Stop explaining away black Christian forgiveness

The confounding forgiveness of the Charleston Nine families has led some to ignore its motivation and propose their own. Some of those who expressed righteous indignation at the disgusting right-wing attempts to invent motivations for Roof—rather than accept his explicitly racist statements and beliefs as his motivation—now refuse to take the family members seriously when they say it is a sincere, thought-out expression of their faith.

Hanna Rosin, for instance, seemed to suggest that black forgiveness was a legacy of white supremacy. Others turned the conversation to whether or not forgiveness provided an easy out to the public, allowing whites to move on from the systemic injustices and racist doctrines that permeate much of our society. By the end of Roxane Gay’s op-ed in The New York Times, the autonomous, self-initiated (to our knowledge) motivation of the black family members was replaced with uncited references to “demands for forgiveness” from “white people,” and a universal declaration that “black people forgive because we need to survive.”

Is it really that difficult to imagine that these families forgave for reasons other than to please white bystanders or advance a social cause? If the family members identified their forgiveness with their faith, is it right to insist that their willingness to forgive is a result of their race? They did not forgive to express the values of their race or to represent the character of their country, but to be faithful to their God. (To their great credit, journalists like Chris Hayes and Ta-Nehisi Coates, though amazed and uncomprehending of the act of forgiveness—like many of us—have taken the faith of the family members seriously. Many others have done the same, across the political spectrum, including people like political commentator Jamal Simmons.)