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James Cone talks about forgiveness in a New Yorker piece on Charleston

James Cone talks about forgiveness in a New Yorker piece on Charleston

In a long-form piece on the aftermath of the horrific murders in Charleston, New Yorker Editor David Remnick explores concepts of forgiveness, highlighting the empathy and conciliatory tone that the late Reverend Clementa C. Pinckney adopted even while campaigning for police reforms following the killing of Walter Scott.

Scott, a Coast Guard veteran, was shot and killed as he ran from an officer who had stopped him because a tail light was out.

From the article:

He also showed an almost unfathomable degree of empathy, and not only with the victims. “Our hearts go out to the Scott family, and our hearts go out to the Slager family,” Pinckney said. “Because the Lord teaches us to love all.”

Remnick attended services at Mother Emanuel, and writes about the new pastor, Norvel Goff, Sr, and the congregation in the aftermath of their loss. In trying to understand the spirit of forgiveness Remnick spoke to theologian James H. Cone, known for such books as The Cross and the Lynching Tree.

From the article:

The forgiveness shown by the relatives of the Emanuel Nine was hard to understand for anyone “who hasn’t had to cope with that kind of powerlessness,” he said. “It’s victory out of defeat. It is the weak overcoming the strong. It’s ‘You can’t destroy my spirit. I have a forgiving spirit because that’s what God created me to be. You are not going to destroy that.’ When they forgive, it is a form of resistance, a kind of resilience. It is not bowing down. That is misunderstood by a lot of people, even black people, and even some black ministers. It’s part of that tragic experience of trying to express your humanity in the face of death and not having any power.”

 

The article is weighty, providing a diverse set of opinions and experiences from other local leaders, including the Reverend Joseph Darby, a leader of the state NAACP, and major politicians. Darby and others see the tone of conciliation as a real obstacle to progress and change.

You can read the entire piece in the current New Yorker, or on their website.

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Philip B. Spivey

This is a very weighty read, indeed. At once, it calls upon my greatest learning of what it is to be a Christian at the same time it triggers my deepest desire to witness an “eye for an eye”. In fact, I am somewhat in awe of those who can forgive the perpetrator of the Charleston massacre; I say in awe because I believe that some things are beyond my capacity to forgive.

Psychology, of which I’m familiar, endorses the notion that forgiveness provides relief for the victims; Professor Cone highlights this dynamic. If we, as individuals, carry the substantial the weight of not-forgiving, i.e., holding on to anger, resentments, rage and the wish for retribution, then our spirits and psyche are the things ultimately harmed. There’s much truth to this notion and so it’s wise to find healthy ways to metabolize these feelings, but is “forgiveness” the only way?

I start from the premise that the victims must take care of themselves in the best ways possible; however, premature forgiveness may prevent us from fully dealing with the pain and sorrow of a crime of this magnitude: In Charleston, nine human beings were simultaneously murdered in cold blood on sacred ground by a “lone wolf” who is a proxy for everything that white supremacy represents and condones. Some might feel that it’s too early and too much to deal with head-on; so,”forgiveness” may provide us with a restorative sense of power and meet the requirements of being a good Christian.

Even so, I believe there are some crimes that are so horrendous, that they are unforgivable. I believe that for these crimes, any process of forgiveness involves, first, accountability for the crime and, second, faithful attempts at reconciliation.

For crimes like these, I cannot forgive without accountability and reconciliation. Accountability requires a system of laws and practices that ensure a faithful legal process leading to justice.

Reconciliation requires —in the instance of the Emanuel Nine—-a recognition that Dylan Roof did not “act alone”, but speaks for a culture of white supremacy that spawned him.

Perhaps one day, I can forgive Dylan Roof (though I doubt it), but how does one forgive an intractable system of normative hate that rises up with regularity and destroys Black lives?

Rod Gillis

The article certainly is, as you note, a weighty read containing diverse perspectives. Reading it this Michaelmas morning, it provided a window on some of the themes of the day, the universal nature of the struggle between righteousness and malignant forces, the great tribulation that is the struggle for justice while awaiting a kingdom.

Speaking, of angels, my commenting on the article may be a case of fools treading where angels fear to tread; but the article is so poignant at a number of levels. I was especially taken with this section,

“James H. Cone, an exponent of black-liberation theology whose books include ‘Martin & Malcolm & America’ and ‘The Cross and the Lynching Tree,’ grew up in rural Arkansas and in the A.M.E. Church. The forgiveness shown by the relatives of the Emanuel Nine was hard to understand for anyone ‘who hasn’t had to cope with that kind of powerlessness,’ he said. ‘It’s victory out of defeat. It is the weak overcoming the strong. It’s ‘You can’t destroy my spirit. I have a forgiving spirit because that’s what God created me to be. You are not going to destroy that.’ When they forgive, it is a form of resistance, a kind of resilience. It is not bowing down. That is misunderstood by a lot of people, even black people, and even some black ministers. It’s part of that tragic experience of trying to express your humanity in the face of death and not having any power.’ ”

The thorny issue of forgiveness goes well beyond its use in “relationship issues” and the argot of pop psychology. The article points us toward an understanding of forgiveness that is social, corporate, communal. The idea that forgiveness goes to sustaining a sense of person-hood in the face of powerlessness and systemic violence is challenging. As someone who has not had to contend with the circumstances described, it poses a very pointed existential question.

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