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Is America Possible?: Forgiveness, Justice, and Charleston

Nadine Collier, the daughter of one of the victims of the Charleston shooting, sent a message to Dylann Roof, the white terrorist accused of killing nine people in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church.
Her message? Speaking of her mother (Ethel Lance), who was killed by Dylann Roof, Nadine Collier said:

“I forgive you…I will never talk to her ever again, never be able to hold her again. I forgive you and have mercy on your soul. You hurt me, you hurt a lot of people, but I forgive you.”

She was not alone. Felicia Sanders, whose son was also killed, told the killer:

“You have killed some of the most beautiful people I know. Every fiber in my body hurts, and I will never be the same. But as we say in Bible study, we enjoyed you. But may God have mercy on you.”

This goodness, this piety does not come out of thin air. This is the legacy that produced Mamie Till, Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, Cornel West, and William Barber. This is the black prophetic tradition that has always bore witness to suffering, producing a willingness to meet brute force with soul force.

What might have been the expected response from Dylann Roof? Tears? Sorrow? Repentance? Begging for forgiveness? No, it was only a cold stare back, and no words.

This scene has been playing inside me again and again, and making me question lots of things — from forgiveness and justice to revenge and the sin-sick soul of America. It has made me run back to my own mentors, my own sources of inspiration and strength, from the Qur’an and Muhammad to Bible and Martin King, from Heschel to Malcolm… and to Vincent Harding, that gentle and fierce giant, close confidant of Dr. King, and the primary author of King’s famed 1967 Riverside Church speech. It makes me think of Uncle Vincent’s powerful question in a short essay, “Is America Possible?” I, too, wonder: Is America still possible in an age of Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston, Guantanamo, Gaza, Syria, Pakistan?

This “America” for Vincent Harding is not the America of the founding fathers, not some bygone era that has to be resurrected. No. America is an idea which has not yet come to be, a promise constantly betrayed, and yet… still breathing, still possible, still within our grasp. The subtitle is an homage to the black bard of Harlem, Langston Hughes: “The land that has never been yet”

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—

Vincent Harding goes on to remind us that while it is easier to throw up our hands in disgust, sadness, desperation, anger, and resignation and say that “America was never America to me” (as Hughes also said), we also have the responsibility and the hope to also add:

“And yet I swear this oath
America will be!

And here we are between the America that has never been and the America that will be — the America that we, all of us, must be participants in bringing about, that we stand today.

Let us begin first where are our feet are, in the crumbling world of an American empire. Poverty and wealth disparity are on the rise. We are two Americas, an America of quite well-to-do, and an America of well below or dangerously near the poverty line. Ours is an America where the pernicious demon of racism continues unbound and unchained, claiming its perpetual victims — African-Americans — and adding to it new victims — Muslims, Latinos, gays/lesbians, undocumented people — domestically and primarily Muslim bodies globally in numerous countries.

There is much to say about the Charleston shooting, and much that has already been said. In a country where the police kill black men all too often, here was a white man who ran away after a horrific crime of hate, when he stated on the scene: “I have to do it… ‘You rape our women and you’re taking over the country. You have to go.’”

When Dylann Roof was finally apprehended, the police calmly approached him, apprehended him unharmed, put a bullet proof vest on him, and took him into custody without handcuffs. When Dylann Roof complained that he was hungry, the police stopped to get him a burger from Burger King.

Where was this thoughtfulness when Eric Garner was wrestled to the ground and suffocated for selling loose cigarettes? “I can’t breathe….” Where was this care to avoid injuring a suspect when Tamir Rice was killed? Where was this consideration when Michael Brown, another unarmed black teenager, was shot by the police six times? Where was this consideration for a prisoner when Baltimore’s Freddie Gray was exposed to a “rough ride” that led to him sustaining fatal injuries?

Something is wrong with our soul when the police force that is sworn to serve and protect the people is engaging time and time and time again in what amounts to a modern lynching of black people, while treating an armed white terrorist with kid gloves.

Now we know. Now we know that Dylann Roof had posted pictures of himself with apartheid era South African and Rhodesian flags, and with symbols of “White Power.” Now we know that he posted a “manifesto” filled with racist diatribe, comparing black human beings to dogs.

We’ve had the start of a good discussion on the uselessness of the term terrorism. Given Roof’s declaration of his desire to start a “race war,” his cruel act of violence of opening fire on people who had taken him in for a Bible study, and his stated political motivations, you wonder why we are even having a discussion about whether this qualifies as terrorism. Does the term still have any meaning left in it? Pray tell, what exactly does a racist, violent white man have to do in order to qualify as a terrorist? Put up a racist manifesto, tell people that he is killing them for racial reasons, put up pictures of himself with apartheid symbols and white power, and still we are unsure of what his motivations are?

Many social commentators have noted how reluctant many of the media outlets — and most of the Republican presidential candidates — have been to apply the “t” word to Dylann Roof when they have readily applied the terrorist label to the Tsarnaev brothers and others.

We’ve had another important conversation about the symptoms of the sickness, by talking about the Confederate flag. We are starting to see the beginning of a nationwide turn-around, recognizing that this symbol is profoundly hurtful to so many of us, especially African Americans. This is not new. This is exactly what most African Americans have been telling us for decades, but somehow in the aftermath of this tragedy, we are starting to hear each other.

Even now, there is a part of me that thinks we are focusing on the symbol (flag) and not the underlying sickness: racism. Yes, symbols matter, but the underlying disease — and the structures that enable it — matter more. Even now I wonder why we are having a discussion about Walmart and eBay not carrying the Confederate flag, but unwilling to have an honest conversation away from the pernicious clutches of the NRA about how a nation of 300 million people has 300 million guns, resulting in the death of tens of thousands of people every year.

But I want to come back to the confrontation of the grieving family member, Nadine, and the terrorist, Dylann. “I forgive you.” From many corners, we are hearing people applaud this forgiveness. Many conservatives, who seem to abhor the talk of the need for radical, structural, societal change are latching on to this virtuous display of forgiveness as the (only) way forward.

Some conservatives who are unwilling to confront race and racism have actually deluded themselves into thinking that the nine people in the Emmanuel AME church were killed not because they were black but because they were Christian. Even though Dylann Roof posted messages that were not anti-Christian, but anti-black.

I have even seen pieces where people are eager to connect Nadine’s forgiveness to Jesus having forgiven those who persecuted him. Here I need to walk much more carefully, breathe more deeply, and make sure that forgiveness mingles with the need for justice. Yes, Nadine is inspired by Jesus. But she is not Jesus, and we are not Jesus. And this is not the age of Jesus. This is, much like the age of Jesus, the age of a crumbling empire, the American empire. If these godly virtues are to have meaning, they have to resonate not in the age of Jesus, but in the age of America.

I am concerned that we stand to fundamentally misunderstand, appropriate, and abuse the very sacred notion of forgiveness. Forgiveness is not, and cannot, be a cheap gift that is bestowed. Forgiveness is a transaction, a relationship that is established between the one who is wronged and the one who has wronged. Forgiveness has to be earned, and forgiveness has to result in the radical redemption and transformation of the relationship itself. Without the transformation, there is no real forgiveness.

Islamic thought speaks of two kinds of rights: the rights of God, and the rights of humanity. Rights of God belong to God, and only God can handle them. The rights of humanity have to be addressed vis-à-vis human beings.

There is a weakness implicit in confusing these two — between what God can forgive and what we have to address here and now, on Earth, among one another. When certain people call for “forgiveness” in Charleston, it is akin to demonstrating unwillingness to confront the brutal and all too real demon of racism in our midst. This racism has a pedigree: it goes back to 246 years of slavery, to Jim Crow, to the New Jim Crow and incarceration of black bodies, to “Stand Your Ground,” to gerrymandering of voting districts, to the war on public education and public housing and public healthcare and other social realities.

No, when Nadine Collier was calling for forgiveness, she was saying something more basic: The sin is God’s to review, evaluate, and judge. Her “I forgive you” was something else. It is a gift we give ourselves. That I, the person you have wronged, will not carry this poison inside of me. I will not carry the virus of hatred and revenge inside me. I will be free. As for you, my sinful fellow human, I will pray for you, I will leave you to God. And, I will continue to rid humanity of the demon of injustice, violence, and racism that has plagued you.

We have seen the power of this forgiveness in so many of our own lives. We have seen it in those who forgive an abusive and unloving parent, yet vow to end the cycle with them, not inflicting the wounds of the parents on our own babies.

We have seen the power of forgiveness in the loves of so many who have been wrong, who have been hurt, whose love has not been reciprocated, but have made the bold and courageous choice to not hurt, to not remain unloving, but to open themselves up to this divine love that flows among us.

We have seen those who forgive a betraying spouse, not to excuse the infidelity, but so that we do not carry the poison of that betrayal in our own heart. Forgiveness is also a commitment to heal our own broken heart, to make it a home welcoming, safe, nurturing, and caring.

Yes, there is something liberating about the divine act of forgiveness. But it is a gift for our own hearts, and always needs to be linked to the transformation and redemption of the flawed, betraying, and abusive relationship.

Forgiving Dylann Roof means little, unless and until we are also committed to confronting the system and structure that produces racism, the easy access to guns that takes racism and translates it to violence against black and brown bodies, and props up the system of racism through enforcements of white privilege all around.

Think about our own action as a country. After the horrific and unprecedented attacks of September 11th, what was our national response? Did we talk about “forgiving” those who have wronged us? Did we talk about what would Jesus do? Or did we see the president of the country standing on the rubbles of the Twin Towers and swear to bring the perpetrators “to justice”? (The question of whether we actually went after the right perpetrators or punished the innocent citizens of Iraq and Afghanistan for something that al-Qaeda was responsible for is, of course, an entirely separate question.)

What does it mean if we expect the victims of a centuries-long system of oppression, tyranny, dispossession, rape, brutality, and violence to “forgive” without addressing the structures that produce, enact, and justify that racism? To do so, in truth, is not unworthy of the name forgiveness.

Real forgiveness is about what Desmond Tutu teaches us:

“Forgiving and being reconciled to our enemies or our loved ones are not about pretending that things are other than they are. It is not about patting one another on the back and turning a blind eye to the wrong. True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the hurt, the truth. It could even sometimes make things worse. It is a risky undertaking but in the end it is worthwhile, because in the end only an honest confrontation with reality can bring real healing. Superficial reconciliation can bring only superficial healing.”

We, all of us, America, the world, deserve and need much more than superficial healing. We need reconciliation, justice, and redemption.

An African-American woman holds up a sign reading, "It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win!" during a march through the streets of Charleston, South Carolina to commemorate the nine lives lost in the shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Image by Joe Raedle /Getty Images..

Let me come back to Vincent Harding and “Is America Possible?” He reminds us that it is precisely at the times of our deepest and darkest moral abyss that we are most in need of people who remind us of our dreams, our dreamers, and our dream encouragers. We are reminded of the message of Proverbs:

Where there is no vision, the people perish…

We are in need of visions, and of a new vision for America. We are in need of visionaries, who remind us not of the “greatness” of America, but that the greatness, the goodness, the love and the justice, for America and the world is yet to come, yet to be. It is a reminder that we, all of us dreamers and hopers and lovers and mourners, must be participants in doing so.

And no, it is not about waving a flag, or wearing a lapel. It is not even about taking down a (Confederate) flag, the symbol of slavery and discrimination; rather, it is about dismantling the system and structure of hatred itself and replacing it with a better system, a more just system, a more beautiful system for all of us.

The answer is still love. Love mingling with justice. Even now, as our hearts are broken over Charleston, as we see the lack of willingness to look at this virus that is deeply embedded in the soul of America, the answer is still love and justice.

Even now, as we see refusal to acknowledge the problem with systematic violence in American society, the answer is still love and justice. Even now, as America is unquestionably an empire, the answer is still love and justice.

Love, provided we don’t think of love as some private emotion between two people. Love, provided we see love as the unleashing of God onto humanity. Love, provided we see that love means bowing down before the full presence of God in each and every single one of us.

Love, provided that we see love as justice when it enters the public space. Love, provided that we see love not as a sentiment, but the very being of God mingling among us.

The answer is still love and justice.

We’re gonna stick with love, because hate is too heavy a burden to bear, because the alternative is to lose the very divine gift that makes us human. Even now. Especially now. The answer is still love.

May love pour down from God, spilling over every heart. May all the rough places be made smooth, the valleys exalted and the mountains made low. May love mingle with justice, redeeming all. May love and justice redeem the sin-sick soul of America, and of the whole world community, and our own sick hearts.

May love feature in this forgiveness, and may it always be linked to the insistence that love show up in the public space as the justice that will redeem our public square.

Love, because though America has never been America to so many of us, America will be.

People mourn together in front of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church after a mass shooting at the church that killed nine people on June 19. Image by Joe Raedle/Getty Images..

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