A history of black forgiveness

I love Black History Month. While it shouldn’t be relegated to just one month (Black history deserves attention throughout the year), it’s a great opportunity to celebrate key Black figures near and far. And though there’s plenty to celebrate, it’s also important to acknowledge the many injustices Black people have overcome throughout history. By doing so, we can learn how to better work towards justice in the present.

However lessons from history don’t always seem to be learnt. As we discussed on the latest episode of the Together Podcast, there’s a danger of this happening with the murder of Botham Jean. For those unaware, in 2018 Botham Jean was fatally shot in his own home by Amber Gugyer, a white police officer who claimed she thought the apartment was her own and that Jean was a burglar. The case came back into the public eye earlier this month when Amber Guyger was found guilty and sentenced to just ten years in prison. Incredibly, Botham Jean’s family responded by offering his killer forgiveness with a hug. How should we respond?

Repeating history

This isn’t the first time that injustice has been met with Black forgiveness. Just look four years ago to the Charleston church shooting where nine people were killed by white-supremacist, Dylan Roof. Again, those who had lost family members and friends powerfully offered their forgiveness. Looking back further to the end of apartheid in South Africa, the Truth and Reconcilliation Commision (TRC) was formed to give victims and perpetrators of violence a chance to share their experiences, while asking for/granting forgiveness.

While that image of forgiveness is inspiring to see, I think it has wider implications that are important to consider. As Christians are we called to forgive others? Yes, and Jesus’ gut-wrenching prayer on the cross, ‘Father forgive them, for they know not what they do’ is an incredible reminder of the length and depth of the forgiveness we’re called to. But to even receive such forgiveness, requires an acknowledgement of wrongdoing. And to applaud forgiveness without that acknowledgement is potentially dangerous.

How do we forgive well?

I’m not for one minute judging any of the victims above for offering forgiveness. I have no idea what I’d do in their situation, but to find the strength to forgive is remarkable. If that’s what was needed for their grieving process at the time, then so be it. However in the case of Botham Jean, seeing the judge also embrace the killer (after only sentencing ten years) was difficult to swallow. Amber Guyger might have been on trial, but so was the, at best inept and at worst corrupt, police force that led to Botham Jean’s murder. And the combination of that low sentencing and hug felt like there wasn’t a true acknowledgement of wrongdoing.

So when I scrolled down my timeline and saw people cheering on the hugs of forgiveness, but not questioning the broken, unjust system in place that led to Jean’s death I found it problematic. We cannot celebrate forgiveness in place of pursuing justice. Instead, we must hold the weight of both equally. What separates this case from the TRC in South Africa, is that the latter was predicated on the full acceptance of the injustice that had taken place. And that acceptance of injustice was followed by systematic changes to make sure it did not happen again. However in the case of Botham Jean, one key witness has been killed, the other has been threatened and harassed for being ‘anti-police’, and the long list of unlawful civilian deaths grows longer.

Moving forward

In the case of Botham Jean, it would be incredible to see as many people focused on making sure such incidents can’t happen again, as there are who are fixated on the hug given to Guyger. Even in the case of the previously mentioned TRC in South Africa, many critics saw the insufficient reparations offered to victims as a slap in the face of their forgiveness. Without a true acknowledgement of injustice and an appropriate response, forgiveness still remains an incredible personal decision, but also becomes a symbol for a hollow pursuit of justice.

So what can we learn from this? If we’re going to see justice prevail, we must be prepared to fully acknowledge injustice. Unfortunately forgiveness has been twisted into a stumbling block in that process of acknowledgment. Black forgiveness in particular, has a long history of distorting what the course of justice looks like. Justice doesn’t take place once someone is forgiven, it takes place when we begin to expose and correct the systems that lead to injustice.

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