When news of the horrific murder of nine black churchgoers in Charleston at the hands of alleged gunman Dylann Roof broke last week, the most obvious reaction was outrage. Social media exploded with Americans expressing dismay and anger at the atrocity, with many celebrities, politicians, and average citizens demanding swift justice for the heinous, racially-motivated crime.
But when the victims’ families confronted Roof — virtually, via satellite feed — in a South Carolina courtroom two days later, they offered a strikingly different sentiment: Forgiveness.
“You took something very precious from me, but I forgive you,” said Nadine Collier, the daughter of 70-year-old shooting victim Ethel Lance, as she fought back tears. “It hurts me. You hurt a lot of people, but may God forgive you.”
Her comment was followed by a series of similar statements from others close to the fallen, all of them toeing a similar line: They were devastated, they were angry, but they would forgive Roof anyway.
The extraordinary display of Christian forgiveness astonished observers across the country, with major news pundits such as Chris Hayes expressing awe at the families’ graciousness. At the same time, many civil rights advocates criticized the media for focusing too much on forgiveness, voicing concern that it could create a narrative where an instance of racial violence is deemed “finished” before justice is exacted for the families.
Others weighed in as well, with several writers — both religious and otherwise — rushing to examine two vexing questions: Faced with such a shocking display of hatred and violence, what should forgiveness look like in Charleston? And for that matter, should Dylann Roof even be forgiven at all?
In a Twitter conversation with The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates, Jamelle Bouie of Slate warned that commentators may be looking for “cheap grace,” quoting famed Christian theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
— Jamelle Bouie (@jbouie) June 22, 2015
Indeed, Howard Zehr, a professor at Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) who has written extensively on forgiveness and is known as the “grandfather” of a kind of healing process known as restorative justice, told ThinkProgress that the focus on faith-rooted forgiveness can sometimes be problematic. Although he championed the power of forgiveness that emanates from religious belief, Zehr — who identifies as Christian and teaches at a faith-based school — noted that religious groups can sometimes put undue pressure on people to forgive quickly, when it’s usually more important to attend to the immediate needs of victims.
“Our religious traditions have created a certain pressure to forgive that has created certain block,” he said.
He argued that the media can sometimes magnify this pressure by focusing intensely on acts of forgiveness instead of the hard work of reconciliation that follows that forgiveness. When the a rogue gunman killed five Amish schoolgirls in cold blood before committing suicide in 2006, for instance, news coverage quickly shifted to the community’s swift attempt to forgive the shooter, as various Amish leaders visited the homes of his widow and extended family to express their condolences. While their actions were no doubt profound, Zehr hinted that the media failed to account for the near-constant focus on forgiveness that permeates much of Amish religious life, and that the actual healing process for the community lasted much longer than the initial pardon.
Similarly, Xolela Mangcu of the Root asked whether forgiveness is the correct approach, championing accountability as equally if not more helpful for those affected by tragedy.
“I wonder, then, if there is no other language beyond the discourse of forgiveness,” Mangcu wrote. “Given that forgiveness has not produced the results of reconciliation that were expected of it … we should perhaps consider giving accountability a chance in the fight against racism. Making accountability only the work of the courts is a form of self-absolution that leaves attitudes unchanged, until they blow up as they did in that church house in Charleston.”
As it turns out, Mangcu’s analysis touches directly on an old debate among conflict resolution and reconciliation experts. Zehr, who also works at EMU’s Center for Justice & Peacebuilding, noted that forgiveness offered for violent acts — while powerful at the outset — is only as effective as a community allows it to be.
“It’s a mixed blessing,” Zehr told ThinkProgress. “On the one hand, [forgiveness] does call out the best in us. But it also can obscure the justice component, and it can feel like an easy fix for people.”
But Zehr — who regularly works with families whose lives are torn apart by violence — said that true forgiveness requires more than just saying “I forgive you.” He recalled reconciliation efforts in South Africa, where a white apartheid government oppressed a black majority for decades. When that regime finally collapsed in the 1990s, black and white South Africans did offer messages of forgiveness, but they also began a long, hard process of reconciliation — one that arguably continues to this day.
“People think it’s forgive and forget, and it’s the opposite,” he said. “It’s forgive and remember. The one common theme I’ve heard is that it’s a letting go, that this person is not going to control my life forever.”
“Forgiveness is a process: It’s something you commit to, but it doesn’t happen immediately,” he added.
Daryl Van Tongeren, an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Hope College who has also published works on forgiveness, told ThinkProgress that the kind of forgiveness lifted up by the families of the Charleston victims is often the first step in a larger personal and communal undertaking. People affected by tragedy sometimes offer different kinds of forgiveness for their aggressor, usually as a part of a bigger project of reconciliation that works in several stages — ideally in ways that pursue justice.
“Decision forgiveness is separate from emotional forgiveness,” Van Tongeren told ThinkProgress in an email. “It is possible that forgiveness that occurs quickly is likely decisional forgiveness: Making a commitment to forgive. This leads to future forgiveness, so it might signal that one is working toward forgiveness, which will likely take time. It’s important to note that justice and forgiveness are also separate, though related. Individuals can forgive while the justice process is being carried out. Moreover, forgiveness is not excusing, justifying, condoning, or pardoning an offense. Rather, one can offer forgiveness but still want justice to be enacted.”
Zehr said that true, lasting restorative justice focuses less on forgiveness and more on the needs of the victims — needs that can often take time to address. He made special mention of the need for victims to feel empowered, such as granting them some element of control over the larger community’s response to a tragedy.
“There are a cluster of needs that I call justice needs,” he said. “Often those needs aren’t met. When people are able to move on, it’s usually because they’ve adjusted the process or moved on in other ways. Someone has taken power away from these folks. The more you empower victims, the more likely they are to say they received justice.”
Ultimately, both Zehr and Van Tongeren agreed that casual observers can sometimes characterize acts of forgiveness as full-blown reconciliation, when in fact the two concepts — although related — have very different goals.
“It’s important to distinguish forgiveness from reconciliation,” Van Tongeren said. “Forgiveness is an intrapersonal process that unburdens the victim from the negative emotions they might be harboring toward the transgressor. Reconciliation is an interpersonal process that involves restoring a relationship with the transgressor. There are certain situations in which reconciliation is not safe, though forgiveness can still take place.”