Much of what shapes our moral or ethical stance on forgiveness actually comes from religious teachings implicitly or explicitly, consciously or unconsciously. And so, in the interest of transparency, I am going to start by positioning myself in terms of religious identity and background.
I was brought up catholic.
This often surprises. But in France Catholicism is the most practised religion. I went to catholic school. We prayed often as a family. In fact we prayed everyday. Sometimes twice or three times a day. When we prayed, we prayed together. Often we had little choice but that’s a story for another day. So when we prayed and as is the case in most practising Catholic houses, Our father started and ended our prayers. Our Father is also referred to as The Lord’s Prayer.
Slightly different versions of Our Father exist. The original text can be found in Matthew 6:9-13 and in Luke 11:2-4. The prayer originates from Jesus teaching disciples, when asked, how they should pray and address the Lord. I have translated the start of the version I have learnt in French more or less as follow;
‘Our Father, who is in heaven,
Peace be upon you. May your Kingdom come,
May your will be done,
On earth as in Heaven.
Give us today our daily bread,
Forgive us our sins,
As we forgive those who have offended us.
Do not subject us to temptation and deliver us from evil’
For half of my live or so I aspired to forgive. The pressure to let go and make peace with those who have harmed, offended and wounded me, felt like a heavy cloud reminding me of Our Father’s daily call to forgive so in turn, god may ‘forgive me my sins’. To forgive to be forgiven. If Our Father can forgive us our transgressions then we must forgive our transgressors. And, if we do not forgive those who have harmed, offended or wounded us, then, our place in the kingdom of heaven is compromised. This is what I was taught. I think I only ever half believed this. If at all.
Then, I moved to England.
I stopped going to church. I stopped going to church partly because the language barrier meant I could not recite the prayers I knew. Praying in English did not feel like praying at all. Praying without my family and out of the rhythm that familiar verses provide, did not feel like praying either. Churches began to feel like unknown white spaces. I realised the spiritual element of praying for me rested so much in the sense of community it created. Little by little, scriptures I had learnt, lost their power. The faith remained but attachment to words went and with that, attachment to religious doctrine. Perhaps, only the fluff went and the essence stayed.
And so I still consider myself a believer in many ways. A Christian in some others. A catholic much less. Still, I am certain more than traces of my catholic upbringing live inside of me. In any event, the religious duty to forgive, I was brought up to embody and to express daily, lost its grip. I have met many in my therapy room over the years who have suffered unspeakable trauma and abuses, with histories of the most perverse torture and persecution who later became further persecuted by forgiveness and, the sense of inadequacy, shame and guilt it brought because they could not or, would not forgive. What I call the tyranny of forgiveness. And socio-politically too, the call to forgive when it comes to oppression and injustice has always been placed onto the most marginalised. Those less likely themselves, to receive kindness, leniency and support from social structures.
Forgiveness and anger
‘My response to racism is anger. I have lived with that anger, ignoring it, feeding upon it, learning to use it before it laid my visions to waste, for most of my life. Once I did it in silence, afraid of the weight. My fear of anger taught me nothing. Your fear of that anger will teach you nothing, also’ Audre Lorde
Forgiveness may evoke different things to each of us, so I went and dug a few definitions so we can have a shared understanding and be clearer about what is actually meant when we speak of forgiveness. Here are a few;
According to the Collins dictionary, ‘if you forgive someone who has done something bad or wrong, you stop being angry with them and no longer want to punish them’.
And finally for the Merriam-Webster dictionary, to forgive is ‘to cease to feel resentment against an offender… it is to give up resentment of or claim to requital’ (requital by the same dictionary is defined as something given in return, compensation, or retaliation).
It was only upon reviewing these definitions that I realised how forgiveness revolves so much around anger. That it means by definition to let go of anger and with that, its associated wish for retribution, punishment or justice. I found this both eye-opening and particularly problematic when thinking about inequality, injustice and oppression. Problematic but also sadly typical.
Fear of anger, the pacifying of anger and by extension the maligning of anger sit at the core of the maintenance of the status quo and therefore the reproduction of inequality, injustice and oppression. Marginalised groups have long been dissuaded from connecting with anger, with rage and with fury. However natural and human those emotions as responses to the harm of oppression and injustice, are. Sometimes subtly. Sometimes more forcefully.
There is arguably nothing that perpetrators of violence or oppressors fear more in their targets than 1) memory thus their capacity to remember the harm that was done onto them and 2) anger and with it the associated wishes if not impulses for justice, retribution and/or reparation for what was done onto them. The fear of revenge is therefore the fear of death. And it can take a while, sometimes a lifetime, to learn to inhabit the heat of anger. To connect to its transformational potential and the power it holds as a force for change and a force for life, but also how ever so near it sits to death and to destruction.
Forgiveness as social control
‘When the missionaries arrived, the Africans had the land and the missionaries had the Bible. They taught us how to pray with our eyes closed. When we opened them, they had the land and we had the Bible’ Jomo Kenyatta
Christianity and the imperative to forgive has historically been weaponised as illustrated above by the words of Kenyatta. Christianity’s love and mercy messages were sold to my ancestors during the arduous Middle Passage, on torturous plantations and on native and African shores upon colonial encounters between white and black/brown bodies. There is absolutely no doubt that a version of Christianity was instrumental in progressing imperial and colonial agendas. Oppressive agendas. White Agendas. Christianity was used to justify enslavement. To pacify distraught and furious displaced and tortured bodies and souls by offering them the promise of eternal life. It promulgated a vision of a white god as the image of the white colonial Master, and it forever traded forgiveness for mass atrocities and inescapable racial violence.
It was convenient to say the least, to propagate the idea of ‘turning the other cheek’ when violated, harmed or subjected to injustice, as a sign of moral superiority and religious devotion. Colonised and marginalised bodies largely internalised this impetus as a survival and coping mechanism. Often, they had little choice. Today we continue to see manifestations of this Christian mandate following racial atrocities. For example, right after the Charleston mass shooting, words of forgiveness and mercy by surviving family members of murdered black victims, occupied much of the headlines and airtime, attracting self-serving praises and admiration from much of white America. Survivors of white violence are entitled to use whatever they need to make grieving and loss tolerable nonetheless, it remains that such forgiveness does not occur in a vacuum. That the act of forgiving at group level serves fundamental functions for society, for group relations and indeed for the social order.
True forgiveness could only come after connecting with the pain of loss and the trauma of racist violence and, this entails a period of intense grieving, reflection and introspection. This inexorably takes time. Sometimes a lifetime. Instant forgiveness is not possible. And if instant forgiveness is not possible then, other mechanisms are likely in operation when marginalised groups appear to be granting forgiveness as swiftly as the dead body of their loved ones hit the ground and, when they are widely celebrated for doing so. This socially sanctioned and loudly applauded act of dissociation in the racial Other when brutalised, speaks of and reproduces white supremacy. It is fundamentally an act of self-sacrifice in the sense that the black or brown body is expected to bypass their grief, mourning and deep sense of injustice to maintain the white psychic equilibrium as well as the social order. We are expected to silence if not bury and repress the impact of racial violence and therefore to beautify the ugliness of racism. And so too often we learn to split off from it. To ensure white people, as a group, do not feel too uncomfortable with the violence they dish out, the violence of whiteness. That they are kept in the dark about the risks racism poses to us all. Themselves included.
Forgiveness in this context is clearly a defensive or protective manoeuvre. In part, more than likely an attempt to cope with the pain, hopelessness and/or powerlessness that existing whilst black and brown within white supremacy, entails. Forgiveness can indeed provide a sense of mastery over our racist world as well as a means by which a positive identity or sense of worth may be maintained. It is in a way, exchanging the socially imposed role of inferior or subhuman being, whose right to exist is precarious, questioned and/or threatened, for that of superhuman: hyper-moral god-like benevolent soul with the power to deliver forgiveness at the drop of a…black body. In part thus, forgiveness is an act of racial compensation evocative of contrived feelings of omnipotence. But perhaps too, in that moment when we say or decide we forgive, we are indeed granting others the right to live. We are stopping ourselves from connecting to that murderous rage which may well mean death and/or destruction. Perhaps at some levels, white groups know that they are being spared. Perhaps that pressure we feel to forgive is also an unconscious internalisation for their wish to avoid retaliatory violence. And how near we all intimately know, it always is.
Forgiveness when it comes to injustice and oppression is consequently not only a moral imperative. It is so deeply ingrained in society and arguably in the white psyche, it has become an imperative, full stop. Forcing or projecting the pressure to forgive onto the marginalised is simply another facet of oppression. Another way to rob people of colour of their humanity. It is thus an act of racial violence. Further, it is one thing to discuss forgiveness in the context of historical racial violence, a violence which remains to be remedied in the main, it is quite another to expect forgiveness for on-going violence. Granting forgiveness in this context, is not humanly possible. What is therefore being celebrated in other words, is not forgiveness but acquiescence to racial violence. Complicity disguised as morality.
Those harmed by whiteness and who refuse to let go of that harm have long been at risk of more harm. And as such have often been maligned to justify the need for further violence. They have historically ended up being characterised as perpetrators of violence. Sometimes even, as terrorists. We do not have to go far into history to find that those who have sought to prioritise racial justice, including those who now hold ‘hero’ status, have all at one point or the other been ridiculed or denigrated for refusing to forgive. Today that history continues with the celebration of those who speak of forgiveness in the face of racism and the widespread exclusion, condemnation and victimisation of those seek to obtain racial redress.
It’s an odd thing to witness, when survivors of abuse and injustice are turned into perpetrators of abuse and injustice because they won’t forgive the abuse and injustice which was done onto them. This process speaks of the power that those transgressed hold when it comes to forgiveness. When it comes to memory. The power to decide to seek or not to seek retribution is more than the power to disturb or not disturb the status quo, it is also fundamentally the power the victim holds to remind or not remind perpetrators that they are perpetrators. The power to hold or not to hold a mirror to their face. The power to shatter the perpetrator’s benevolent but yet so fragile, own sense of self. The power too to silence the reality that white peace/safety is as precarious as ours and only ever one rage away from destruction. Perhaps this is what the clapping at our forgiveness signifies, gratitude that we have decided, once more, someone will live another day.
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