OCTOBER 18, 2019
A Nation That Can’t Forgive Is Doomed
On October 2, former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger was convicted of murdering Botham Jean in his own home. Guyger claims she entered Jean’s apartment by accident (she lived on the floor above) and, mistaking him for a burglar, shot him dead. Jean was eating a bowl of ice cream.
Following Guyger’s sentencing, Jean’s 18-year-old brother Brandt embraced Guyger. “I forgive you,” he told her; “I love you as a person, and I don’t wish anything bad on you.”
Most of us would call this a model act of mercy. Yet, astonishingly, many Americans quickly took to social media expressing their disapproval of Brandt. One newspaper columnist called it a “disappointing display of yet another person of color too ready to absolve a white person who harmed them.” Apparently, forgiveness is no longer a virtue in this country.
In the case of Guyger and the Jeans, there are complicating factors. Guyger, a white woman, was sentenced to ten years in prison for sneaking into the home of an unarmed black man and killing him. Many believe her sentence to be unacceptably light. “I think this whole act of forgiveness has gotten black people where they are in this country right now,” Ryan Williams, a black man, told The Washington Post. African American historian Jemar Tisby similarly argued that “black people, when they experience injustice, there’s almost an expectation that we will immediately forgive and therefore can sort of move on.” Not so, says Tisby: “We have a right to be angry, a right to grieve, and a right to want justice.”
This rising reticence about forgiveness goes beyond racial politics. Recently, television personality Ellen DeGeneres was castigated by left-wing celebrities and activists for sitting next to former president George W. Bush at a Dallas Cowboys game. As one of the first celebrities in Hollywood to “come out” as same-sex attracted, Degeneres has long been a progressive icon. Yet even that didn’t get her a free pass. Actor Mark Ruffalo of Spotlight fame tweeted: “Sorry, until George W. Bush is brought to justice for the crimes of the Iraq War, (including American-lead [sic] torture, Iraqi deaths & displacement, and the deep scars—emotional & otherwise—inflicted on our military that served his folly), we can’t even begin to talk about kindness.”
Meanwhile, our current cultural distemper is one in which any celebrity or politician, dead or alive, risks having some comment or action revisited for public censure—the so-called “cancel culture.” Black comedian Kevin Hart was pressured to step down from hosting the Oscars because of a 10-year-old tweet that disparaged homosexuality. Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray was publicly censured for several homophobic tweets he wrote when he was 15 years old. And, of course, we can’t forget the rapid return of that ancient Roman practice, damnatio memoriae—the “condemnation of memory,” where any figure in American history found to have violated modern standards of political correctness may be unceremoniously purged from public memory.
We as a nation are rapidly dispensing with forgiveness. In its stead, we favor resentment, vengeance, and even hatred. This cultivation of animosity is a thoroughly un-American trait, and one that seriously threatens the Christian foundations of our republic.
Christ himself, more than anyone else in human history, had a right to bitterness and revenge. His own people betrayed him to an oppressive foreign regime, who then visited the full force of government-sanctioned violence upon him. Mocked, scourged, stripped, and crucified, this sorrowful servant refused to indulge in hate. Rather, as he asphyxiated on the Cross, he gasped those unforgettable words: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Ever since, those who know Christ to be the Savior and Redeemer of mankind—and even those who simply believe him to be a great moral teacher—have sought to follow his example. Such willingness to pardon is what enabled North and South to reconcile in the aftermath of a bloody conflict that killed 620,000 Americans. It was exemplified in the nonviolent protests of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights movement, who managed to forgive those white racists who brutally mistreated them. And it was demonstrated in 2007 when the Amish community of Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, forgave the man who shot 10 of their girls in a one-room schoolhouse.
A culture that no longer appreciates the restorative power of forgiveness is already on the road to self-destruction. A culture that feeds on revenge and hatred is at war with itself, prone to exacerbate conflicts rather than mend them. Revenge and hatred, we know, kill the soul. History, literature, and social anthropology are ripe with examples of cultures that have fed on cycles of revenge: the Florence of Dante, the Verona of Romeo and Juliet, the Rwanda of 1994, the Afghanistan of the last 30 years. Each one of them offers a case study in social suicide.
None of this is meant to excuse racism. Nor is it to downplay legitimate black frustrations with continued racism in American society. But, to the question posed by one writer—“When it comes to racism, is forgiveness ever appropriate?”—the answer, if Christ has taught us anything, is assuredly and unequivocally: Yes. Always.
Photo credit: YouTube/KENS 5
By Casey Chalk
Casey Chalk is a senior contributor at Crisis and a graduate student at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Theology at Christendom College.