Lives matter. So does forgiveness. Reflections on the United States in 2015 and a response to Roxane Gay in the New York Times

Note: I began writing this shortly after the attack at Emmanuel Methodist Church in Charleston, SC on June 17, 2015. Some of the specifics are now a little outdated, but I think the content as a whole remains as important now as ever.

Black lives matter.
Police lives matter.
White lives matter.
Baby lives matter.
Elderly lives matter.
Disabled lives matter.
Asian lives matter.
Criminal lives matter.
Christian lives matter.
Muslim lives matter.
Jewish lives matter.
Human lives matter. Period.

This man’s sign made the rounds on the internet as things heated up in the “Black Lives Matter” protests. He has a point, but the problem is these protests do not achieve their focus then return to the “Lives Matter” stance. They simple peter out. I find that a horrible fact of our world. If the #BlackLivesMatter movement were to include the necessary corrective, I’d be entirely behind it – but it doesn’t, and so the movement is not a quest for equality, it’s a drop in the bucket that does not acknowledge and address the far deeper issue – life, as a gift, no longer has value in our society.

Over the last several months, I have seen repeated memes, protests, and rants on the internet brought on by the justified outrage over several cases of police misconduct that have cost lives that should not have been cut short, the various wars in which we are engaged, and, most recently, the tragic and horrific attack on the Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. I finally came to the conclusion that something needs to be said that is not being said when I read this essay found in the New York Times, Why I Can’t Forgive Dylann Roof.

First, let’s touch on the “Lives Matter” part. I agree with every statement I made above, but the last one is, by far, the most important.  It’s sad that we, as a society, feel the need to point out a single group to identify as having value. I recognize that we live in a world in which it is necessary in many cases; I’m not so Pollyanna to think that racism doesn’t exist in America today. It definitely does. I started seeing those “Black Lives Matter” signs (which were right) as the protests mounted after the events in Ferguson, Missouri. In response to that, several groups (rightly, also) pointed out their disgust at violence against the police that crept into those protests by holding up opposing signs announcing, “Police Lives Matter.” If we are to overcome the situation we live in, we need to be able to just plain say, “Lives Matter.” As long as we feel the need to single out a group as one whose lives matter, we are perpetuating the problem. Rather, we need to step up and just say, without any equivocation, that lives matter — every life of every person.

Unfortunately, we have so whittled away at our understanding of the value of a human life throughout society — through slavery of every sort, abortion, euthanasia, public violence, etc. — that claiming lives matter boils down to claiming something we don’t actually believe. If lives matter, then each and every one matters. It is not happiness or pleasure that gives a life value, but the gift of human life itself. This is a gift that God has given us, and it is a gift that we must take very seriously if we are to be willing to take it away.

The other aspect of Roxane Gay’s letter that I have to address is her understanding of forgiveness and reconciliation. Gay makes the claim that refusing to forgive does not give Roof some power over her. I’m sorry, but that is just not true. She argues that there are some acts that are so heinous we must acknowledge them as such and realize they are beyond forgiveness. She’s absolutely right; we must acknowledge the heinousness of such acts. We must not whitewash them to make them seem less grotesque than they are. Roof’s decision to kill innocent people as they worship was a true act of evil. However, it is impossible to claim that we refuse to forgive him (at least that act of the will that is forgiveness) without his evil holding power over us. No act can be beyond forgiveness as an objective fact.

I once saw a speaker whose wife was killed by a drunk driver who crashed through the wall of their bedroom one night. He pointed out (and this illustration has stuck with me) that refusing to forgive – even someone you don’t know personally – is like drinking a big cup of poison and hoping the other person gets hurt. We, as Catholics, believe that we are beings made up of both body and spirit. While we may not have an emotional backlash from that refusal to forgive, it is undeniable that there is a spiritual wound that we will allow to fester.

We have both a command from Christ and an example. It is undeniable that, for any Christian to be worthy of the name, forgiveness is necessary, not only for bad things, but for the worst things we can imagine. In the prayer that Christ, himself, taught us to recite, we ask God to forgive us only as much as we forgive others – not, as Gay implied, just those sins that we might commit and ask to be forgiven. Peter tried to get bonus points by offering to forgive seven times; Jesus corrected him that he was to forgive seventy times seven times (a phrase that basically meant “as many as it takes” to the first century audience). Jesus, being put to a bloody and painful death, a death so gruesome Roman citizens were generally exempt from it, forgave those who drove nails into his body. This is the command and example we have to follow. How is it reasonable to say that we, as Christians, have the privilege to consciously withhold forgiveness? If we find it impossible to emotionally forgive, that’s one thing. If we refuse to even attempt the act of the will, that is quite another. It is unChristian.

Now, I have never met Roxane Gay; I doubt I ever will. I don’t know what parts of her life have caused the anger that made her claim that it is only because the villain is white and the victims are black. If that is true for some, it is certainly not the case for the members of the families and the community who expressed their forgiveness. We don’t forgive because we want to humanize Roof. We forgive because we are human and because we are Christian. We forgive because we have an unambiguous command from him we claim as God to do so. Forgiveness does not deny the horrendous fact of the act. If anything, it faces down evil in a way that is possible only for a Christian; it says, this is evil, but my God is bigger. If Love is to overcome hatred and evil, we must start by loving.

If we are to seek for love to overcome evil, the first step is to forgive. If Gay cannot find the emotional grace to forgive Roof – and she may never find that – I hope she can pray for the strength to commit her will to forgiveness.

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