Who Really Benefits From Forgiveness?

June 24, 2015  |  

What does it mean to forgive?

That has been the question of the hour after the terrorist attack in Charleston, South Carolina left nine Black people dead inside of what was supposed to be a safe place.

There has been a lot of pushback to the idea that Dylann Roof deserves forgiveness, particularly from the families who offered it to him during his bond hearing for the single gun charge.

Yesha Callahan writes in a passionate piece titled “Dear Black People: Stop Being So Forgiving“:

I’m going to need black people to stop being so forgiving. This forgiveness thing has plagued us for centuries. I’m quite sure forgiveness was taught to black people by slave masters, the same people who taught black people Christianity. Isn’t it ironic?

Throughout history, black people have been benevolent and forgiving. And where has that gotten us? It’s gotten the families in South Carolina a white judge who told them in front of a merciless killer that they should forgive.

No other group of people have been expected to be so forgiving to those who’ve hated, killed and made them second class citizens. Has anyone yet asked or expected Holocaust survivors to forgive?

Roof’s act of domestic terrorism was a calculated and premeditated act. Fuck forgiving him.

And for those who say that forgiveness some how makes your heart better? Show me receipts and prove it.

Echoing those sentiments is Xolela Mangcu, a professor at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, who wrote for The Root:

In every discussion of racial injustice – whether in South Africa or the United States –  the first consideration is to white feelings.  South Africa is in the midst of a national debate about affirmative action. My own university, the University of Cape Town, did away with race-based affirmative action on the grounds that qualified white students were being excluded in favor of unqualified black students. The mobilization of sympathy for these ‘poor’ white kids is blind to the structural exclusion of black kids by not only the admissions process but by a culture that says these institutions properly belong to Whites.  White supremacy reproduces itself by a combination of entitlement to privilege and forgiveness, and an entitlement to black lives as whites present themselves as victims of reverse racism.

I am on the fence. I get it. I get accountability. I get confronting White supremacy, or rather, getting White supremacy to confront itself. Likewise, those in the church have used respectability and the Bible as a way to temper activism and also to inflict harm on others, in particular, the LGBTQ community and women. As such, forgiveness can seem a lot like compliance. At the same time, I am extremely uncomfortable having this conversation right now when the families of these victims – the people who are most affected by these terrorist attacks – are hurting so much.

I don’t know how I would react if I were in that position. I do know that I have held grudges for less. I would like to think that I would be angry, and I would like to think that I would go full Clyde Shelton in the film Law Abiding Citizen and take everybody out. But who is to say? Thank God I am not, and have never been, in that position. In reality, I would more than likely feel helpless, deterred and depressed as opposed to feeling like a vigilante out for justice. And I would probably be wondering to God, why?

What I do know is that extending the olive branch is not something that Black people only do for White people. In Rwanda, where the genocide was Black on Black, Hutu on Tutsi to be more exact, the survivors granted forgiveness as a way to move on. In North Minneapolis, 59-year-old Mary Byrd not only forgave Oshea Israel, who shot her only child, Laramiun, to death during an argument at a party, but she peacefully lives next door to him.

Writer Lauren Giordano profiled Everett Worthington, a professor of psychology at Virginia Community University whose 78-year-old mother was murdered during a home burglary. It was an article in The Atlantic called “The Forgiveness Boost.” Prior to his mother’s murder, Worthington had been actively studying how and why people forgive and even created a method to help others in their own effort to forgive. Naturally, being faced with the reality of what had previously just been a theory was a hard pill to swallow. But Worthington decided to follow through with his method, which included recalling the incident, empathizing, altruistically forgiving, committing to the process and finally, holding on to forgiveness even when anger resurfaces.

And as Giordano wrote of Worthington, the hardest part was empathizing with the man who viciously took the life of his mother. But, “What helped on the empathy front, Worthington says, was that after the intruder killed McNeill, he ran from room to room, smashing all of the mirrors with the crowbar—even in the rooms he didn’t search. Worthington took it as a sign that he couldn’t look at himself.”

Through this process, Worthington told Giordano that he was not only able to forgive in less than a month, but his life was better for the experience. Whereas his brother, who had never forgiven the killer and held onto the anger and pain, killed himself several years later. In the piece, Giordano also wrote about the benefits of forgiveness:

But beyond that, forgiving people are markedly physically healthier than unforgiving ones. A 2005 study published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine found that participants who considered themselves more forgiving had better health across five measures: physical symptoms, the number of medications used, sleep quality, fatigue, and medical complaints. The study authors found that this was because the process of forgiveness tamped down negative emotions and stress.

In other words, forgiveness at times is more than offering someone a pass for their crimes or misdeeds against you. But rather, it is a matter of reaffirming faith, and in some cases, gaining faith. It is a crutch when all else feels hopeless. And it is a matter of moving on instead of being held hostage by pain that is more harmful to you personally than it will ever be helpful.

I am not these families, but I imagine there are probably a few relatives struggling with living after losing someone they loved so much. And their faith and the act of forgiveness is probably the only thing making life bearable right now. I don’t know about anyone else, but who the hell am I to question that or try to take that away from them?

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