The Incomprehensible Witness of Forgiveness (Part Two)
Being the first to forgive may indeed be otherworldly
Seven years ago, I wrote about the extraordinary acts of forgiveness extended by family members of the black churchgoers massacred by Dylann Roof in Charleston, South Carolina on June 15, 2015. I titled that piece, like this one, “The Incomprehensible Witness of Forgiveness.” What struck me then—and now—is how offensive the idea of forgiveness sounds to so many.
In 2015, I was responding in part to New York Times columnist Roxane Gay, who insisted that some acts like the Charleston massacre are “beyond forgiving” and that she personally was “done forgiving.” Curiously, Gay still expressed “deep respect” for those family members who forgave, all of whom acted out of their Christian commitments. But as I wrote in response to her essay:
If forgiveness really merits condemnation or skepticism, then why not focus on those who gave it instead of deflecting, deconstructing, or downplaying their acts? The scandal of forgiveness does not lie with the media or the narrative—it lies with the very nature of Christian forgiveness: “Just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” And when Peter asked Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus replied, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”
If the kind of forgiveness commanded by Jesus is indeed incomprehensible, it should be unsurprising that many people will reject it as misguided or even immoral. The challenge for those whose faith commands forgiveness—Christian or otherwise—is to show why it matters.
In the News
Last week, my post about “pandemic forgiveness” engaged with Emily Oster’s Atlantic article, “Let’s Declare a Pandemic Amnesty.” I also reflected on the nature of forgiveness by drawing upon many of the same sources I referenced in my earlier piece on Charleston. While I wasn’t sure what pandemic reconciliation would look like on a social level, I suggested that we might look first to our individual relationships with friends and family whose pandemic choices created relational rifts.
I received some strong reactions in comments on Substack, on Twitter, and in private messages. For those of you who don’t want to scroll through the Twitter responses (365 at the time of this writing), here are a few that reflect their substance and tone:
Among the negative Substack comments, reader Eric W. wrote:
“Hell no. . . . We will never forgive. We will never forget.”
Reader Maureen wrote:
Your essay is nothing but self-serving BS. . . . And, for what it’s worth, speak for yourself. Some of us have no “COVID missteps” to apologize for. Not all of us have made “pandemic mistakes.”
Reader Paul R. wrote me privately to say: “F*ck you. You and everyone else who ruined people’s lives should get the worst kind of cancer. Eat Sh*t and die” (asterisks mine).
In My Head
I’m sure that some of the vitriol came my way after Emily Oster retweeted my post; indeed, many of the Twitter responses to my post seem directed at her. But most of the responses I have highlighted above came from people responding directly to me.
A number of the responses conflated forgiveness with either reconciliation or justice. Reconciliation, as I noted last week, is only possible when forgiveness is matched with repentance. Justice operates outside of the realm of forgiveness and repentance, and it is usually administered by the state.
Some of those responding to my post focused on public commentators and officials whose words and actions caused harm over the course of the pandemic. My post instead advocated for forgiveness and repentance in our interpersonal relationships:
It is more plausible—and more actionable—to think about forgiveness and repentance in our individual and interpersonal relationships. Like you, I have friends and family whose pandemic choices have complicated and in some cases wounded our relationships. In many of these cases, forgiveness is far preferable to holding grudges or keeping score.
In my own case, I know of strained relationships in both directions: some of my friends and family were more cautious than I thought warranted while others were not cautious enough.
It may be that those responding to my post are unwilling to forgive their friends and family. But as the family members of those murdered in Charleston demonstrate, forgiveness is possible—and often extraordinarily powerful. And some of the most powerful examples of forgiveness precede both reconciliation and justice.
In fact, even seemingly mundane acts of forgiveness transcend ordinary human interactions. Injustices large and small cannot be fully remedied by any act of human justice or vengeance. But forgiveness can cancel an unpayable debt. As I wrote in 2015, forgiveness “may be the most God-like power we possess.”
In the World
If the tenor of the responses to last week’s post is any kind of a bellwether of broader social tensions, there’s much to be said about the political implications. I hope to do so in a later post. But for now, I don’t want to lose sight of the fundamental premise of last week’s post: the personal and political power of forgiveness.
The acts of forgiveness that emerged after the Charleston massacre are covered in the 2019 film, Emanuel. As the film’s website notes:
Featuring intimate interviews with survivors and family members, Emanuel, from Executive Producers Stephen Curry and Viola Davis, & Co-Producer Mariska Hargitay, is a poignant story of justice and faith, love and hate, examining the healing power of forgiveness.
I appreciate the film’s nuance in covering not only those who forgave but also those who were unable to forgive. The Charleston massacre is a tragedy of immense evil, and the pain and loss it inflicted will be felt for decades. But it is punctuated by the powerful—and incomprehensible—witness of forgiveness.