Wed | Jan 23, 2019

Can forgiveness be immoral?

Published:Sunday | June 28, 2015 | 12:00 AM
A mourner carries a programme while walking in for the funeral service for Ethel Lance, 70, one of the Charleston Nine.
Sharon Risher (second right) and Gary Washington (left) stand over the coffin of their mother, Ethel Lance, following her burial service last Thursday in Charleston, South Carolina. Lance was one of the nine people killed in the shooting at Emanuel AME Church.

A major, intense discussion has erupted over the issue of forgiveness in light of the killings at the AME Emanuel Church in Charleston, USA, and the dramatic forgiveness by family members of the victims. In light of such brutality and evil, perpetrated by a white racist against defenceless blacks worshipping peacefully, should such heinousness be forgiven?

And isn't any forgiveness in such a context itself immoral? Letter writer Oscar Lofters certainly thinks so. Reacting to the reported forgiveness of that gross hate crime and act of terrorism, he writes in last Tuesday's Gleaner: "Such brutality should not only be angrily condemned but should not be forgiven ... . Forgiveness in the face of such evil is immoral."

Lofters is not alone. There has been much commentary in the US on this very issue, with many blacks and progressives saying that any such forgiveness is naÔve, at best, and an incentive to the perpetuation of racism, at worst. Family members have been criticised for playing the role of 'model blacks' and appeasing racist America.

Words that seem gracious and honourable to conservatives are repugnant to these progressives and some secularists. Nadine Collier, daughter of victim Ethel Lance, said to killer Dylann Roof: "I forgive you. You took something very precious from me. ... I will never get to talk to her again. I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you and have mercy on your soul. You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. If God forgives you, I forgive you."

One relative of Myra Thomson said: "I would like him to know that ... I forgive him and my family forgives him. Confess. Give your life to the One who matters most - Christ - so that He can change your ways ... ." It is words like these that progressives and atheists find grating and disgusting, blaming religion for fostering this sentimental, rose-coloured view of the oppressor. Religion, they assert, continues to make black people feel guilty about demanding justice from racists who commit evil acts of oppression.


Contrary to justice


Lofters, in his Gleaner letter, says: "Forgiveness for this cold-blooded murderer is contrary to every fibre of truth we call justice." But reacting to such a critique of forgiveness on the part of those black families of the victims of Charleston, Michael Wear, writing on the Christianity Today blog on Wednesday in an article titled 'Stop explaining away black Christian forgiveness', says: "Remember, forgiveness from victimised religious communities after a shooting is not new. The Amish community in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, won praise from religious and secular elites for their response to senseless, targeted violence. What is new is the idea - invoked regarding black Christians in Charleston, not \white Amish in Pennsylvania - that forgiveness might stymie social progress and disturb the social order and should, therefore, be withheld, at least publicly."

Continuing his protest over the progressive, secularist critique of the Charleston forgiveness, Wear continues: "No one questioned whether the Amish forgiveness was the result of mature faith and conscience. Yet when it comes to the black conscience, somehow obfuscation, critique and rationalisation are embraced as progressive." This ambivalence, or downright opposition to forgiveness, non-violence and love towards enemies, has a long history in the struggle for racial justice. Martin Luther King Jr faced it persistently throughout his struggle for civil rights.

There were more militant elements of the Black Power movement who felt he was too soft and compromising with the white oppressor and that his Christian faith had imprisoned him with an ethic of forgiveness and sentimentality which reduced the stridency of his opposition to racist America. One of the books I enjoyed reading recently is by Cornel West, brilliant theologian and philosopher, titled The King Legacy (2015). It contains some moving speeches by King on forgiveness and love for enemies.

What the book demonstrated, too, was that King was intimately acquainted with the most potent views against his own. King had read all the radical philosophers, thinkers and activists who either espoused violence or eschewed "sentimentality" towards the oppressor. He was deeply acquainted with the ideas of Marx, Nietzsche, Bakunin, Fanon and others who had no sympathy for Christianity. In The Radical King, West draws on King's speeches where he addresses and potently, but graciously, counters his critics who felt he was inadvertently downplaying evil and the wickedness of the oppressor by talking love and forgiveness.


Cut chain of hate


He understood their points of view profoundly, but he had carefully, meticulously considered them and rejected them. King was a thorough-going intellectual and a very deep theologian and philosopher. He had the best philosophical and theological training. In a speech in 1958, King said: "To retaliate in kind would do nothing but intensify the existence of hate in the universe. Along the way of life, someone must have sense enough and morality to cut off the chain of hate. This can only be done by projecting the ethic of love."

And in another speech in 1957 , 'Loving Your Enemies', King spoke at length about forgiveness itself. King said: "It is impossible even to begin the act of loving one's enemies without the prior acceptance of the necessity, over and over again, of forgiving those who inflict evil and injury upon us." Then he made this poignant, memorable point: "It is also necessary to realise that the forgiving act must always be initiated by the person who has been wronged, the victim of some great hurt, the recipient of some tortuous injustice, the absorber of some terrible act of oppression ... . Only the injured neighbour, the loving father (of the prodigal son) back home, can really pour out the warm waters of forgiveness."

I am forced to quote King further: "Forgiveness does not mean ignoring what has been done or putting a false label on an evil act ... . This simply means that there is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover that we are less prone to hate our enemies." Of course, in Marxist, anarchistic and radical black nationalist discourse, all of that is just "false consciousness", as Marx would put it; some convenient ideas foisted upon us by our oppressors to pacify us; the ideas of the ruling (white) class.

But an abundance of empirical work has now demonstrated that violent revolutions don't bring lasting positive results. The results are in on this one: The revolutions which last are peaceful ones. Violence begets violence. Mahatma Gandhi fought the mighty British and paved the way for Indian independence without firing a shot. (You need to read Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India by Joseph Lelyveld). Nelson Mandela is revered around the globe for his amazing example of forgiveness towards enemies and his quest to make peace with those who oppressed him.

There is something about this forgiveness and love thing. They are not necessarily wedded to religion. Many secularists are seeing their value. Psychologists can certainly attest to the fact that forgiveness does more for those who forgive than for the forgiven. Forgiveness releases us from continued suffering. Hate is a burden. Hate is oppressive. When we free ourselves, we discontinue an important element of the victimisation.

In that 1957 speech, King asked, "Why should we love our enemies? Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that." Powerful!

A lot of loveless revolutionaries, having won power with no more enemies to extinguish, simply turn in on one another. The thirst for blood is unquenchable. Unless one applies forgiveness and love. It's not sentimentality. It's practicality. Study world revolutions. Some scholars have done the comparative work for you, and the evidence is unambiguous: Love wins.

- Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist working with the Jamaica Information Service. Email feedback to and