Forgiveness or Restitution?

“Forgiveness” is a word that’s been in the news a lot lately – people talk about forgiving mass murderers. What do you think about that?

I think it would be good if the country was as forgiving of the folks who were upset down in Ferguson. If the country was as forgiving of the people who were upset down in Baltimore. If the country was as forgiving of the millions of people who find themselves incarcerated in this country because of some mistake they made when they were young. Forgiveness is not just for white supremacists. Forgiveness is not just for Dylann Roof.

This is from an interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates at Rolling Stone about his book, Between the World and Me, which I’m currently reading (thanks @hapaxlegoman for importing it for me!). I’m completely fascinated by where Coates’ thought intersects with theology, especially because he doesn’t really engage with theology as a stream of thought, and because I can only see where I think it intersects with what I know – which doesn’t include the theology that’s central to the black congregations in the States. Between my brain and his there’s a lack of knowledge about a very rich tradition, about which I would like to know more (and which I would like to see him engage with because it would be interesting!) and the fact that I don’t know stuff just makes me more curious.

To wit, his answer to the question about forgiveness quoted above, which raised the following question in my head:

Is there something in the theology and teaching in the black church that emphasises and enables forgiveness in the way we saw in Charleston recently that isn’t as strong in majority white churches?

Related questions:

  • Obviously examples of white Christians forgiving people who hurt them abound – how is that different from a corporate response of the church?
  • (Also, is it ‘easier’ to forgive people you think of as Don’t-Know-Better in contrast to people you think of as Should-Know-Better? And how do perceptions of race, nationality or religion fit into that… )
  • Is it just that we don’t often have occasion to see white churches forgiving in the same way? (You could probably write a long essay on responses to 9/11 here, and if anyone knows of one I should read, send it at me.)

Frankly, whatever its relation to theology in white majority churches, there’s clearly something in the waters, as it were, and I am taking recommendations for reading material.

Anyway, I think this question w/r/t forgiveness specifically sprung to mind because I recently heard @ChrisTilling talking about a particular reading of Paul on the idea of justice, which is prevalent in white, western churches, and perhaps especially in the evangelical church on both sides of the Atlantic.

He was saying that we commonly read Paul through a retributive lens:

God is Just – to be saved we must live Holy Lives, but all are sinners and fall short… – God’s justice demands restutitution from us for our sin – this happens through Jesus’ death and resurrection on the cross.

He then argued that, instead, it would be truer (and healthier) to adopt this lens:

God is Love – the justice of God is made known in the Gospel (in Christ) who comes in Love to free us from our enslavement to the (external) power of sin.

(So, um, I’ve added his book to the reading list too)

Would the latter understanding of God and justice enable us (white, western church us) from being so obsessed with judgement and justification in dealing with wrongdoing, and let us focus on grace and forgiveness – not just in terms of our personal salvation, but also how we deal with crime in our societies? What if we could apply that kind of forgiveness to people we think have committed crimes while struggling with and caught up in forces they’re unable to escape? Christians more than anyone else should get that personal responsibility on its own is never enough, right?

Is this, people who know something about it, the heart of black liberation theology? Did we just miss it in the Anglo-Saxon church because our teachers (mostly middle-aged white men, to be honest) haven’t experienced a lot of oppression they needed to be liberated from? Did we end up forgetting what forgiveness actually is?

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