Updated: Dec 21, 2020
What is the relationship between Blacks who have been violated and forgiveness towards the perpetrators?
On June 17, 2015 in Charleston, South Carolina, 21 year old Dylann Roof walked into Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church where they were having bible study. After about an hour, he began killing the attendees. At his sentencing, family members of the victims repeatedly expressed their forgiveness of Roof. Some family members even stated that they were praying for his soul. (Honorable mention, although Dylann Roof killed nine unarmed innocent people and was armed, he was arrested without incident and taken to Burger King before being booked. Meanwhile the average unarmed detained Black person is killed in this country.)
When the off-duty Dallas cop, Amber Guyger, who killed Botham Jean was arrested and stood trial, it gave the illusion of justice. A white woman being arrested for the murder of a Black man in Texas seemed surreal. I was relieved to see the judicial process play out. When it was revealed that Black female judge Tammy Kemp was presiding, I saw that as another win of sorts. Historically Blacks are underrepresented in the judicial process. From the attorneys, jury, prosecutors and judges, courtrooms have historically lacked diversity (especially in the south).
However, my heart broke and I grew enraged when the verdict was passed and I watched the judge give the perpetrator a hug and a bible. The sentence was light (10 years compared to a life sentence) and even Botham Jean’s brother had compassion for Guyger, under the covering of Christianity.
Just for clarity, Botham Jean was murdered while eating ice cream in his home, by a white female cop with questionable (if not full on) racist tendencies. Yet, at the sentencing of his murderer, members of his family and the judge alike poured compassion and forgiveness on his killer. Guyger has reciprocated that sentiment of mercy by requesting an appeal for her already light sentence (essentially denying any responsibility for the loss of an innocent life).
Ice Cream N’ Piece
For a painful eternity
Stole that life
Twisting that knife
Travesty of Justice
Eating Ice Cream
For Botham Jean
- An original poem by Kai Kelly
The relationship in the Black community with forgiveness to our oppressors can be traced back to the indoctrination of Christianity. African slavery morphed the original euro concepts of slavery, with the biblical story of Ham. Slaves were introduced to Christianity under the theology of being a cursed people.
The version of the word that slaves were given gave their white masters dominion over them and it was fortified with scripture and images of a white Jesus. This conditioning and imagery made sure that when Black Christians see a white man they are reminded of Jesus. How can one be mad at their God?
Please don't take my word for it, look at any indigenous culture that has not been immersed in Christianity. These cultures do not move with mercy and forgiveness, they recognize and eliminate threats with swift and relentless violence. There are multiple reports of missionaries being killed trying to bring the word of God to remote locations. Unfortunately, missionaries are not only spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ. There have been sex crimes and kidnapping in addition to the good old gospel left in some places.
This narrative of the good and gracious Christian versus the angry Black man was a necessary staple in the agenda of oppression. Non-violent protesters trained by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and Martin Luther King Jr. although peaceful, were still regarded as troublemakers for having the audacity to fight for civil liberties (similar to how many said Colin Kaepernick was called disrespectful for kneeling).
In contrast, Malcolm X was propagated as a “hate monger” and a “terrorist” for publicly acknowledging that he would always defend himself and his family by any means necessary. Supremacists hid behind the same faith that Blacks forgave with to relentlessly beat, jail and kill non-violent protesters. It is for this same reason that the Native Americans who fought back, were portrayed as savages needing “civility” and then mercilessly slaughtered.
Even though many modern Black Christians subscribe to a Black Jesus and abandon the lie of being a cursed people, we cannot negate the role that religion has played in racism.
Are there times when forgiving those that have wronged us is appropriate?
However, I struggle with finding the moments in the history of white supremacy where that logic applies. In fact, more often than not, I see kindness taken for weakness and exploited repeatedly (i.e. Guyger and Roof appealing their sentences). Moreover, when those same groups of people have had enough and stand up for themselves, they are deemed as lawless and animals.
It is not appropriate that we are forgiving of the killers of Botham Jean, The Charleston Nine, Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland, Ahmaud Arbery, Atatiana Jefferson, Tamir Rice, Emmitt Till, Medgar Evers and all the countless other lives we lost. Forgiveness is not appropriate for the false convictions, imprisonments and death sentences of countless Black men, women and children.
It is not appropriate that we are forgiving of the ways privilege attempts to wash history and reshape narratives that they are not actually sorry for.
It is not the responsibility of the oppressed, the broken, or the exploited to have forgiveness or to be compassionate. As humans, it's our job to live in ways that exemplify our humanity, not villainize it. That process starts with accountability and ownership for wrongdoing. Followed up with the deconstruction of every construct that implicitly breeds injustice and systemic oppression. It continues with creating sustainable economics and allowing cultures to evolve and operate freely in their truth.