The families of the members of Mother Emmanuel AME Church will not be grieved by their oppressor’s indifference, malice, or lunacy. They may not experience reconciliation, but they can be whole because of Christ. Even within the church, many will be amazed. Given the on-going brutality in this fallen world, it’s never too soon for this conspicuous demonstration of God’s transforming healing through forgiveness. – Joy J. Moore, “A Time To Forgive?”, Good News, August 27, 2015
[R]econciliation means that we blacks must accept our new existence by struggling against all who try to make us slaves. We must refuse to let whites define the terms of reconciliation. Instead, we must participate in God’s revolutionary activity in the world by changing the political, economic, and social structures so that the distinctions between rich and poor, oppressed and oppressors, are no longer a reality among people. . . The task of black people is to rebel against all white asters, destroying their pretensions to authority and ridiculing the symbols of power. White people must be made to realize that reconciliation is a costly experience. . . . Reconciliation means death, and only those who are prepared to die in the struggle for freedom will experience new life with God. . . . I contend that only black people can define the terms on which our reconciliation with white people will become real. – James H. Cone, God Of The Oppressed, pp. 238-239
A few months back, Lisa and I had the opportunity to return to one of her previous churches, celebrating a special anniversary with beloved friends and other former pastors. At the dinner afterward – and we wouldn’t be United Methodist if there wasn’t a dinner afterward – one of those dear old friends came up to me. He looked a bit embarrassed, and told me he felt he needed to apologize to me. I couldn’t imagine what for. He then told me he was apologizing for a “heated” exchange we had on Facebook. I looked at him, surprised. I told him that no apology was needed; heated on-line exchanges are part and parcel of our new, virtual, world. If we can’t deal even with friends with whom we disagree on matters of importance, then we might well need to take a break from Internet conversations entirely. Disagreements on matters of importance are part and parcel of life. Why should anyone apologize to me because he or she expresses disagreement?
When we talk about “forgiveness” in any kind of Christian sense, this is usually what is offered: two or more persons who express embarrassment or awkwardness as some point of disagreement, and another either laughing it off (as I did) or accepting an apology with grace.
This has nothing at all to do with the forgiveness about which we pray in the Lord’s prayer. It isn’t at all the forgiveness to which we are called in our living out the Christian life. I would go so far as to say that if we leave forgiveness at such a mundane level, we have no idea what “forgiveness” and “reconciliation” really are.
First and foremost, real Christian forgiveness isn’t a human possibility at all. In the Psalms we learn that when God removes our sin, it disappears from God’s memory; sin is removed from us as far as the east is from the west. Because of God’s gracious desire to live in a restored relationship with fallen humanity, the forgiveness we receive is total and radical. But we must always remember the cost to God for this forgiveness to be effective. Only through the suffering, death, and resurrection of the Son of God, Jesus Christ, is this kind of Divine prodigal love open to all of us and each of us. For us to treat this enormous gift as license to offer simple apologies for social faux pas is taking the name of the Lord in vain.
Real forgiveness, and with it real reconciliation, is not possible for us on our own. Consider the centuries of Irish civil violence or the ongoing struggles between Israel and its Arab and Persian neighbors. I am quite sure individuals have offered and received genuine forgiveness; the groups, however, remain unforgiven and unreconciled because no matter how comprehensive or thorough a political agreement may be, this does not do the job of forgiveness or reconciliation. That is God’s work, available to us and through us to be sure, yet always and only ever God’s work.
Which brings me to the matter of the shootings at Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC and the amazing, impossible, miraculous acts of forgiveness offered to the shooter from the relatives of his victims. We stand amazed, consider it impossible, and name it a miracle not only because, on a purely human level, we onlookers cannot understand how such a thing is possible; we act so because the social and political context of this act of forgiveness. A people who live under threat of violence, both from organs of the state as well as ordinary citizens, facing yet another act of violence against their own, stand and say, “You are forgiven”. The cost of this act – and I’m not speaking emotionally; I’m talking about the physical cost, the relational cost – has to have been enormous. African peoples have suffered dehumanization, enslavement, and mass murder at the hands of white people and a political and legal system designed to maintain a racist socio-economic and political system for almost four hundred years now. For us whites looking on, understanding this horrific event in its proper context is nearly impossible; hearing the forgiveness offered becomes truly miraculous, something we would insist we could not do.
Except, of course, it isn’t “possible”. It is, however, available to us through the grace of the God whose Son died on the cross. Only for this reason can anyone say, in Truth because it is the Truth of the Risen Crucified Jesus Christ, “I forgive you.” Precisely because of their particular history of dehumanization, African-American Christians understand the reality of forgiveness and reconciliation as the costly event it really is. To hold up their act as in some way a model for our, white, possibilities is to strip their action of its real significance. Not to insist real repentance must accompany Godly forgiveness is to offer up cheap grace, the maintenance of the status quo, and no chance for us whites to sit at the feet of our African-American fathers and mothers and learn what it is to live both as God’s people as well as those called no people by the world around us. Only then, only when forgiveness and reconciliation become a way of life, can we even have a discussion of the impossible, miraculous actions of the folks from Mother Emmanuel Church.
It isn’t a model for us to follow. It is judgment upon our own sinfulness. It is the conviction of our ongoing complicity in systems of racial violence. If we aren’t hearing that, rather than looking for some kind of pattern to imitate without any consideration both of the theological and social realities, then we’re looking for cheap grace.