Let me first say I believe in the value and gift of forgiveness as personal work in the face of hurt, harm, intended or unintended injury, and even significant trauma. Forgiveness is truly a gift we give to ourselves when we have done the deep, often excruciating, work of sorting through the impact of harms and injuries, some unimaginable, which have been done to us. Some of the work necessary to forgive is so overwhelming, many of us move out of transformation into denial in order to survive the intensity of unbearable emotional experiences. Because it can feel unattainable, forgiveness is seldom done solely in isolation; however, it remains deeply personal. We cannot bear the depths of the anger, sorrow, betrayal, disappointment, grief, disbelief, anguish, hatred, confusion, guilt, and even shame alone. We need God and community to bear it, if we truly desire to move into it. So, forgiveness is first a choice. We have to choose to want to be free from the power of the pain that has been inflicted upon us. Notice I said, “want to be free.” It’s the freedom from the power of the pain that leads us into the next aspect of forgiveness. Forgiveness is a process. The process honors the complexity of our personhood. Forgiveness tends to be done again, and again, and again, when we allow ourselves to be fully alive as persons. Being fully alive means allowing ourselves to awaken to our thoughts, feelings, memories, longings or wishes, needs, sensations, and images which all encompass our internal worlds. Personal forgiveness is an internal process that involves being alive to our whole selves, not one compartment of our identity. Our identities include but are not limited to: our personal beliefs, values, roles; our cultural sense of ourselves including our cultural history, traditions, beliefs, and values; our religious or spiritual sense of ourselves which grounds is in our purpose, calling, and moral center; our professional selves wherein our competence, gifts, abilities/skills, and talents are expressed. When we have been harmed, the injury often impacts multiple aspects of our identity. For instance, when we used to do work while music is playing, we now have to have silence because many of the songs remind us of the person who broke our trust. Or when we are worshipping, we sit in a location when we recall our best friend sharing she was pregnant; but, now the two of us are estranged because of a heated exchange leaving many hurt feelings. The scenarios can go on and on. The journey of personal forgiveness can eventually free us from the potential bitterness that can develop when the pain from the hurts fester, leaving the wounds untended to in nurturing and loving ways. Time is our friend as we work through forgiveness. We need time and it needs us to depend upon it in order to bear the work of forgiveness.
When I think about the beauty of our Christian faith, I am moved and heartened that Jesus’ declaration of forgiveness was not cheap. Jesus knew who hated him or who his enemies were, he challenged the quest for power, control, and acquisition enough to speak the truth to people who represented systems which stood in antithesis of his calling and deepest longing. I imagine Jesus had many nights which were spent wrestling with how it felt to be challenged by the religious leaders as if he has no credibility or call as well as wrestling for those the religious leaders intentionally marginalized and harmed. I imagine he could see the torment on all sides; however, his approach seemed tacitly different. How Jesus responded to those who were hard-hearted and fixed in their ideology of superiority was very different than how he responded to those who had been oppressed and ostracized by those very people. As Christians, it can be so incredibly difficult to navigate these differences on a personal level; however, its difficulty doesn’t keep us from being invited to engage in the messiness. The messiness of leading with and leaning into love at times and leading with and leaning into hate at others. If we are honest, our process of forgiveness will always lead to having to wrestle with our hate. We aren’t often taught how to face and manage our hate. However, we are often given moralizing messages to shut off from our hate. We are told that we are bad or displeasing if we feel our hate; we are inadequate and haven’t exercised our faith enough if we feel our hate; we are not setting a good Christian example if we feel our hate. SO many messages which keep us from entering into the depths of what we fear will destroy us, or worse yet, destroy others. HOWEVER, when we make the choice to enter into the process of forgiveness, we need to be reminded that the process doesn’t end with our hate. Nonetheless, the process is seldom full, whole, or transformative, if we haven’t engaged our hate at all or in a meaningful way. This engagement needs support, needs love, needs understanding, needs compassion, and most of all, needs forgiveness. The one needing to forgive needs to be forgiven even while undergoing the process of forgiveness. Why is that needed? Because the very hateful and dark thoughts and feelings that we hold do not represent all of who we are. We are more than just our enraged, hate-filled, revenge-desiring, and retaliation-longing selves. AND we are not our whole selves if we do not make space for the truth of our rage, hate, wish for revenge and longing for retaliation. We are worthy of being forgiven for being whole and full persons.
The most recent situation of Botham Jean’s younger brother hugging the woman who murdered his brother complicates forgiveness by confusing it with reconciliation. Forgiveness and reconciliation are two different processes and experiences. Reconciliation cannot occur without the work of forgiveness. However, because the work of forgiveness is grounded in the love and value for one’s well-being, choosing to reconcile always assesses if that same well-being will be respected and honored as the relationship is attempted to be mended. Forgiveness is personal and reconciliation is interpersonal. True reconciliation is not possible if the abuse or harm continues to be or is likely to be perpetrated. Although personal, forgiveness is also collective, which is especially important to value when the injury or harm involves people’s collective identities and not solely their personal ones. Just as Botham Jean’s younger brother wanted to publicly demonstrate his personal and also collective Christian faith by hugging his brother’s murderer as a testament to himself and others of forgiveness, his personal actions also publicly re-traumatized people who have experienced spiritual abuse wherein shame and guilt were used as tools of condemnation in an effort to relieve abusers from taking responsibility for the damage they caused. Additionally, re-traumatization from the hug occurred when the weapons of white innocence and fragility were pedestalized leaving the pain of anti-Blackness and its hateful and murderous expression unrepented and unatoned for. Obviously, Botham Jean’s 18-year old brother has so many experiences to manage related to the trauma of what he and his family have experienced and his hug may have been a personal way for him to manage the immensity of that trauma. And, responsible forgiveness grows from remaining aware of its personal experience into the awareness of its collective expression and impact. For instance, if a boy who was molested by a relative tells his mother what happened and the mother declares in front of the boy that she forgives the relative and embraces the perpetrator, the abused boy can be left feeling confused, dazed, angered, and possibly ashamed. The boy’s mother may have worked to get to the place of no longer having her dark thoughts and feelings dominate how she experiences the perpetrator; however, her son remains painfully impacted by her demonstration of “forgiveness.” Additionally, a mother who has done the work to forgive the person who molested her son, finds herself to be more patient with her son and other family member as well as better able to set limits with other people. Her forgiveness process has both a personal and collective impact.
Botham Jean’s mother’s life experience and maturity likely took the lead when she intimated that her experience with forgiveness is not for publicly display. She focused on the system changes that are needed within the criminal justice enterprise. She was astute enough to know that forgiveness is not about systems and that her desire for justice remained even after the lenient sentence was given post-conviction. Botham Jean’s father noted he would imagine becoming friends with his son’s murderer. His statement also confuses forgiveness with reconciliation. When we have been traumatized, it can be very appealing to long for a relationship that no longer has the scar from a deep gaping wound. The impact of trauma can also lead to all or nothing ways of thinking which leave little room for nuance. However, the process of forgiveness can make space for complexity as we work to resolve the wounds from the trauma.
It is my hope as we have more courage to engage in examining the wounds inflicted by anti-Blackness, we will also be graced with the capacity to wrestle with the fullness of the impact of the harm. We deserve to live and to become alive to all of ourselves. And just like I say to my patients in psychotherapy, when we work to get rid of undesirable feelings, we are also dampening our desired feelings. We cannot repress one distressing emotion without the cost of repressing all of our emotional experiences. We are worthy of experiencing the full gamut of all of our experiences and knowing we are loved and forgiven through them all. May we live with the responsibility that comes with choosing forgiveness while seeking its ultimate goal of liberation.