They Dared to Forgive (Donald Nwankwo)

They Dared to Forgive (Donald Nwankwo) July 8, 2015

Screen Shot 2015-01-20 at 7.49.32 AMFrom Donald Nwankwo (Anglican Deacon)

News about the response of relatives of some of the slain members of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. was so strong it stood on its own legs as a news item, side by side the massacre at a weekday prayer meeting. At the bond hearing, some of the victims’ family members pronounced their offer of forgiveness to the alleged killer, Dylann Roof. Reactions to this pronouncement have been mixed – welcomed by some, unwelcome by others, all over the media. In the past few days, I have pondered the issues, and below are some of my thoughts.

Why such forgiveness could be discomforting to some:

It is normally helpful to hear all sides with the best possible benefit of the argument. Some of the negative reactions were more constructive than others. In this section, I will simply attempt to garner what I think to be the main idea behind the reactions of those who showed disfavor with the pronouncement of forgiveness.

  1. Was it too quick? Some of the negative reaction, I think, reflected a background question of whether these church members had even had enough time to process this magnitude of an experience and verified that they really have forgiven. Millicent Brown, a civil rights activist was reported on NPR as saying: “I think it’s disingenuous at best. I understand the stages of grief and you don’t usually jump to forgiveness first” (NPR Morning show, Jul 2, 2015). For this group, they are wondering if this declaration is real, or simply an attempt at some public show of Christian life that denies the reality of their deep feelings.
  2. Does such response help or hurt the wider social problem? “This is a wider social issue that can’t be solved just by forgiveness,” some critics seemed to imply. For this group of reactions, It seems they are reacting from a perspective that sees the pronouncement as a way to dodge, or avoid, confrontation within the wider society on what they consider an endemic social issue that should be addressed. They must be afraid that a pronouncement of forgiveness might cause an end to, rather than stretch out, what should be a continuing public confrontation, especially in the way they would rather it continued.
  3. Is this not simply a sign of weakness veiled by religion? I will simply generalize on this third group as the one that considers the offer of forgiveness to be a sign of weakness.

Possible misunderstandings about such acts of forgiveness:

  1. The nature of forgiveness: Forgiveness says less about one’s actual feeling and more about the choice of a response. It does not deny the reality. In fact, in many ways, it acknowledges reality. Offering forgiveness to anyone, by itself at least, must imply an acknowledgement of wrongdoing, adverse to us, done by that person. So it sounds a bit strange, logically speaking, for anyone who offers forgiveness to be directly accused of denying the reality. On what basis then are they forgiving? It follows then, that the suggestion to react in a different way is still not one that is centered of the feeling, but rather it is advice that is at the realm of the response. Forgiveness is a response, not the feeling itself. It says something like, “Even though I have been hurt or wronged, I choose not to keep you under the tyranny of my grievance, but to set you (and myself) free from the cold battle of ill-feelings, hate, and desire for retaliation.” This then puts it in good context when the daughter of a 70-year-old victim acknowledges some of the implications: “I will never talk with her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again.” And yet goes on to say: “But, I forgive you.” It allows a revered, superior way of life to trump natural impulses and propensity.

It is tricky to strap down forgiveness as a manifestation of any specific stage of grief. First, the stages of grief do not necessarily refer to our actions as much as to what is happening internally that might help explain those active responses or tendencies. They are tools to help us understand our shifting attitudes as we grieve over time. This is why for different people, the same stage could play out differently externally. Forgiveness, therefore, does not solely have to be a product of the final stage called ‘acceptance’. In any case, acceptance as a stage does not necessarily mean you have become okay with what happened, it simply means you have come to terms with the reality and implications of it. The point is, forgiveness can come at that stage, but nothing prevents it from playing out at any stage (except perhaps, denial). If anything, its timing could be indicative of a person’s in-depth shaping and formation, playing out in character.

In fact, speaking of grief and the stages of it, in certain cases forgiveness could be a good way to lift a heavy burden off our shoulders which then allows us to grieve in a healthier manner – again, depending on situations.

  1. Forgiveness, in view of the wider social discourse: Unlike how it may appear on the surface, forgiveness actually sees beyond the present and certainly beyond the human perpetrator. To be sure, it does not remove responsibility from the person, but Christians ultimately see the underlying enemy (and battle) differently. And, in the battle against this underlying enemy, forgiveness for humans can be deadly for that enemy. This, also, does not remove the wider social range of the issue. In my view, offering forgiveness to Dylan does nothing to shut down the social debates and discussions. It should actually enhance it. It only sets up a different kind of atmosphere for it. If anything, the light shone by the response of these believers only makes the darkness of the evil done by the shooter more disgusting. And such behavior, at least to a civilized society, ought to propel the conscience of the people to want to deal with that issue, which allows the underlying enemy’s intentions even less room for operation in the circumstance. Forgiveness can sometimes be a flashlight that illuminates the dark places and reveals even more clearly the badness of a terrible situation – bringing people to a revived conscience.

The ongoing challenge of forgiveness and the nature of Christian discipleship:

Anyone who has submitted to biblical discipleship understands how some tough aspects of spiritual formation happen. Sometimes we make the right choices because we have already been shaped to do so. But other times we commit to what we know to be the right thing, in spite of our current conflicting inclinations. And that commitment acts as a jump-start to live into it. It is like committing to a tough choice in spite of your weakness, but one you know to be right, and doing so in lieu of what you know or the person you desire to be in that context. This latter scenario is what I might call – advance commitment. That choice, even when our desires prompt us differently, is made in some sort of advance and borne on the wings of hope.

The challenge therefore is with time as it passes, and with the moments of weakness that are sure to come afterwards. These people remain broken. The grief continues. In fact, it should. The church entrance will still bring back fearful memories. Their minds will still play games on them as they gather each weekday and stay out some 90 minutes of prayer time with each other, before that altar. They will go home each night to miss their loved ones. It will be a tough road going forward. These make forgiveness difficult as an ongoing journey. But they committed to forgiveness when they publicly proclaimed it, and that advance-commitment will play a role in their hearts when they battle the bitterness that will come back now and then. Some lonely night will still come when all this media and social upheaval settles down. And sometimes they might wonder, themselves, if they really should have forgiven. The tears and fears are not over yet, but they dared to forgive.


Browse Our Archives

Close Ad