Do you know what “cheap forgiveness” is? Cheap forgiveness is exactly the thing Stacey Patton, author and senior enterprise reporter for the Chronicle of Higher Education, was referring to in her Washington Post piece “ Black America should stop forgiving white racists.” America has a long history of expecting black people to validate their humanity through black-subjugating forgiveness. The human experiences of resentment, righteous anger, and even anger fueled retribution aren’t on the list of “Allowed Black Experiences.” America is conditioned to believe that if black people, even though victim of the most gruesome of crimes, retaliate they’ve proven the point; black people aren’t redeemable. Cheap forgiveness is the kind of forgiveness granted in the face of an unrepentant offender. Meeke Addison, a radio personality who hosts “Airing the Addisons” for Urban Family Talk, rebuffed Dr. Patton’s assertions and contended that forgiveness is exactly what is required of Black America in her piece, “Black Christians Must Continue To Forgive White Racists.” Within five talking points, Addison attempts to exegete the importance of forgiveness through a proof-text approach to scripture from the Christian Bible. Addison’s piece is a gratuitous scramble to re-brand respectability politics. The piece also completely misrepresents the function and differences between absolution and the process of forgiveness.
Cheap forgiveness or premature forgiveness are terms used in the psychotherapy setting. Premature forgiveness is the kind of forgiveness that hinders emotional growth and contributes to the underlying repeated offenses by bypassing the process of reconciliation. The process of forgiveness requires two people. Addison’s intended model is based on a scripture example of salvation. Salvation-based forgiveness, as seen in most theistic religions, is a single transaction. Absolution, or salvation-based forgiveness, indicates that there is a formal release from guilt. Using Addison’s paradigm you can see why salvation-based forgiveness makes sense. In her belief system Christ paid a single penalty (crucifixion) for the offense (sin) of the world and exonerate the guilty from punishment (hell). One, however, cannot transpose this model for interpersonal relationship. Beyond the fact that we aren’t supernatural beings, an attempt to cross apply this model completely discounts our collective and individual psychology and misrepresents Jesus’ approach to forgiveness.
There isn’t a single place in the Gospel accounts were Jesus teaches unconditional forgiveness. To that point, there are texts in Epistles where Jesus teaches of the existence or actions that won’t be forgiven. He never gives a clear definition of what interpersonal, that is forgiveness that doesn’t include God as the agent, forgiveness looks like. The gaps in definition and application provide the contemporary read with enough room to insert definition. A few undebatable points about Jesus’ take on forgiveness is the word he used. Theologians note that in the New Testament, the word Jesus uses for “forgive” is aphiēmi. This word translated into English can mean several things. It can mean to remit a debt, to leave something (or someone) alone, to allow an action, to leave, to send away, to desert or abandon, and even to divorce. With so many applications, how is the contemporary reader to know what approach is required? Meeke Addison’s points lead to a moral teaching of forgiveness. This moral teaching is anachronistic.
Collective and Individual Well-being
Touting the emotional and physical benefits of premature or cheap forgiveness is foolish. In addition to being foolish, it is bad for the victim’s psychological and emotional health due to the pressure and shame embedded in being respectable to do the right thing: forgive. Genuine or redemptive-forgiveness is a process that requires two parties. Within the model of genuine forgiveness, the offender takes responsibility to make attempts at repair after remorse is established. When the offender isn’t available responsibility is placed on the factors that influenced the offense. In the case of Dylan Roof, who hasn’t shown any remorse to date, those offended would look for remorse and the involved parties to engage reparative behavior.
Collective well-being is another factor that has to be taken into consideration in discussions of forgiveness. Does the cheap forgiveness of one member of society facilitate future offenses because the offender was not held accountable? Research suggests this very thing. Across there animal kingdom there are examples of reconciliation through forgiveness, but not before severe punishment took place. Ancestral humans that experienced conflict perpetrated by others sought revenge. Our hominid ancestors insured the their collective safety by decreasing the likelihood of repeat attacks through punishment first and reconciliation after. The same neurological chain reactions that lead to ancestral human behavior is still present in our brain biology today. The capacity for forgiveness is also a built in feature, but can only be unlocked when we are sure of our own safety. What would make someone bypass their own fight-or-flight process preprogrammed by revengeful neurological ancestry? The answer to that question is attached to the nature versus nurture debate. Our social conditioning tells us retaliation is “bad” and forgiveness is “good.” In the case of Black America and respectability the message is amplified ten-fold.
The victims of the Charleston shooting and any racially motivated aggression have the right to engage in whatever process that will restore their inner peace. That process may or may not include forgiveness, but no one should expect it of them. Inner peace comes from engaging the process of acceptance and empowering agency. As Dr. Patton suggests, our constant forgiveness perpetuates the cycle of attacks and abuse, a form of “survivorship” that is numbing our cognitive and emotional clarity.
We must be willing to hold out of an apology, for reconciliation, and for change. Only THEN can we forgive in a meaningful way.