Should We Forgive Racism?

September 3, 2015

Categories: Forgiveness,Racism

We recently published a paper that explored forgiveness in the context of race-related offenses.

I had mixed feelings about it.

On one hand, I’m a big believer in the power of forgiveness, even in the context of very serious offenses. Forgiving tends to improve one’s physical and mental health, and there are benefits for relationships and communities as well. I have also seen the pain and struggle that comes along with holding a grudge, or harboring feelings of hate and revenge. Unforgiveness can be a heavy burden that weighs us down and keeps us from living the life we really want. Why should forgiveness of racism be different?

But it does seem different. Maybe it’s our country’s long history of racism, slavery, and oppression of African Americans. Maybe it’s the racism and discrimination that continues in our society even today. Maybe it’s my own struggle with racism and white guilt. Whatever it is, I worry that encouraging forgiveness of racism sends the message that it really isn’t that bad. I worry that forgiving racism will make it more likely to happen in the future.

I wonder if part of my struggle has to do with a misunderstanding of forgiveness. (This is weird to admit for a forgiveness researcher.) But at some level, it seems like forgiveness says what happened was okay. But that’s not what forgiveness is. Forgiveness says what happened wasn’t okay, but the person who was hurt is making a choice anyways to act in ways that are more positive and less negative toward the offending person. Forgiveness doesn’t change what happened, but it does allow the person who was hurt to regain their freedom.

Also, at some level forgiveness and justice seem like opposites. I tend to think that if we forgive racism, we can’t have justice for racism. And if we have justice for racism, we can’t have forgiveness for racism. I’m still working through this, but I think this is a false dichotomy. Can we have both forgiveness and justice? I think both are needed.

Discussion: What do you think about the idea of forgiving racism? Do you think it’s a good idea, or do you struggle with it? What do you think about the balance between forgiveness and justice? Are they opposites, or can we have both?


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