The Role of Forgiveness When Confronting Racism

Read this reflective narrative about racial reconciliation.

As the racial justice movement has picked up steam, consciousness of the systemic racism faced by people of color has overwhelmed Alessandra at times with anger, hatred, and sadness. Forgiveness and reconciliation sometimes felt like the last things she could offer. This is the story of how she discovered that mercy is not only a powerful tool in our work for justice, but perhaps the only way to bring about change. 

The murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor ignited a racial reckoning in the United States not seen since the Civil Rights Movement. Though millions of people across the globe took to the streets and voiced their opposition to the unequal treatment of African Americans, another segment of Americans condemned the racial justice movement spearheaded by the Black Lives Matter organization. That division hit home, and a friendship with a white woman I’d considered a dear friend for 10 years fractured after a bitter disagreement.

When I thought about both my soured friendship and the systemic racism faced by the broader Black community, a lot of emotions came easily: anger, hatred, indignation, sadness, frustration. I attended protests, posted a lot on social media, educated myself, and conversed with others. I also questioned God: Where are you in the face of injustice? Will you be silent while we cry out to you? How long must we endure this fate?

As a Black Catholic, I reflected on biblical narratives and identified with the Israelites in slavery in Egypt, the Hebrews exiled to Babylon, Jesus executed by the Roman government. Like the words of the Bible in the Psalms and Book of Lamentations, I cried out to God and asked Him to intervene.

Similar to what God’s chosen people endured, people of African descent in America have faced tremendous oppression and injustice for more than 400 years — yet we’re expected to stay peaceful and nonviolent in the face of it. Those feelings of anger, hatred, indignation, sadness, and frustration overwhelmed me at times — they stole my peace.

But then I read something from Father Bill Watson, SJ, that felt like God speaking to me: “The grace of mercy and forgiveness, received and offered, is the reconciling work that brings true progress to the world; it is the only work that brings fulfillment and bears fruit that endures to eternity.” Instead of thinking of nonviolence, forgiveness, and reconciliation as weakness, I realized that extending mercy and offering forgiveness in the face of racism are not only powerful, but the catalysts to progress in the world.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolent philosophy was rooted in a similar belief. In a victory speech after a favorable Supreme Court ruling in 1956 that desegregated the Montgomery busses, Dr. King explained that the end isn’t integration — “the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption.”

He didn’t just want white and Black people to live together. He wanted them to be reconciled as brothers and sisters who respected and loved each other. Dr. King named this as agape love and said when we learn to love on that level, we love others not because of what they do but because God loves them. And while we hate evil deeds, we do not hate the person who commits them.

We may rely on billion-dollar military and police budgets, but Jesus didn’t conquer sin and death in a brutal war. He did it by sacrificing his very life and forgiving those who persecuted him as he died. Dr. King was inspired by this Christian love, and he was also influenced by Mahatma Gandhi’s campaign of nonviolent resistance in India’s fight for independence from the British empire.

Dr. King believed that nonviolence was one of the most potent weapons available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom. He believed we cannot be people of faith and care about peoples’ souls if we neglect the material condition that people experience. That was a conviction that came from Jesus, who said we will be judged by whether we fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, clothed the naked, looked after the sick, and visited the imprisoned.

Through Father Watson’s words and Dr. King’s example, my heart was opened to understand how following Jesus calls us to live in a way that is not only counter-cultural, but revolutionary.

Being a person of faith demands that we not only love God and our neighbors, but that we also work for justice and hold those who oppress others accountable in order to demand change.

Our Christian faith doesn’t just tell us to turn the other cheek, but to also flip tables when needed. As Christians, we cannot choose to remain silent in the face of inequality and racism. Though we might risk losing the favor of friends, family, or even social media followers if we speak up, that’s what we’re called to do. The witness of so many martyrs — and Jesus, himself — show us how some things are more important than our own comfort and safety. In fact, this kind of faithfulness is an important way in which we uphold our own dignity and integrity.

Speaking against racism while also offering forgiveness and mercy doesn’t come easily and forces us out of our comfort zone. But when I surrender that discomfort and weakness to Jesus, that’s when I feel His presence strengthening me the most. St. Paul heard God tell him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” When I understand that I alone cannot fix what’s broken in society, I hand over my will and trust that God is able to work through me to create lasting change and a more just world.

After more than six months, my estranged friend reached out to me and extended an olive branch to repair our friendship. I still had hurt feelings and some anger over our disagreement, and I knew we didn’t see eye-to-eye on everything. But I made the choice to forgive and open dialogue with the hope that working to repair our friendship would somehow be a step toward repairing our country.

As Americans, we need to work on forgiving others, extending mercy, and seeking reconciliation in order to heal our nation. When we believe that every person is made in the image and likeness of God, we won’t settle for anything less than justice and liberation for all.

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