Forgiveness in Charleston and South Africa: Political or Theological?

After the families of the victims of the Emanuel AME church shooting unilaterally forgave the shooter, I’ve been thinking again about forgiveness. (Some previous posts here.) In particular, I am wondering again about the relationship between theological and political forgiveness.

The classic Enlightenment description of the duty to forgive is derived from the Christian tradition on forgiveness that goes back to Augustine. One modern example of this tradition is Desmond Tutu, whose work on South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission combines theological reasoning with a strategic politics translated into the discourse of self-help and therapeutic psychology, all in order to justify a duty to forgive:

“The onus is on each single South African … it is incumbent on every South African to make his or her contribution. Without being melodramatic, it is not too much to claim that it is a matter of life and death. On its success does hinge the continued existence, the survival, of our nation…. It is ultimately in our best interest that we become forgiving, repentant, reconciling, and reconciled people because without forgiveness, without reconciliation, we have no future.” (Tutu 1999, 165)

Surely what Tutu writes here lays claimed to unearned universality: it works as a theological imperative but not a categorical one; perhaps at best it is understood as a pragmatic political analysis of the necessities of post-apartheid South Africa. If there was to be a future for South Africa, given the difficulties in punishing the criminality of Afrikaners that it faced post-apartheid, then forgiveness was obligatory both legally and individually. The process of fact-finding and official pardons for past violence in a new republic was thus required for ‘the survival of the nation.’ But Tutu offers this pragmatic analysis alongside his theology:

“Theology said they still, despite the awfulness of their deeds, remained children of God with the capacity to repent, to be able to change.” (Tutu 1999, 83)

He goes on to explain that this recognition of a fellow creature of God’s creation demands that we model God’s unconditional love through forgiveness:

God does not give up on anyone, for God loved us from all eternity, God loves us now and God will always love us, all of us good and bad, forever and ever. His love will not let us go for God’s love for us, all of us, good and bad, is unchanging, is unchangeable. Someone has said there is nothing I can do to make God love me more, for God loves perfectly already. And wonderfully, there is nothing I can do to make God love me less. […]  Those who think this opens the door for moral laxity have obviously never been in love, for love is much more demanding than law. (Tutu 1999, 85)

As I see it (and following Hannah Arendt) Tutu forecloses the possibility of deliberative judgment by conflating the strategies of a fledgling government with the demands of divine love. Who can argue with God’s alleged example? The problem with the hyperbolically poetic accounts of the gratuitous good of the forgiver is the same that troubled Arendt in the hyperbolically gratuitous evil attributed to the perpetrators of the Holocaust. In both cases, the hyperbolic rhetoric disguises a refusal to judge that which cannot–in any case–be punished. The inability to effectively punish the wrong-doer makes judgment irrelevant, and so forgiveness seems like a promising alternative.

The South Africans were forced by circumstances to decline prosecution through systematic pardons, but it is deceptive (perhaps self-deceptive) to describe this nolle prosequi in theological terms. The question that faced the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was not “whether to forgive,” it was “whether to punish,” but Tutu’s rhetoric disguises that fact. Black South Africans were obligated to share the world with their oppressors, and this requirement dictated the pardons. It didn’t dictate a specific theological underpinning for those pardons, so one has to wonder how much of Tutu’s theology was a kind of amor fati, celebrating the unavoidable.

In the case of the Charleston families, the reverse is true. No one would have faulted them for refusing to forgive Roof. I tend to think that while the families’ decision may well have been motivated by a theological sense of the duty to forgive, they also acted in a kind of sovereign refusal of resentment. Yet while I can see the power in forgiving one who has offered no remorse, it also seems hollow. The forgiveness was offered in theological terms, as a deferral to God for all judgment.

A political form of that forgiveness might be an effort to erase Dylan Roof’s name from the scene, and to remind the country that the names that matter most right now are these:

  • Sharonda Coleman-Singleton
  • DePayne Middleton Doctor
  • Cynthia Hurd
  • Susie Jackson
  • Ethel Lance
  • Clementa C. Pinckney
  • Tywanza Sanders
  • Daniel L. Simmons Sr.
  • Myra Thompson

Some–like Roxane Gay in the New York Times–even refuse to join the families, exercising that same sovereignty in pointing out that the attack cannot be fully forgiven by the families alone so long as it was aimed at all Black people. Gay goes on to describe how African-Americans have continually taken Tutu’s path of celebrating the necessity of forgivness:

The call for forgiveness is a painfully familiar refrain when black people suffer. White people embrace narratives about forgiveness so they can pretend the world is a fairer place than it actually is, and that racism is merely a vestige of a painful past instead of this indelible part of our present.

Black people forgive because we need to survive. We have to forgive time and time again while racism or white silence in the face of racism continues to thrive. We have had to forgive slavery, segregation, Jim Crow laws, lynching, inequity in every realm, mass incarceration, voter disenfranchisement, inadequate representation in popular culture, microaggressions and more. We forgive and forgive and forgive and those who trespass against us continue to trespass against us.

Surely Gay is right! The murderer eliminates the possibility of forgiveness with his crime. We cannot forgive the murderer (and indeed the murderer cannot be forgiven) because their victim can no longer speak and we cannot speak for them. How much worse, then, the unrepentant terrorist who murders in the name of a continuing system of white supremacy? How can he be forgiven until he has made restitution to every one of his victims–both those who are dead and those who must continue to live under the systematic injustice of such violence?

Arendt says of Adolph Eichmann that he is guilty of being unwilling to share the earth with Jews; thus no one should be expected to share the earth with him. Black South Africans had every right to a similar judgment of Afrikaners: only circumstances deprived them of the power to act as Israel did to Eichmann. Isn’t the same true African-Americans and Roof? How can any Black person be expected to share the earth with him?

Indeed, how can any Black person be expected to share the earth with any of us white people for whom Black lives do not (often) matter? I don’t mean to conflate white inaction with racist murder: I think it is worse than that. We are not to blame for Dylan Roof merely because we passively enjoy the benefits of white privilege. We are to blame because of the ways we perpetuate white supremacy, because of the concrete acts we take that continue policies of poverty, unemployment, police violence, and mass incarceration. We have our own violence to answer for.

At best African-American forebearance is political: an effort to survive under conditions of extreme oppression, an act of public and performative suffering that they use to motivate other rights-claims. In contrast the theology accounts of forgiveness seem deeply impoverished. Baldwin captures it best. On the one hand, he points out that silence and complicity deserve punishment:

“I know what the world has done to my brother and how narrowly he has survived it. And I know, which is much worse, and this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it. One can be, indeed one must strive to become, tough and philosophical concerning destruction and death, for this is what most of mankind has been best at since we have heard of man. (But remember: most of mankind is not all of mankind.) But it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.”

Yet at the same time, he captures a bit of that celebration of necessity:

The price of the liberation of the white people is the liberation of the blacks—the total liberation, in the cities, in the towns, before the law, and in the mind. Why, for example—especially knowing the family as I do—I should want to marry your sister is a great mystery to me. But your sister and I have every right to marry if we wish to, and no one has the right to stop us. If she cannot raise me to her level, perhaps I can raise her to mine.

In short, we, the black and the white, deeply need each other here if we are really to become a nation—if we are really, that is, to achieve our identity, our maturity, as men and women. To create one nation has proved to be a hideously difficult task; there is certainly no need now to create two, one black and one white.

In that sense, a politics of forgiveness is still necessary. We white people need it for our own liberation. Tutu was right all along: without reconciliation, we have no future. But I think Roxane Gay is right to point out that the theological tradition of forgiveness can’t get us what we need from reconciliation. We must become one nation, and the only way to do that is concretely… we must reach out to our neighbors for their forgiveness and recognize that they will set the terms.


One response to “Forgiveness in Charleston and South Africa: Political or Theological?”

  1. […] I have repeatedly argued, we ought to reject the obligation to forgive (or compromise) because it undermines the […]

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