In October of 2018, nine-year old Jeremiah Harvey exited a bodega in Brooklyn when his bookbag brushed the backside of a grown woman. Teresa Klein’s white privilege kicked into high gear, and she determined the correct course of action would be to call 911. When Klein was subsequently shown video footage clearly demonstrating that she was not, in fact, sexually assaulted by this nine-year old black boy, she apologized. It was soon discovered, however, that she had plans to sue the boy’s mother. At a community meeting, Jeremiah spoke up, later stating on the news, “I don’t forgive this woman, and she needs help.”
Many of us breathed a sigh of relief to hear this boy speaking some sense. Recently, white Americans have called the police to report their black fellow citizens for sitting down at a coffee shop, for studying on an elite college campus, for parking outside their own homes, for campaigning in their districts, and for golfing, to name a few. Why should a boy be pressed to forgive a grown woman acting out of racial bias and white privilege? He refused to do what white supremacy so often requires of victims: to sweep harm done under the rug, forgiving as if such microaggressions are not tethered to the systemic fact of racism. In his refusal, permission was granted other victims to do the same—to refuse the dance of cheap forgiveness that charges nothing and changes nothing. Instead, he told the truth that this white woman (like white folks everywhere) needs help to overcome her internalized superiority.
Jeremiah Harvey’s words, however, ran even deeper in what they conveyed about forgiveness. It is a process. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, expert on forgiveness if there ever was one, explains that forgiveness is not a feeling, but a goal: to heal ourselves; physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. The very first step is knowing the choice is our own, one that cannot be imposed from without, only assented within.
Tutu presided over the Truth and Reconciliation Commission undertaken in South African in the volatile wake of the overthrow of apartheid. In the ‘90s, few imagined that South Africa could transition from apartheid to democracy without spiraling into civil war. Nelson Mandela, jailed as a political prisoner for 27 years, was finally free. Outsiders wondered how a man imprisoned for nearly half his life could lead South Africa out of the dangerous snare of violent revenge. Mandela instead called forth the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The TRC enabled any individual to apply for amnesty by fully confessing their crimes under the apartheid regime. It called people in. Victims were invited to tell their stories and witness confessions. Through the TRC, many families finally came to know how their loved ones died.
One of the Commission’s leaders was a psychologist named Pumla. She recounted a story about Eugene de Kock, the former head of covert operations for the apartheid government. He earned the nickname “Prime Evil” for the atrocities he committed and went on to serve two life sentences for crimes for which he did not receive amnesty. Pumla recounted, “This man was responsible for training death squads…At one of the hearings, he asked if he could speak privately with the widows of some of his victims. And the first thing that surprised me is that the widows agreed to meet with him.”
She continued, “One of the women said to me, ‘I forgive Eugene unconditionally.’ And I asked her, ‘What motivated you to [do that]?’ And she said, ‘I could see that he meant his apology… we felt the truth.’ She said, ‘I know he might not have understood that we meant the forgiveness we gave…Although we were crying, our tears were not only tears for our husbands, but they were tears for him as well. I want to hold him by the hand and show him that it is possible to change.’”
Sometimes we imagine that radical forgiveness is only for the lesser crimes. Deep down, we don’t believe forgiveness works for the big things. We get snagged on what the offender did or didn’t do. Archbishop Tutu explains, however, that if forgiveness is dependent upon what the perpetrator will or won’t do, it centers them, giving our power away. “We remain tethered to the person who harmed us,” Tutu notes in the newly published Book of Forgiving. “We are bound with the chains of bitterness, tied together, trapped. Until we can forgive the person who harmed us, they will hold the keys to our happiness, they will be our jailer.”
His formula for the process of forgiveness is fourfold, emerging from the Truth & Reconciliation process:
Tell the story
Name the hurt
Grant forgiveness (or integrate the story)
Renew or release relationships
In Christchurch, New Zealand, mosques opened with the call to prayer yesterday morning as they mourn their dead, following a deadly mass shooting by a white supremacist terrorist. The work of forgiveness begins with telling the stories of the dead and those who loved them. We must say their names, behold their faces, lament the shadow where lives were snuffed out. Who were they? What did they love? What kind of person was each one? Targeted for being refugee and immigrant Muslims, most of these stories trace a line back to another nation of origin, a particular culture, a community that once was home but could be no longer. Their stories, bound together, speak of human movement throughout the world—of journeys out of war zones and poverty toward safety and opportunity, better lives for their children. That story must be told. The brave risk of flight to an unknown land, the pulsing hope for the next generation. The story that xenophobia attempts to silence, sometimes at gunpoint—this is the story that must be told to our children and neighbors, to a nation made anxious by the browning and queering of America.
The story is much larger than the harm, but speaking the harm is essential to our understanding of the breach. The harm of high-schoolers like Charlie Shebes gripped with paralyzing anxiety after a mass shooting, the harm done to Sandra Bland when she was pulled over for failing to signal as she changed lanes and never returned home again, the harm of relegating transgender troops like Bree Fram to second class citizens and placing them at risk of abuse, the harm of Edward Chapman serving 14 years on death row for a crime he didn’t commit. Within each story is the specific harm—it is a harm visited upon the body. As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes of racism, “it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth.” Speaking the harm requires great vulnerability, because it points to our places of brokenness, scars and wounds, and says: “This. This was done to me, and I am no longer the same.”
It is only after telling the story and naming the hurt that we get to the step of granting forgiveness. Tutu describes this step as “enabling you to retell the story” from the perspective of a hero, rather than a victim. The move from victim to hero is only possible when the story, including the harm, is integrated into an identity rooted in love. The moment when our hearts break open to a wider experience of the world, when we develop the courage to examine hard truths without flinching, when we expose our scars, as Jesus did, as an act of love rather than vengeance, when the fragile flame of compassion kindles the knowledge that each perpetrator is more than their worst deed—these comprise the act of granting forgiveness. Forgiveness claims a wider story than the harm, a story that necessarily presses toward healing. We choose to forgive when we claim that the harm will not diminish our humanity, because we will release it in order to grasp ahold of new life. This is not cheap forgiveness. It doesn’t minimize the hurt but integrates it into human living. Tutu writes, “It is a remarkable feat to be able to see past the inhumanity of the behavior and recognize the humanity of the person committing the atrocious acts. This is not weakness. It is heroic strength, the noblest strength of the human spirit.”
The final step is to renew or release relationships. The process has thus far focused on the one harmed—forgiveness as their choice, on their timeline. Now, however, they reach the point of discernment. Can the relationship be repaired? If so, what is required? If not, what will it take to release this relationship for the purpose of healing rather than revenge?
South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation process, adapted for use in other places where harm is unspeakably brutal, unfolded over the span of seven years. It was costly—emotionally, politically, economically, socially—and yet many say that without it, a bloody civil war would have ensued. From white supremacist terrorism to the separation of immigrant families and the utter disregard for trans lives, America’s own civil war may be brewing if our nation fails to implement the crucial steps of telling stories, naming the harm, granting forgiveness, and renewing or releasing relationships.
For those of us observing Lent, we follow the one who, on the eve of his arrest, ate with one who would betray him and one who would deny him and many who would abandon him in his hour of need. We follow the one who, at the very hour of his execution, uttered the words, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Will we who are caught in so many inescapable webs of brokenness listen to the stories of those victimized by violence and hatred? Will we hear and honor the harm? Will we receive the divine forgiveness that belongs to all of humanity and allow it to transform us? Will we repair the harm and reconcile? It’s a costly forgiveness, but—with the God who is Love—all things are indeed possible.