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The Fading of Forgiveness

Tracing the disappearance of the thing we need most.

Tim Keller

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.”

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