Forgiveness and the State of White Supremacy in America

Charleston2Yesterday, Mother Emanuel AME reopened its doors after experiencing such a traumatic ordeal Wednesday evening. The congregation lost nine precious souls that evening – Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Tywanza Sanders, Myra Thompson, Ethel Lee Lance, Susie Jackson, Daniel L. Simmons, and Depayne Middleton Doctor – when a white male opened fire aiming to start a race war. By holding service instead of keeping its doors shut, the congregants displayed the great capacity of the human spirit to forgive. It sends a loud message not only to the shooter, but to the American society as a whole, that racism and terrorism will not stop God’s people from moving forward. Instead of being defined and crippled by white supremacy, this community is demonstrating that it will conquer it through forgiveness.

Forgiveness. It’s a term that has been evoked since Wednesday’s shooting. Just days after the incident, Chris Singleton, the son of Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, was praised for his ‘poise and strength’ and ability to forgive the shooter for killing his mother. Similarly, Marcus Stanley, a gospel singer from Virginia, posted to the shooter’s facebook wall an incredible message of forgiveness and grace. These are the messages that have gone viral and that have been uplifted in the media. They are important messages which reflect such amazing grace and mercy, but on their own, they are incomplete.

You see a message of forgiveness is wholly incomplete without a message of repentance. In times like these, we not only need to hear the words of forgiveness but also words of confession.  As African Americans, who have experienced this level of terrorism in our communities for 400 years, we need to hear “we’re sorry” more than we need to say “we forgive.” Yes, forgiveness is at the heart of the Gospel, but so is repentance. Indeed, we cannot even begin to receive God’s forgiveness until we repent. If this applies to our own relationship with God, why would we expect the arrangement to be any different in our own human dynamics?

Yet, if those in our society who tout the importance of forgiveness are honest with themselves and with us, we will begin to see that the urge to forgive is only masquerading as the gospel. In all actuality, forgiveness is being lifted up at such a critical time as this in order to disarm the grieving and silence the broken hearted. And as a result, the victimized are re-victimized again! In addition, demanding forgiveness without offering deep, sincere repentance, also leaves open the opportunity for such atrocities to happen again because it never deals with the wrongdoing.

Those in power must also be honest and admit that they are deftly afraid of black rage. As such, in rushing a wounded community to forgive they also demand us to put out the godly, justified anger that is welling up in our hearts and force us to quell our raging emotions. But once again, they fail to understand what the essence of forgiveness truly means. Reflecting on the murder of #MikeBrown nearly a year ago, Tracy M Lewis breaks the meaning of forgiveness down:

Forgiveness, and all the good it facilitates, is NOT the equivalent of blind allowance. Forgiveness does not mandate that I be silent. Forgiveness does not mean neutrality. It doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t rally around those who are the victims of violence or demand justice from the same people I know I must forgive. At some point, I have to think that a demand for compassion and forgiveness for those who hurt me or my children must somehow meet up with the demand for repentance and justice. While a demand for peace is certainly right, every action has a reaction. There are consequences–some of which will be meted out by those being commanded to be peaceful. This is especially true in a world that increasingly refuses God and His grace.

As Lewis states, forgiveness and repentance must meet. Together, these two powerful forces will bring about the change that our society needs. Although slavery was abolished 150 years as of this past Friday, the vestiges of white supremacy are still alive and well. The terrorist attack on Mother Emanuel AME this week is evidence of that. It is not an isolated incident but is connected to the larger narrative of dehumanization and marginalization of black life. Police brutality is also connected to that narrative, as is as mass incarceration, housing discrimination, unemployment, health disparities and the educational gap. We will fail in dismantling this horrific narrative if we do not raise repentance to the level of forgiveness.

Hand in hand, forgiveness and repentance will not only bring about change but it will usher in reconciliation. Reconciliation is when two individuals, groups or communities, that have been divided find their way back together, whole and healed. Reconciliation is of value because living in peace and harmony with one another is a worthy goal. We should aim to live in a society where everyone is treated with dignity and respect, and no one is discriminated against on account of their skin color is our goal.

In reporting on the reopening of Mother Emanuel AME’s doors, CNN contributor Van Jones suggested that reconciliation had taken place. I understand the desire to want to claim this as a victory, we certainly need a win, but he was so wrong! Reconciliation was missing because repentance was not present. As Curtiss DeYoung states in his book, Reconciliation: Our Greatest Challenge, Our Only Hope, “reconciliation is impossible until an individual (or a group of people) takes responsibility for the polarization that exists and takes action to create a better future.” To this date, neither the shooter nor America’s white supremacist society have taken action to create a better future for African Americans as a result of this atrocity.

The question before us now is how. How might this society, so entrenched in white supremacy, confess and repent of its sins against African Americans? How might those in power, not just say sorry, but put some teeth behind that sorry so that reconciliation and justice can be a reality and not just some unattainable idea? Here are just a few ways:

1. Confess and repent. The shooter needs to repent. South Carolina needs to repent. Our government needs to repent. The American Church needs to repent. The entire society needs to repent of the ways in which it has perpetually dehumanized, exploited and exterminated black life. This is where we need to start. A verbal “I’m sorry” that goes viral would be nice. At a deeper level, however, this nation needs a process that gives space for public confession of wrongdoing similarly to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up by Canada to address the crimes committed against the Aboriginal people (Native Indians).

2. Call this what it is. It is terrorism that was racially motivated. It needs to be identified as such and prosecuted the same. As much as I believe that gun accessibility needs to be addressed, this is not what this is about. And yes, hollywood has a lot of flaws but this is also not about that, Franklin Graham. It is also not about persecution of the Church, FOX News! It’s about the ongoing persecution of blackness.

3. #TakeDowntheConfederateFlag that flies over South Carolina’s state capitol. No seriously, it needs to go. It is a gross symbol of America’s history and justification of slavery, Jim Crow and segregation. Tear it down.

4. Enact legislation that starts to uproot the remaining vestiges of white supremacy and that puts an end to policies that systematize the dehumanization of black folks including police brutality, the war on drugs, mass incarceration, and the school to prison pipeline.

5. Put your money where your mouth is to ensure: total employment of the black community, quality housing, good schools, access to healthy food, and other economic opportunities that redresses the long standing disparate outcomes in the African American community.

6. Develop and preach a theology of social and biblical justice. Here are two resources written by me that would be a great start: Embracing a Holistic Faith: Essays on Biblical Justice and The Lord’s Prayer as Social Justice Theology.

7. Follow and learn from black theologians, scholars, sociologists, writers and thinkers including: Ta-Nehisi Coates, Charles M Blow, Brittany Cooper, Christena Cleveland, Brenda Salter McNeil, Drew Hart, Austin Channing Brown, Efrem Smith, Michelle Alexander, Lissa Jones, Cornel West, Claudia May, Isabel Wilkerson, and Kimberle Crenshaw. These are just a few, there are many, many more including amazing resources referenced in the #CharlestonSyllabus. Follow them. Learn from them. Support them financially. Just do not appropriate their wisdom or their work.

8. Teach your children about racism. We cannot believe, and we should have never believed, that racial justice and love is learned through osmosis. There is this prevailing notion that younger generations, millennials, are more racially tolerant and open than others. The shooter, who was 21 years old, as well as the students involved in the horrible SAE chant, and the three teens who purposely used their truck to run over and kill a black man in Mississippi, have proven this to be false! Be honest with your children about our nation’s history and ongoing battle with this. They can handle it.

9. Center black folks. Yes, #AllLivesMatter, but all lives are not being threatened. It’s the lives of black men, black women, black children, black clergy, black legislators, black youth, black LGBTQ, black Christians, and black atheists, that are being called into question. If America is serious about valuing all, it must then get serious about valuing those that it treats with the most contempt.

The road to reconciliation in America is long. It will be tough. And it will be arduous. But it is not impossible. If the nation addresses the sin of racism and white supremacy in the ways that I have just outlined above, I believe that we will see the change that we so desperately seek. Let’s not allow that process to be cheapened by inappropriate demands for forgiveness.

In Light of Jodi Arias – Revisioning Our Justice System

Have we come to rely too narrowly on retribution as the only legitimate form of justice?

I reflected on this question as news outlets covered the Jodi Arias trial over the last few days. Earlier this month, Arias was found guilty of killing her boyfriend Travis Alexander.  After convicting her, a jury determined that due to the especially cruel nature of the slaying, that Arias was eligible for the death penalty. Though her fate has yet to be decided, time will soon reveal whether Arias will spend life in prison or be put to death to pay for her crime.

However, I wonder if there is another way. In spite of her guilt, and yes, there is overwhelming evidence that she is guilty – there is no doubt about that, I wonder if there is another way to bring justice to the Alexander family and to the larger justice system. Although executing Arias may seem like the only reasonable thing to do (an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, right?), it wont bring back the deceased and it will not provide relief to those who are grieving. And so if the act of execution does nothing more than punish the guilty party, can it really be considered an act of justice?

Arias’ case is an extreme example of criminal activity, but it brings into question the purpose of the justice system here in America. Does the justice system aim to bring about punishment to those who are deserving of it, or does it seek to rehabilitate, restore, and correct horrendous behavior? Is its purpose to legally exact revenge, or is its purpose to bring about reconciliation between those who have offended and those who have been offended against? In all honesty, it appears that it is more about punishment and revenge, than it is about righting societal ills. It seems as if it is more about retribution than it is about rehabilitation and restoration. No wonder our country is in the state that it is in!

Is there another way? Is there another means to bring about justice and healing, not just for the victim but for the perpetrator of the offense as well? Perhaps! But then we must begin to look at perpetrators in a new light – instead of demonizing them for their actions, as we often do, we need to start looking and valuing them as fully and completely human, in spite of what they have done. This requires embracing them rather than locking them up and pushing them away from us.

We must also forgive those who have committed great offenses, understanding that forgiveness does not condone the behavior but gives power and ultimately salvation to those who have been severely wronged:

“Forgiving may appear to condone the offense, thus further disempowering the victim. But forgiveness does not overlook the deed: it rises above it. “This is what is means to be human,” it says. “I cannot and will not return the evil you inflicted on me.” – Pumla Gobodo  – Madikizela, from a Human Being Died that Night

We must also remember that restoration and reconciliation are themes that resonate with the heart and mind of Christ. Instead of allowing sin to destroy us, He took all of our nasty transgressions upon Himself and died for us while we were still sinners. He does not demand punishment or retribution for us, in fact, His death and subsequent resurrection made it possible for us to be reconciled to God – the ultimate act of justice! If Christ did it and continues to do that for us, how can we deny this of other people? Some could argue that this is not how you govern a society, but remember He is running the universe.

Addressing the Sins of the Past in the Present to Move Forward in the Future

reconciliation-coventry-statueOne of my dearest and oldest friends grew up in a home where she was verbally abused and emotionally neglected by her father. Though her father never laid his hands on her, I don’t think she has even received a spanking in her life, the words that he used against her over the years affected her negatively for such a long time. For years, my friend – let’s call her Hannah – acted out of the hurt that she endured in her childhood. Hannah engaged in inappropriate relationships with men, seeking the validation that she never received from her father. And although she was extremely smart and beautiful, she never saw that for herself and was driven by extreme insecurity, and at times, self-hatred.

But then one day, Hannah came to know the Lord and started going to counseling. The combination of her faith and determination in turning her life made all of the difference in the world, believe you me. Speaking as someone who has known Hannah for more than 20 years or so, I can say that the person she is today is hardly comparable to the person that I knew even five years ago! This is not to say that she is perfect, or that all of the memories of her dark past are gone. No, she still struggles from time to time. However, she no longer allows those memories to define her life or dictate what her future should be. She has set boundaries with those around her, cultivated good dating habits, and is even in a healthy dating relationship with marriage on the horizon.

Hannah’s father is also a changed man. For some reason, call it guilt, growth, or whatever else, he no longer treats Hannah the same way that he once did. And Hannah recognizes that and is grateful for the change. Even so, he has never apologized for the way that he treated her. In fact, he often denies that he did anything wrong and blames her for whatever life decisions she made in response to his supposed actions. Yet he wants to be close. Is such reconciliation possible the way things currently stand?

I believe that forgiveness is possible. It is even necessary! But reconciliation? Such is not achievable until there is a confession of sin and a commitment to a new set of behaviors that will guarantee the safety of the relationship in the future. Look at the model that Christ prescribed for us in our relationship with Him as proof. Although his death and resurrection make our reconciliation with God possible, repentance is still required of us. In repenting, we not only admit that we have sinned against God, but we commit to adopting new behaviors that will please Him. If such a process is true in our relationship with God, how much more is this needed in our relationships with one another?

This process is definitely needed concerning race relations in the United States. When we think about the exploitation of American Indians, the enslavement of African Americans, and the ongoing discrimination of most people of color, something needs to be done. While it can be argued that the offenses of the past are no longer being perpetrated to the extent that they once were (slavery and colonization), let the reader be clear that they still exist albeit in different forms. These are manifested in the disparities that American Indians, people of color and immigrants of color bear at disproportionate rates. How can we just move on and forget, or play nice, or get along for getting along sake, when true repentance has never taken place? Like Hannah, we can forgive as it is necessary for the sake of our own souls. But a deep, fundamental change needs to take place in order for true reconciliation to occur.

Now here is the million dollar question – how do we go about it? Watch out for my next post to find out!

Choosing to Stand for Mercy (Part 3)

On Friday, I listened to a wonderful Focus on the Family Broadcast. Tim Goeglein, former White House staffer and author of the book The Man in the Middle, shared his experience serving with former President Bush which ended when colleagues discovered that he plagiarized some of his work. Humiliated, he wanted nothing more than to simply bow out gracefully, leave without being noticed and save what could be left of his fleeting dignity.

On the day of his departure, President Bush called him into his office. Goeglein fully expected to be chastised and for good reason, what he did jeopardized Bush’s administration. Goeglein opened his mouth to apologize for his wrongdoing and was silenced by these words: Tim, I forgive you. Though surprised, Goeglein tried once again to make amends for his indiscretions. And once again he was silenced by the President’s remarks: I have known grace and mercy in my life, and I am extending it to you. Tim, I forgive you.

Forgiveness. Mercy. They almost seem like foreign concepts in a world that is often unforgiving and unloving. As a people, we tend to have such a hard time forgiving others for what they have done whether or not it affects us directly. We don’t forgive those who have cheated us or done us harm, but we also do not forgive those who stumble into sin – especially if said sin is exposed in public. In both instances, we believe that the person accused of wrongdoing should receive the strictest form of punishment and under no circumstances should ever receive mercy or forgiveness. The elder brother in the story of the Prodigal Son serves as a great example for us.

As many of you probably already know, the Prodigal Son in Luke 15 (the Bible) inquired after his father’s wealth while he was still living. Although he was the younger son, he still was due a portion of his father’s inheritance after his passing, but he wanted it now which basically said that he also wanted his father dead. Even so, the father gave him his inheritance and the son went away and blew it all. After all his wealth was gone, and he found himself in hunger and poverty, he decided to go back to the father and repent and ask for forgiveness. Not only did the father forgive him but he threw him a huge feast in his honor, celebrating that he had come home.

The elder son was absolutely furious over his father’s actions. How could he just forgive this impetuous son of his and act like he had done nothing wrong? How could the father just throw the younger son a celebratory party when he had never done the same for the elder son in all of his righteousness. But hear the father’s response:

“‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’” (Luke 15. 31, 32 TNIV).

The real tragedy of this story, however, isn’t that the elder son was unforgiving. The real tragedy is that he himself did not realize how much he too had been a recipient of his father’s forgiveness and mercy. In all of his pride and self-righteousness and probably a host of other things that the Bible does not mention, his father had also shown him kindness and favor. And so, his reaction to his younger brother is not only inappropriate but hypocritical in that he was in need of the same grace that he envied his brother for receiving.

The Bible tells us this in Ephesians 4.32 – Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you (NIV). God has forgiven each and everyone of us for so much. Although we will never understand the gravity of our sin, we know assuredly that while we were still wrapped up in our sin and depraved minds that Christ died for us, granting us immediate forgiveness and connection with the God that we willingly denied and walked away from. If God, in all of his righteousness and holiness can forgive a people who have completely blown it, how much more should you and I forgive one another?

We forgive because we have been forgiven. We walk and stand for mercy, because we have been shown mercy. We cast aside bitterness and resentment and the right to avenge because we understand that we really don’t have this right at all. We give up the right to hold a grudge and instead allow God to be God and deal with it on his own terms. And whose to say, perhaps in our doing so the person who is on the other end of it might just be transformed as they look at us and see the very likeness of God in our choosing to forgive and stand for mercy.

This post is the final installment of a three part series. See other posts:
Choosing to Stand for Justice
Choosing to Stand for Righteousness

 

Racism Hurts, Forgiveness Heals

As if you did not already know, racism hurts like hell. And I am not just talking about institutional and systematic racism that prevents people from getting employment, decent housing, and a good education, but am also referring to the all-out, blatantly overt assault on a person because of the color of their skin. The wounds cut deep and can only be likened to a knife piercing deeper still into the heart of its victim. Memories of such just don’t disappear overnight, and they are not just something you can shake off your shoulder. How can you freely move on after being called a nigger, or worse, the property of somebody else?

We like to deceive ourselves into thinking that in this day and age that the remnants of such hatred are gone from our society. We like to think that because we have a black president, and because black people have achieved a certain amount of social status, that our country has moved beyond the issue of racism. But when someone feels the liberty to lash out at another and use the kind of insults that were common place in the days of Jim Crow, it shows me that we have a lot of work to do.

This kind of work, however, not only exists for the perpetrator of racism but for those who have been on the receiving end of it as well. I know it may not be popular ideology but we have collective work to do to make sure that this awful evil is eradicated from our society. For the perpetrator, repentance and for the victim, forgiveness. Forgiveness because administering such is the only way that we heal from our pain. Forgiveness because God knows that if we want to be free of bitterness and resentment that we have to release those who have wronged us.

We must understand that forgiveness does not mean that those who have perpetrated racism get to go away Scott free. Most definitely not! Perpetrators have to be willing to unlearn systems, ideologies, and practices that have enabled them to act like barbarians for years. However, forgiveness creates the kind of environment where we both can heal, perpetrator and victim alike, and bring about a new reality where all people, regardless of the color of their skin, their ethnicity, their culture, their tribe, can be and live out to the fullest extent their God-given purpose.

A Story

Here is an excerpt from a fiction piece that I am working on. Enjoy!

“In a faraway land, in a time not like ours and in a place not like our own, there lived a benevolent and righteous king. Unlike other kings around him, he feared the Lord and followed his statutes. Worship was the matter of his heart, and song the medium of his tongue. Every morning when he rose he would open his window, lift his voice and sing praises to his God and every morning it seemed like the entire universe would stop to hear his sweet melody. People on the street would stand still; those arguing on the way would silence their disputes and would inevitably join in. Prayer was another avenue in which he flowed so that anyone who stood in his presence for more than a couple of moments could tell that he had been with God. Criminals feared coming before him because his seemingly natural connection with the Almighty would cause them to fall on their knees in repentance and shame. He made thieves pay back what they stole. He sentenced murders and rapists to a life time of restitution to the victim and their families. Although his actions and judgments were a reflection of his mercy filled heart, many people feared coming before him least their sin be found out.

“The king loved his subjects. He treated his servants more like sons and daughters rather than slaves as the other kings around him. He allowed the poor and the rich alike to feast at his banqueting table. He clothed those who were naked, and built homes for those who were without. For his generosity and loving kindness poverty levels were minimal. Hunger was not a sentiment that many people in his kingdom felt unless they choose to forgo food voluntarily. People appreciated him and were thankful for him, that is everyone except his children.

“His children were an interesting sort. Although they had grown in the palace of the king and were trained in all that was good and right, it did not reflect in their behavior. Instead they behaved as if they belonged to wolves rather than a people of a great inheritance. They wore clothing that no one else in the kingdom would dare to wear, tattered with holes and drenched with stains. They lived in houses that were built with scraps of metal and wood even though their father’s house had plenty room to spare. These were the kingdom’s drunks and these were the renegades. They ran about the kingdom, looting homes and destroying businesses. Most of all the king’s children did not respect all of the good that he had done for the kingdom, rather they despised their father’s generosity and labor of love. They could not understand the level of compassion that he had for such worthless souls and saw it as a weakness.

“Even though they treated the father so, the king persisted in his love for them. Constantly he would urge them to leave where they were and come back to his home, back to his table where there was plenty of room and safety was paramount. No matter how rational and sound his pleas were, come back they could not because their hearts were already so far away. For this ignorance and despondency, they continued to live in the filth and shame of their wicked ways. Neither could they find forgiveness, even though the king had plenty of it to show their way.

Read the full excerpt