery. She then referred to the number of killings of people of colour as “21st century lynching” with specific reference to the fact that Michael Brown’s body was left in the street for hours. (Brown was an unarmed black youth shot dead by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.) Douglas then shared an image of a pit. There were 3 ways to approach this pit – one: to go around it, two: to jump over or three: to climb into it. She suggested this image could be seen as what divided the Nation and the need was to “climb down into the pit”. Douglas suggested that large numbers of white Americans found it difficult to sit in the discomfort of the story, that the nation refused to climb down into the pit of racism. She spoke about “white fragility” and the painful emotions associated with acknowledging the sins of the past. She referred to the systemic ways without going into detail on these, in which there was injustice and how these would have to be faced in going down into the pit. She added that it was not enough to go down into the pit but that when people come back up some people will have to give up some things (she was referring to assumptions that came with white privilege). She added that forgiveness was the beginning but getting into the “muck” of unjust systems, would mean avoiding the temptation of romanticising our past.
The final part of the session consisted of questions and comments from the audience. One woman identified herself as a Lutheran pastor and pointed out that Dylan Root had been brought up in her denomination, attended Sunday school and yet was still able to kill 9 people at a Bible meeting. She shared that her Church was considering the best way to respond to the massacre including some form of atonement.
McCrae in response to another question about how white people should respond to the race issue suggested if white people were constantly concerned and obsessing about “white privilege”, talking about it, worrying about it, this could lead to not doing anything about it. This is the danger of paralysis from the “guilt of whiteness”.
Some reflections on the interview for our situation in Northern Ireland.
In the interviews, the issue of forgiveness opened up many other issues such as white supremacy, white privilege, and white fragility. In some ways, these concepts pointed to the need to explore the very core of American society with its uncritical assumptions. In another conversation with a young Native American woman, from the Navaho tribe, I became aware that for some Native Americans the issue of how they were treated and are still treated remains unhealed. From this event and from numerous conversations I had during my recent 10 days in the USA, it became very clear that issues of the past and present such as slavery, treatment of people of colour, and prejudice were very much alive and in need of healing.
Fr. Martin Magill is the Parish Priest at St Johns Parish, Belfast.