Carlyle Fielding Stewart III

Writings on Democracy, Social Justice, and Religion

“The Power of Forgiveness.”

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The past week people have been amazed and perplexed at the forgiveness offered to the murderer of the slain victims by their family members in Charleston South Carolina.

Some have observed that such forgiveness is impossible to render given the horror of the crime, the depths of the family’s pain, the repetition of such horrendous and senseless racial violence against black people in history, and the magnitude of despondency and grief they must be experiencing from such a dastardly act.

Others have stated that such forgiveness was offered far too quickly and can only be disingenuous if not premature at best.

Still others have affirmed that forgiving the gunman at a bond hearing is highly unusual and must be part of some political stagecraft or ploy designed to prevent the escalation of violence in Charleston as in Baltimore and so many other cities across America.

Since the perpetrator allegedly desired to start a race war by murdering in cold blood those innocent people, they surmise that politicians and authorities who could see the handwriting on the wall of a potential race war erupting in Charleston, decided to take preemptive action by having family members speak words of forgiveness publicly to the murderer.

There is still another school of thought which affirms that such forgiveness is possible even after hundreds of years of unmitigated racial violence against African-Americans. It is forgiveness rooted in a deep and profound faith practice enabling scores of black folks to survive mainly through the practice of nonviolence in a culture of perpetual violence and race hatred. Forgiveness is a spiritual form of nonviolence which forgoes the rule of lex talionis or an eye for an eye.

This religious practice embraces an understanding of the Judaeo-Christian faith as more than a historical religion depicting the life histories and events of bible people, but actualizes itself in the context of daily experience as codified ethical faith practice sustained by an amazing power to face and overcome evil.

The journey and liberation of the Hebrews from Egyptian bondage is a monumental historical event which chronicles the daily faith practice of the Hebrews and later to be Israelites in renaming, redefining and becoming a self-determining people of  God.

While Moses led them to freedom and God authored, inspired and made possible their manumission from slavery, the intimate details of that self-determinative behavior which gave urgency and impetus to their quest for freedom is not always readily discernable to the bible reader.

What we get in reading that history are divine moral imperatives demanding the freedom of God’s people from slavery and tyranny in human history. We see the collective anguish of an oppressed people in Egypt, their individual and aggregate challenges and conflicts in the Wilderness and in Canaan, but cannot observe specifically the intimate details of their spiritual survival playbook, their individual and collective psychological dexterity and solidarity, their will to faith and freedom shaped and sharpened through their continued resiliency in facing all forms of peril and hardship.

James C. Scott’s Weapons of the Weak and Herbert Aptheker’s American Negro Slave Revolts, provide glimpses into the various tactics and techniques utilized under conditions of oppression which become codified common practices all requiring practical ingenuity and unyielding faith, strength and determination that would see them through the myriad storms and fires of daily experience.

Similarly, it is difficult to visualize and appreciate the multiple ways in which African-Americans have mastered spiritual survival techniques over hundreds of years of slavery and oppression. Adopting  the various sensibilities of the larger culture and adapting themselves to largely inclement and hostile environments, they have managed to “get over” by having a tensile strength, prescient wit, a faith and fortitude to adapt their behavior to multiple social conditions from protest to accommodation.

How can we sing the Lord’s song  in a strange land? We can sing the Lord’s song because the Lord gives us the strength to sing His songs wherever we find ourselves.

Forgiveness as a religious principle with moral and ethical reverberations has always possessed practical daily value and been a strong component of African-American faith practice and witness in America. Throughout their history, black people have basically learned to “love”(agape) their haters and forgive the unforgivable. It is praxis rooted in the daily quest for sanity and survival that still lives on today, and still makes a powerful statement of faith and freedom in the wake of the Charleston tragedy.

It is no surprise then that the families of the victims could speak so confidently and determinately in the midst of their pain so as to not perish in the hell fires of escalating and all-consuming retaliatory racial hatred. They have had years of faith training and practice against wily, cunning and violent adversaries and have learned to maneuver and outflank them through a series of faith strategies that would help them win the day. They would have perished or been consumed by the burning embers of destructive rage many years ago had they not learned to adapt to their volatile circumstances by forgiving their enemies.

What I mean here is a not a sentimental, mushy forgiveness that quixotically and irresponsibly dismisses the bigotry and violence against black people over many years of racial oppression, but the type that has been offered and explained in part by authors Ken Sande and Kevin Johnson in their book Resolving Everyday Conflict.

Sande and Johnson remind us of several key factors regarding forgiveness which might give us a clue to the capacity of persons to demonstrate such indomitable strength and will in overcoming the wounds and pain inflicted on them by others.

For Christian faith believers and practitioners,  forgiveness is a strength requiring divine intervention and God’s help. Overcoming feelings of anger, resentment and vengeance is necessary to move to a place of resolution, transcendence, and healing.

Forgiveness is not a feeling but an act of the will. It involves a series of hard decisions in which the victim must decide to forgive or not to forgive.

It is my belief that the capacity to forgive is both an expression of self-determination and freedom in a world seeking to determine the nature of that freedom by dictating and mapping psychologically the terms of the victim’s responses to such violence. If the response to such violence is violence, then the perpetrator is “justified” in his use of violence toward the victims because of his intrinsic hatred for that person.

“Forgiveness isn’t forgetting.”Forgetting is a passive process, letting the matter fade from memory merely with the passing of time. Forgiving is an active process involving a conscious choice and a deliberate course of action. To put it another way, when God says that he “remembers our sins no more (Isaiah 43:25), God does not mean he can’t remember our sins. Rather, he is promising that he won’t remember them. When God forgives us God chooses not to mention, recount or think about our sins ever again. The same is similar for us when we have been hurt or people have sinned against us. Forgiveness isn’t a matter of whether we forget but how we remember.”

The Lord’s Prayer says, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” There is a transactional component to forgiveness, and as Sande explains in his book Peacemakers, there are two basic types: positional forgiveness where the person forgives the sin despite the sinners failure to repent or turn around from that sin, and transactional forgiveness which is rendered when the sinner repents for his transgression.

“Forgiveness also isn’t excusing. Excusing says “That’s okay,” and implies, “What you did wasn’t really wrong. You couldn’t help it.” Forgiveness is the opposite of excusing. Forgiveness says, “We both know that what you did was wrong. It was without excuse. But since God has forgiven me, I forgive you.” Because forgiveness deals honestly with sin, it brings to freedom that no amount of excusing could ever hope to provide.” 

Moreover, and contrary to some widespread beliefs, it is possible for people to forgive the terrible things that happen to them. But no one possesses the right to determine the duration of the time that it takes to forgive others or the form or nature of that forgiveness. Forgiveness is far too complex to make tepid assertions about its essence, impact, value and power under such pressurized social circumstances.

While many people are amazed at the capacity of people to state that they had forgiven the assailant so quickly for his crimes, it takes a special strength through the power of God, and movement of the Holy Spirit and God’s amazing Grace to choose not to hold the same animosities or instigate a festering malice in one’s heart toward the perpetrator.

As stated, this takes an enormous spiritual breadth and depth through repeated faith practice to not allow the hatred and violence of the victimizer to take permanent residence in the hearts, minds and souls of those who have been victimized by such violence.

We know that the declaration of forgiveness for the victim’s families was a powerful statement of continuing faith practice rooted in a tradition of emancipation and freedom. We do know that while living in a culture of racial violence and always being the potential targets of it, they freely chose to not become the violence they abhor.

While living in a culture of racial hatred they will not become race haters in return but will live on as self-determining, free persons of God. They refuse to become the evil they seek to eradicate through the pursuit of a higher moral good.

The victim’s families made a statement of practical faith and belief that they would not live under the same yoke of hatred and the bondage of rage which prompted the gunman to take the lives of their beloved family members.

To say that they forgave the killer was also a spiritual renunciation not only of the violent act itself but the entire ethos of violence in America which gives sanction and license, authority and hegemony to such illicit and reprehensible behavior and thus glorifies and enshrines it as normative social practice.

Such forgiveness is also part of an ongoing spiritual protest in a society where compassion and forgiveness are almost looked upon as intolerable and weak but in reality call into account the values of the society which views these spiritual qualities as neither feasible, tenable and perhaps even at times “subversive.”

The statements of forgiveness from the victims families is inherently a declaration of freedom that neither they nor their children’s children or any future generations would ever choose to live perpetually as powerless victims but henceforth would thrive as triumphant victors over the hatred, malice, evil and despair of the gunman and those persons who may have sponsored or incited his behavior. Their statement of forgiveness was another way of openly and defiantly breaking the chains of defeat, rage and revenge.

Forgiveness is a power that liberates the victim from the lingering calamities of hopelessness, the festering bondage of self-annihilating indignation and the all-consuming caldron of unforgiving rage.

Forgiveness is also the power of a people experiencing a long history of oppression to possess the freedom to choose their own spiritual weapons that would ultimately deliver them from the dregs of despondency to the summit of hope and moral responsibility thereby demonstrating their true moral integrity and dignity. This practice comes from a sustained and unwavering spiritual faith gained from personal experience which chooses not the weapons of the world but spiritual weapons to fight such battles of good and evil for the battle is truly the Lord’s.

There is power in forgiveness and what we witnessed that day in Charleston is emblematic of a long history of faith and freedom spiritual practice by black folks in America who have experienced more than their share of racial violence and bigotry which ultimately devalue and desecrate not only black life but all human life on earth.

It is that degradation of human life and the human spirit that forgiveness does not excuse but morally, spiritually and pragmatically challenges, defies and ultimately repudiates as a way living and responding to race hatred and race violence in America.

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