We Have to Dismantle White Supremacy Before We Can Forgive

by Leah C.K. Lewis

Shortly after the murders of the Mother Emanuel 9 in Charleston, our nation began a “conversation” about forgiveness. Nadine Collier, Ethel Lance’s daughter, forgave her mother’s murderer in what seemed like mere hours of the shooting. This stunning act of forgiveness provided us with a point of reflection. Then, at the terrorist’s bond hearing, Myra Thompson’s grandson, Anthony Thompson, conveyed his forgiveness. Christopher Singleton and his sister Camryn similarly forgave this same man who murdered their mother, the Reverend Sharonda Coleman-Singleton. Truly, Ms. Collier, Mr. Thompson, and the Singletons displayed tremendous dignity and resolve.

I take absolutely no exception with the actions of Ms. Collier, Mr. Thompson, and the young Singletons. They lost members of their families. Forgiveness rightly became a very personal Ebenezer—a stone of help—for the family members and close friends of the Honorable Reverend Clementa Pinckney, Reverend Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Reverend Singleton, Reverend Daniel Simmons, Sr., Tywanza Sanders, Ms. Thompson, Susie Jackson, Cynthia Hurd, and Ms. Lance. The bereaved more than any of us need a reminder of God’s very present aid in times of pain and peril.

Then opinions expressed by Dr. Stacey Patton in The Washington Post further drove the debate. Dr. Patton advocates that African Americans no longer accommodate white guilt, gaze, imposition, and fetish by readily granting forgiveness especially publically in the midst of our anguish. This seems reasonable to me.

As tends to be the case when conventional “wisdom”—such as the virtue of forgiveness—is presumed under attack, pundits strike reflexively. Many who addressed Dr. Patton through the fiber optics of the Internet or television with counter-commentary seemed to not have gleaned her argument or refused it outright. Old habits die hard, even when those habits are detrimental.

Black—and usually Christian—forgiveness given freely, publicly, and without demand for recourse and redress of injury is exceedingly problematic in our communal quest for justice—personal and social. African Americans historically have been conditioned to humble ourselves at the altar of white supremacy. This must stop.

In order to bend the arc of the moral universe toward our equitable and humane treatment, African Americans must stop kowtowing and being complicit in our own dehumanization and subjugation. As victims of terror, we have absolutely nothing to be contrite about.

The Church, of which I am currently a part, must stop teaching a faux-narrative that makes weaklings out of believers. Narratives that focus on forgiveness, but not on self-actualization, the development and use of power, and offender accountability fail to produce the type of happy, healthy, whole practitioners that the Gospel intends. Our focus ought to be in developing and cultivating good old fashion power. Yes, power is a paradigm promoted by Jesus Christ, that Northeast African Palestinian Jew.

St. Mark 5:21-43 provides insight into the principles that I espouse. In this pericope, the woman with the twelve-year issue of blood (hemorrhaging) and Jarius, the synagogue leader, use self-determination to gain healing and wholeness—the woman for herself and Jarius for his twelve-year-old daughter. Jesus Christ, the Messiah, felt his “power” go out of him when the woman pressing through the crowd touched the hem of his garment. She then stood up whole. Her issue resolved. With a mere vocal command, “Talitha cum,” (Aramaic for “Little girl, get up!”) Jesus healed the child.

In both cases, embodied illnesses were overcome through accessing and using power. Too often African Americans give away power by publicly forgiving actors in racist, imperial systems perpetuated by the myth of white supremacy. Internalized oppression is a disease. Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome, as conceptualized by Dr. Joy DeGruy, is an illness.

We must acknowledge that when media engages forgiveness it becomes spectacle. Spectacle is cheap, tawdry, and a tool of the oppressor. Willingly participating in the theatrics of forgiveness going forward ought to be viewed as fostering socio-political sickness and a capitulation to a imperfect, self-defeating theology.

It seems like every fifty years or so, this nation cycles back to address the recurring implications of man-made racial inequality. In the Judeo-Christian tradition fifty years is supposed to represent the year of Jubilee—a year of celebration and a year in which debts are dismissed and jubilance had. We, African Americans, continue to miss the mark. Why? In part, because we fail to give life to the power we contain. Sadly, the very religion so many of us purport to love is a tremendous source of our impotence.

If a critical mass of African Americans operate in our power, like flag-removing Bree Newsome, the oppressive culture of the United States has no other option but to change for the better. We have the power to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice. We have the power to bend the arc of the moral universe toward equality.

Without question, forgiveness gained privately, for one’s own sake and the sake of our families and our community is a positive development in the healing process. This is a strength, which cannot be abused.

We, the African American people and our allies, gained nine martyrs for the all-important cause of overcoming the pox of racism. Without question, millions mourn the untimely and unnatural deaths of the Mother Emanuel 9. Deaths that like so many others were brought on by the U.S. legacy of unwarranted hatred; unbridled ignorance and violence enacted by intellectually and spiritually impaired whites directed toward African Americans indiscriminately. We too, need to rely on those things that bring comfort, hope, and a sense of stability and safety.

For many of us forgiveness is not that thing. Our martyrs slain have given us perspective. For those of us who are clear on the struggle and what is required to end white supremacy and its impositions, we know that forgiveness was, and remains, a necessary luxury for those in close proximity to loss of family, fellow church members and other loved ones.

For everyone else, media-covered forgiveness becomes a crutch that hinders the work before us. For those of us who are not at the epicenter of tragedy, we have one responsibility. It is accountability. We have an obligation to the deceased, the bereaved, our ancestors, ourselves, and future generations to hold the supporters of white supremacy and white privilege accountable.

For us, forgiveness takes on cosmic or metaphysical proportions. It is not interpersonal or immediate. Forgiveness for the masses must be withheld until the hydra headed monster of white supremacy and privilege breathes its last breath. Until white Americans confess their sins and those of their foreparents, remove every Southern Cross from public spaces, confront their intra-ethnic group members who are violators, ratify laws that rectify systemic disadvantages and oppressions based upon color and class, overturn injustices, apologize, and pay reparations, forgiveness ought not be articulated. Tall order, I know, but as Dr. Cornel West said on CNN shortly after the massacre, “Forgiveness is a process, not an utterance.” So, too is reconciliation.

Even for those who have personal relationships to victims of hate crimes and race-based terrorism, to articulate forgiveness too soon and publically is to increase the risk of being misused and potentially made complicit in one’s own oppression. It would benefit our pursuit of justice, equity, and right treatment to withhold public forgiveness and absolution. While for our own sakes we ought not harbor bitterness, we must be resolute in our determination to overcome. Public forgiveness for us is not a starting point, but a culminating event. Our grand bestowal of forgiveness must wait for the type of pervasive, earthly, and supernatural resolution—the end of white supremacy—so poignantly imagined by the Negro Poet Laureate Paul Laurence Dunbar in his 1913 poem Dawn:
An angel, robed in spotless whiteBent down to kiss the sleeping Night.Night woke to blush; the spite was gone.Men saw the blush and called it Dawn.

Photo: Shutterstock

Leah C.K. Lewis, J.D., M.Div., D.Min., (ABD), is an ordained Baptist minister with standing in the United Church of Christ. She currently serves a Lutheran congregation. An author and literary activist, she has completed her dissertation on sex and sexuality in the African American Baptist Church and a manuscript on legal, religious, and political rhetoric pertinent to “race.” Follow her @HumanStriving, SoundCloud.com/Reverend-Leah-CK-Lewis, and http:www.facebook.com/The.Reverend.Leah.CK.Lewis. #BlackLivesMatter #StayWoke #HumanStriving #RighteousvRacist

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