Here we go again. Another maddening, bitter round of African American people being murdered by the state-sanctioned police or armed vigilantes — Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd; and being interfered with and threatened while doing mundane activities like Christian Cooper birdwatching in the Ramble at New York’s famed and infamous Central Park. As with highly publicized violence against Black and Brown people comes the perfunctory call, presented within the media, for forgiveness.
A focus on forgiveness while cities burn and justice for the dead and violated remains elusive embodies impotent, at best, or devious, at worst, Christianity. In the immediate face of violence, such an approach to the central tenet of Christianity, love enacted, is simple-minded, full of pomposity, and frankly, indifferent to the actual issue at play — the sanctity of life.
Centering in on forgiveness places the spotlight on the targeted and objectified and their trauma. It is a form of trauma porn that seeks to reduce the violence to a Black-faced spectacle — a theatrical dog and pony show of Black sorrow and suffering. Why? Because the one posing the question, “Do you forgive [insert name of the xenophobic sociopath]?” generally has power in that moment and does absolutely nothing to foster justice and reparations to the harmed.
Often the bad actor recedes into the foreground. Granted their lives, like Amy Cooper who lost her high-ranking post at Franklin Templeton and surrendered her furry companion to the rescue shelter where she procured him, are impacted. Seldom, if ever, are they asked to perform any public repentance.
The gaze of some white people and many, many Christians that call upon targets of sociopathic-xenophobic violence (commonly known as racism or racial violence) to accept the swift, often paper-thin apologies of violent actors hinders the manifestation of justice, equity, reconciliation and restoration. In some sort of bizarre understanding of forgiveness, it is as if an apology will magically end over 400 years of sociopathic-xenophobic violence in the United States (even though we are quite untied at the moment). Forgiveness alone has not, and absolutely will not, manifest the return of lost lives, produce accountability, equity, justice, peace on earth and goodwill toward all humanity.
In the current rash of deaths and mayhem, voyeuristic forgiveness came into view in two instances: the murder of George Floyd and the felonious 911 call by Amy Cooper, when asked by Christian Cooper (no relations) to put her dog on a leash. Christian Cooper rightly did so in compliance with the rules and regulations in the Central Park Ramble. Two African American men — Cooper and Floyd — whose hue was weaponized against them.
Amy Cooper pulled a page out of the 1955 playbook of Carolyn Bryant Donham, whose lie led to the gruesome murder of 15-year-old Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi. Bryant Donham lied and said that the African American youth grabbed and menaced her. He did not. Young Mr. Till was beaten and abused so badly his body was battered beyond recognition. Amy Cooper falsely accused Christian Cooper of menacing her. Her deception was so perverse she feigned hysteria and while knowingly being videotaped by cell phone. In CNN’s report of Amy Cooper’s apology, she seemingly perpetuated her practice of lying. She said, “I’m not a racist. I did not mean to harm that man in any way.” Amy Cooper’s words are inconsistent with her actions. History is replete with instances of Black men being lynched based upon false accusations of white women. Replete.
In the case of George Floyd, who is not alive to speak for himself, his girlfriend, Courteney Ross, spoke of his kindly, hopeful, forgiving spirit. She indicated that he would not advocate the resulting violence. What complicates forgiveness even further in this case is her ethnicity. Ms. Ross is white. In the minds of many, her proximity to blackness did not afford her the right to speak in a cathartic moment (that is what an uprising is) brought on by centuries of abuse and degradation. For many people who are beyond frustrated by the vestiges of systemic oppression including willful, rampant police brutality enacted upon Black and brown people for which no one is held accountable, Ross was not a proper spokesperson. Her intimate knowledge of George Floyd did not elevate hers to an influential voice for justice. On the contrary, calls for peace in the midst of injustice do nothing but perpetuate injustice.
Frederick Douglass, the African American abolitionist, addressed this phenomenon in 1857. In a speech, “West India Emancipation” at Canandaigua, New York, regarding the enslaved human’s quest for freedom, he conveys:
This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both.
Consider the demand, a call for repentance and restoration, in another term, reparations. Active repentance and reparations will end injustice. Nothing more, nothing less. With the exception of the end of U.S. chattel slavery and the Civil Rights cases (see the 1940s – 1960s) and Acts, the United States has failed repeatedly to enact justice, repentance, and restoration for African Americans. Repeatedly.
Voyeuristic forgiveness amounts to cheap grace. Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it best: “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance … Communion without confession.” Voyeuristic forgiveness is mere drama without substance. There can be no communion with confession in the face of historical sociopathic-xenophobic violence.
Ultimately, substantive forgiveness is an interpersonal matter between the bad actor and their target. Within the context of historical and ongoing injustice, attaining justice, equity and restoration for the oppressed should be the central focus for everyone. Black forgiveness gazed upon is often used to stymie protest and progress. Voyeuristic forgiveness is used to neutralize the oppressed, their protest, justifiable tensions and demands, and their quest to live without sociopathic-xenophobic imposition.