Nobody forgives people with more expediency than black Christians. It’s what we’ve been taught to do; but it’s been a disguised forgiveness – not as a forgiveness for our sake, but for the sake of others. We forgive to set others free without having grieved properly ourselves, rendering us captives of our own despair. We give our oppressors permission to live with a clear conscience while we continue to harbor anger, resentment, and grief in unhealthy ways.
Don’t mistake this for a forgiveness ‘cease and desist’ mandate for black Christians everywhere. It’s not. I am black and Christian too, and a key tenant of my faith is the act of forgiveness. This is, however, a plea to black Christians everywhere to reform our forgiveness. Proper forgiveness is a process, one that involves prophetic grief, prophetic guilt, and prophetic relief.
Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III preached with his father the Rev. Dr. Otis Moss Jr. at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago on the subject “Prophetic Grief” in response to the tragedy at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. They opined about the historical trauma suffered by blacks at the hands of white supremacy, and that our grieving must not be pathetic – angry, resentful, vengeful grief; or sympathetic even – but prophetic, grief accompanied by healing.
The families of the victims of the Emanuel 9 received national attention as they – one by one – forgave Dylan Roof for his transgressions against them during his court hearing, just days after the killings. DAYS. Dr. Cornel West had this to say in response during a CNN interview:
“That when we talk about forgiveness, you notice how quick the white press wants to accent Black people forgiving. Forgiveness is not an utterance. It’s a process. We are a loving people. We’ve taught the world so much about love because we’ve been hated so, but to forgive a day or so after…something’s wrong with that – that’s a twisted sympathy and a pathological empathy – you forgive as you have worked it through – You just make sure you don’t hate. That’s the key. Don’t hate. Forgiveness comes later. But the press wants to accent forgiveness – we are a fighting people as well as a forgiving people.”
It’s true that when black people are oppressed at the hands of the powerful and the privileged, attention is not given to the culpability of the oppressor, or to the fight of the oppressed to overcome their situation; no, attention to those at fault would require society to hold accountable those who have long been held above reproach, or even worse – highlighting the resilience and might of the oppressed would only further empower those who society has intentionally continued to render powerless. Instead, attention is given to black people’s ability to continue to turn the other cheek almost immediately after being slapped in the face, only to be slapped again. This is not by coincidence, but by design.
It’s the perpetuation of a history of systematic oppression dating back to slavery, with Christianity at its core. Faith is passed on from generation to generation. Because many of today’s black Christians inherited their faith from forefathers and mothers who were slaves introduced to Christianity by their oppressor – our idea of forgiveness is generationally rooted in the liberation of our oppressor and not of ourselves. Mark Galli writes in Christianity Today’s The Inconceivable Start of African-American Christianity:
“The gospel presented to slaves by white owners, however, was only a partial gospel. The message of salvation by grace, the joy of faith, and the hope of heaven were all there, but many other teachings were missing…the master or mistress would read, ‘Servants obey your masters,’ but neglect passages that said, ‘Break every yoke and let the oppressed go free.'”
With that kind of history of pathological theological indoctrination, it’s not by coincidence that today’s black Christians forgive so easily. It’s by design, to continue to absolve the oppressor of any responsibility of wrongdoing and the guilt that accompanies it. The forgiveness process should involve the processing of guilt. Prophetic guilt is an impetus for contrition, and contrition is the currency for which amends are paid between each other – both oppressor and the oppressed – and to God. Our ability to not only feel regret for our actions, but to express regret is a byproduct of guilt processing. Forgivenesses without due process is forgiveness absent of prophetic guilt. When black Christians forgive prematurely, we excuse our transgressors from penitence, subsequently inviting repeat offenses, which leaves everyone stuck in a perpetual cycle of oppression.
When we think about oppression, we often only think of the oppressed as being stuck and therefore, the only people in need of liberation. But the truth is, both the oppressor and the oppressed are stuck, and their liberation is bound. Imagine someone pinned down on the ground unable to move because someone else is holding them there. Our first mind says that the one being held down is the only one in need of freedom, but the reality is, both are stuck. The oppressed can’t get up, and for that to remain true, the oppressor can’t let up. In order to end oppression, both the oppressed and the oppressor have to be liberated.
Proper forgiveness is a lot like oppression; it requires that both be liberated in order to experience prophetic relief. Whereas with oppression, the one in need of liberation is obviously the one being pinned down, with the oppressor being the unlikely candidate in need of freedom as well. The inverse is true for black forgiveness; black forgiveness liberates the oppressor without also freeing ourselves from the confines of anger and resentment. Black forgiveness allows the oppressor to let up, but we don’t get up – continuing to be pinned to the ground by a “pathetic” grief.
Dr. Cornel West’s words are apropos and worth repeating, “Forgiveness is not an utterance. It’s a process. We are a loving people. We’ve taught the world so much about love because we’ve been hated so, but to forgive a day or so after…something’s wrong with that – that’s a twisted sympathy and a pathological empathy – you forgive as you have worked it through – You just make sure you don’t hate. That’s the key. Don’t hate. Forgiveness comes later.”
Let our black love continue to teach the world how-to love even when being hated; and let our black forgiveness be the kind of forgiveness that allows us to love our neighbor as we have first loved ourselves.