Forgiveness, Repentance, & White Supremacy

When the accused killer of the nine martyrs of Emanuel AME in Charleston, South Carolina was arraigned in court, much was made in the mainstream media about how the loved ones of the murdered forgave him. This forgiveness was seen as marvelous, simplistic, premature, Christian—it garnered attention and commentary.

This narrative of African Americans forgiving a white murderer and terrorist fits neatly—too neatly—into a larger framework that diminishes the injustices inflicted upon Black people. Somehow the misdeeds of white people magically evaporate in the face of the wonderful “spiritual” and “soulful” presence of African Americans.

This isn’t right. And I mean by this not only that this narrative, and these assumptions, are morally wrong, they are also incorrect.

In confronting him, the loved ones of the slain worshippers did indeed forgive him and in the same breath told him this was his opportunity to repent.

It is this challenge to repent that deserves to be widely disseminated and discussed.

Demonstrating the powerful, all-inclusive mercy of God is the fruit of profound faith and spiritual discipline. God’s unrelenting and universal love is a core message of the Christian life as I understand it (steeped as I am in the Universalist witness).

The community of survivors that held and holds that killer in prayer, offering him forgiveness, demonstrating for him the nature of God, bathing him in the light of divine love are not weak. They are not meek and mild.

Forgiving him does not mean exonerating him. It doesn’t mean declaring him “not guilty.” It doesn’t mean not holding him accountable.

The point of bringing that murderer the light of God is to illuminate the evil he has done.

To make him see it. To make him acknowledge it. God’s light illumines the space where evil lurks, showing it to you. Making it visible to you. Being compelled to see what you have done—and to see it through the eyes of the ones who bear the consequences of what you did—is meant to awaken remorse, contrition, confession.

People have a tendency to cover up our mistakes, our missteps, our—let’s just say it—our sins through denial. We deny we have done anything wrong, or we deny that our actions were wrong, finding ways to justify or rationalize.

The unrelenting soul-force of those who would hold us accountable blow that all away. Look at what you’ve done, they say, see it here in the light. Acknowledge it.

And repent.

The humane response to being shown clearly the nature of our wrongs is to regret them, be sorry for them, to repent of them and ask forgiveness to those who we wronged.

The German theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonheoffer speaks of “cheap grace,” like being given the “get out of jail free” card easily and quickly. Cheap grace is, in his words, “the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance.”

I don’t think what we’re seeing here is cheap grace. The Christian witness of forgiveness manifested by the loved ones of the nine martyrs of Charleston was one that required repentance.

And some kind of repentance is required if we are to ever have racial justice.

I have so few answers on what this might look like for all of us trying to live through the continuing legacy of slavery and colonialism on this continent. Except that the evil that white people have inflicted on Black and Native peoples will not magically evaporate.

And that without repentance, without the public confession of wrongdoing and without official apology, without a thorough examination of conscience by every person who benefits in the racial system of advantage and disadvantage, there can be no reconciliation, no justice, no peace.

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American Intifada: Ferguson and the coming insurrection

At the beginning of the trouble in Ferguson, Missouri, a friend wrote on his Facebook page, “What is going on in Ferguson?”

To which I replied, “An American intifada.”

To be sure, it is not a perfect analogy, but the sight of popular civilian protests facing off against an army firing tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowds, training their automatic weapons on civilians as they patrolled the streets in helmets and camouflage, seemed apropos.

The comparison has been made by others, including Palestinian human rights activists who tweeted hard-won advice to the citizens of Ferguson about engaging with the police-army, dealing with tear gas, and other practical matters.

Not a perfect parallel, but consider this:

Saint Louis County police chief Timothy Fitch, along with other US law enforcement officials, has gone to Israel for training and advice. Fitch joined a delegation of American law enforcement on a trip to Israel sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League in April 2011.

The pro-Israel lobby in the United States has been making good use of the fear of terrorism in this country, bringing police chiefs from American cities to Israel to learn from the experts.

In 2008, the ADL sponsored policing delegations from Miami, Philadelphia, Lexington, KY, Mobile, AL, Salt Lake City, UT among ten others.

The Jewish United Fund, along with the Israeli government, hosted a delegation of law enforcement officials from Chicago in 2010, who were given a seminar in policing techniques, including a field trip to occupied East Jerusalem and its checkpoints. Every major division of Chicago law enforcement (Bureau of Investigative Services, Emergency Management, Organized Crime, SWAT) has been to Israel on such trips.

In October 2012, the American Jewish Committee brought police officers from New York City, Los Angeles, Oakland, Austin, and Houston to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. They visited Megiddo Prison, near Haifa, notorious for its appalling conditions and for torturing inmates—many of them “administrative detainees” held without charge or trial.

Ali Abunimah, in his powerful book The Battle for Justice in Palestine, reports:

 The Jewish Institute of National Security Affairs…says it has brought more than one hundred federal, state, and local law enforcement officials to Israel as part of its Law Enforcement Exchange Program and has trained eleven thousand more law enforcement officers from across the United States since 2002.

Israel—with its “field tested” weapons and techniques used to subdue the Palestinians—is being held up as the model for US law enforcement. US police officers and law enforcement officials are being supplied with techniques and strategies of how a military occupation deals with a hostile population, how an official ethnocracy deals with officially disenfranchised minorities.

Think about that for a minute.

Whatever you personally believe about Israel or the Palestinians—just think about the fact that in the United States of America, police departments across the country are learning how to deal with its citizenry (who they are supposedly charged to protect) from a country that is illegally occupying another people’s land—and all that this implies in terms of military force.

Much electronic ink has been spilled over the last week about the increasing militarization of police departments around the US. Local police forces are acquiring weapons and equipment downloaded from federal US armed forces—armored personnel carriers, automatic rifles, flash bang grenades, and more.

The War On Drugs has met its equally nefarious lover, The War On Terror, and this, dear reader, is their offspring. Ferguson, MO makes visible in stark terms what has been happening in the United States for at least a generation. African American communities and individuals—youth and young men in particular—are under siege in a new way.

The massive effort, in a supposedly “post racial” society, to reinvent the terms of slavery and Jim Crow through the machinations of law enforcement has become well known through the writing of Michelle Alexander, and the movements against mass incarceration and minimum drug sentencing that her book, The New Jim Crow, helped inspire.

The conditions of this re-deployment of state power against people of color is dangerous, violent, and acts with increasing impunity. As it always has.

And the machinations of the reinvented conditions of slavery and Jim Crow are increasingly militarized. The Bull Connor of old is now driving an armored vehicle, equipped with automatic rifles.

Are citizens of the United States being targeted as enemy combatants by a military force? Are we a population to be subdued through curfews, checkpoints, arrest, torture, searches, seizures and other forms of state violence?

If our situation is analogous to military occupation, are the events in Ferguson an insurrection?

What would it take for us to have a widespread civilian uprising against this occupation?

In what ways can we refuse to cooperate, on a mass scale, with the occupation? How do we—collectively, individually—withdraw our power from it?