By Conference Minister: Diane Weible
I have thoughts about forgiveness. One of those is a statement that I will go so far as to say is a fact. The other is something that is an important belief for me.
The fact about forgiveness is that forgiveness is always the option of the person who has been harmed. It is never ok for someone to tell another person that they “should” forgive. A person who is harmed will forgive when they are ready to forgive.
The belief that I have related to forgiveness is that forgiveness is really something that is done not just by the person who was harmed but for the sole benefit of the person that was harmed. The anger and pain that a victim carries with them causes its own damage and forgiveness offers the victim a way forward towards healing and wholeness. If, in the process of offering forgiveness, the person who caused the harm is able to hear and/or receive that forgiveness, that is an added benefit. But, it is not the reason one forgives.
We live in a culture that rushes to forgiveness. If someone has hurt you people will tell you to forgive (and forget) and move on. We quote scripture where Jesus tells us we should forgive seventy times seven. A problematic harm of privilege is that we tell people they should “get over it” and “forgive and move on.” (Or, in the case of generations of harm, we diminish another person’s pain when we say something like “it didn’t happen to you personally so why do you continue to say you are harmed?”) We fail to recognize that the harm caused by slavery and Native American genocide and other atrocities inflicted on people of color lives on in families and communities, passed down from generation to generation, and forgiveness without reparation only magnifies and perpetuates the harm.
Last month I went with a group of ten or so leaders in the United Church of Christ to see the movie, “Emmanuel”. This movie was shown for two nights in theaters around the country in recognition of the anniversary of the murders at Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston. The group I went with had all just gathered in Milwaukee for General Synod.
The movie had a solid theme of forgiveness by the victims of the shooting and their families. Some of the interviewees talked about how immediate forgiveness was for some of them. A few were clear that they don’t know when they will ever be able to forgive. This theme of forgiveness generated a lot of contemplation for me. I learned from others after the movie that I was not alone in that contemplation.
My problem was not with the decision of so many of the victims to forgive because, as I said, forgiveness is always the prerogative of the person who is hurt and it is their decision when and how to offer that forgiveness.
The issue I struggled with the most was the choice to make forgiveness the main theme in the movie to begin with. The story of Mother Emmanuel is a story about a white supremacist who murdered people in hopes of beginning a race war. It is also a story of racial tension in a community and in a nation that became so clear after the tragedy. This tension is rooted in incredible pain that began with a country built on the backs of slave labor and extends to the continued abuse and discrimination of people today because their skin color is not white.
What I think I am beginning to understand about the rush to forgive is that when something happens that harms an individual or a community, the rush is about making it all go back to normal as quickly as we can so that we can feel better and feel that it’s been resolved. Somehow we have attributed forgiveness to be the key to make that happen. The problem is, it is never that easy. When a person or persons harm others, we can’t just make it go away and make everything feel normal again without a lot of work on the part of those who caused the harm and on the victims who need to find healing. Even if we think we have gotten there, we will discover down the road that the healing was never complete and the scab will eventually be ripped away.
Maybe where I want to go with forgiveness is to ask each of us to consider those actions in our lives that we want someone to forgive us for and see if we can turn it around. Instead of hoping another person will forgive me for what I have done to them, can I examine where in my life I have or need to change in order to be a person who will not repeat the action in the future? What can I do in my life to demonstrate to the person I harmed that I am sorry for what I did and I will continue to seek to grow in the areas I need to grow in order to be the person that God wants and needs me to be? Can I focus on becoming the kind of person who is worthy of forgiveness whether or not I am ever forgiven?
And, what is my obligation as a member of a community that has caused harm to another community? How do I need to show up every day in my work and in my life to seek transformation so that moving into the future means moving into a future of hope for healing and wholeness for all people? Can I face the damage that white privilege and white supremacy has caused and understand that I have an important role to play, both in perpetuating it and in working to dismantle it?
This work is important, I believe, whether we are talking about individuals or communities. Imagine how communities could be transformed if we focused on repairing the harm we have done rather than seeking forgiveness that may not even be ours to receive and certainly should never be something we feel entitled to receive. Something to contemplate for sure. And, something to work for as well.