The Fading of Forgiveness
I’m a fan of Tim Keller who I believe is one of the most gifted pastors and theologians of our time. The founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, Keller’s down to earth communication style has always appealed to me. I’ve particularly been impressed with how he makes difficult subjects easy to understand along with his ability to share a biblical point of view without trying to shove his opinions down your throat.
With that in mind, this week I’m sharing the beginning of a recent article that Keller authored for Comment Magazine on the subject of forgiveness for your consideration. I’ve also enclosed the link to the article should you be interested in reading it in its entirety.
I hope it challenges your thinking on this important subject as it did me.
Tracing the Disappearance of the Thing We Need Most
Originally published in Comment Magazine, Spring 2021
Offended by Forgiveness
After the 2014 deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York City, a new movement for racial justice emerged, especially embodied by a new loose network called Black Lives Matter. “This ain’t your grandfather’s civil rights movement,” said rapper Tef Poe. This one, he said, would be much angrier. At an October protest in Ferguson, street activists heckled and turned their backs on the president of the NAACP.
Unlike the older civil rights protesters, journalists on the ground in Ferguson reported that the activists were “hurling insults and curses” at police.
After relatives of the nine African Americans killed in Charleston, South Carolina, publicly said to the shooter, Dylann Roof, “I forgive you,” a Washington Post opinion piece by Stacey Patton responded with the headline “Black America Should Stop Forgiving White Racists.”
“The parade of forgiveness is disconcerting to say the least,” she wrote. The expectation and admiration for black people’s forgiveness “is about protecting whiteness, and America as a whole. When black forgiveness is the means for white atonement, it enables white denial about the harms that racist violence creates.”
Barbara Reynolds, a septuagenarian who had marched in the civil rights protests of the 1960s, wrote a counterpoint essay in the same newspaper. She said that the original movements led by Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela were marked by “the ethics of love, forgiveness and reconciliation,” and they triumphed because of “the power of the spiritual approach.” While admiring BLM’s “cause and courage,” Reynolds concluded that love and forgiveness “are missing from this movement.” She argued that forgiveness disarms the oppressors and wins over many of their supporters, weakening the system. “If you get angry,” she quotes Andrew Young as saying, “it is contagious, and you end up acting as bad as the perpetrators.”
But Stacey Patton, representing this younger generation of activists, was having none of it. Many black Christians had believed “that displays of morality rooted in forgiveness would force white America to leave behind its racist assumptions.” But, Patton argued, “our constant forgiveness [only] perpetuates the cycle of attacks and abuse.”
Three years after the emergence of this new racial justice movement, Harvey Weinstein’s sexual abuse case set off another mass movement for justice: #MeToo. Almost immediately the issue of forgiveness came to the fore. Danielle Berrin wrote an article titled, “Should We Forgive the Men Who Assaulted Us?” in The New York Times. She concluded that she was not ready to forgive her assailant but held out the possibility that substantial repentance on his part, accompanied by “restitution made publicly as well as privately,” might move her to forgive.
Other voices were less open. The supposed moral obligation of forgiveness was seen as an instrument by which those in power maintained their position. One comment on Berrin’s article vividly summarized a growing view:
The notion that the victims of crime, oppression and sexual assault must forgive their oppressors piles more oppression and harshness on the victim. . . Insisting that she forgive . . . plays into the sickness of patriarchal misogynistic male-supremacist religions that blame women. Forgiveness is overrated. It heals [neither] the body or mind. . . Let the criminal ask his gods, if there be any, for forgiveness. . . Instead of talking about victims must forgive, we should be talking about tattooing the words “Rapist” or “Sexual Predator” on the foreheads of the criminals—this would actually help make women and children safer.
Today, after the renewal of the racial justice movement in the wake of George Floyd’s death, the emphasis on guilt and justice is ever more on the rise and the concept of forgiveness seems, especially to the younger generation, increasingly problematic. What are the influences that are making forgiveness problematic in our culture?