Seeing Nadine Collier sobbing as she forgave 21-year-old racial terrorist Dylann Roof for slaughtering her mother, Ethel Lance, was devastatingly moving. Her having done so speaks to the moral superiority of the very people who small-minded tormentors and murderers would try to paint as humanly inferior. It destroys any claim of white civilizational superiority. It denies slavering white attackers the reasons they seek for feeling okay about hating and hurting black people.
It also raises, once again, the centuries-old question of how tolerant and how forgiving black people should continue to be toward a society that persists in treating us as ex-slaves who are subject to selective state brutality and imprisonment, wildly disproportionate joblessness, routine discrimination, contemptuous abuse in everyday media and political speech, and public and personal violence.
Under these circumstances, just how nice are black people supposed to be? How many times are we supposed to get up off the ground, put our kicked-out teeth back in our mouths, and calmly and lovingly remind the kickers to seek and find their better selves?
This is not to personally judge Collier's moral and faith-based proclamations to her mother's killer. That is a matter between her and Roof. Her words to him went viral because they were recorded and shared as part of his court hearing. I, and most of us, cannot pretend to know what we would feel moved to do or say to the perpetrator if our personal world were to be savaged in such a horrific and spectacular way.
So this is not about Nadine Collier. It is bigger than her or any one of us. There is a bigger perpetrator and a bigger crime here, and there are bigger questions at hand.
At what point, say, if any, is it healthy and fair for an abused spouse to forgive a partner who has made an intimate career of beating, raping, belittling, humiliating, stalking or isolating them? After the spouse goes to jail for a long time? Has been otherwise safely eliminated from one's life? Seeks and perseveres in therapy? Finds the roots of their own rage?
Forgiveness and forbearance, as tenets of the black church in America, have both soothed more souls and preempted more rebellions than we will ever know. Who knows how many millions of times, in the centuries since slave ships first brought sick and tortured Africans to the Americas, that our taking it to Jesus has prevented our taking it to the streets? Marx called religion an opiate for a reason. Gandhi and King labeled violence as surrender for a reason. Where do we choose between peace and righteousness? When does being peaceful and forgiving serve to enable vice instead of virtue?
For centuries now, black Americans have as a whole been nicer to white Americans than white people have been to us -- albeit under threat of lynching, arrest, social estrangement, or being fired from our jobs. There is not a black Ku Klux Klan. There are not cliques of black people telling white jokes around the water cooler. There is not a black Jim Crow (black tables at school cafeterias notwithstanding) except to the extent that it has been created by decades of white exclusion. Black families (including my own extended family) have for centuries been relatively more accepting of white intermarriage into the clan than white families have been of the equivalent. Most of this disparity in cross-racial meanness is due more to institutional coercion than to any natural inclination. It is easy to be mean to a group of people when they wield little power. It is harder to do so when they wield a lot.
Consider: what are the chances that members of a white church, just days after a dogmatically race-hating black man infiltrated their worship group and slaughtered its participants, would publicly declare forgiveness for him? Face it: America's history has trained we black folks to suck it up.
Again, the church has served as a major anesthetic for black suffering. This can be helpful: whether the Freedom Riders or current protestors against police killings, people of conscience have always needed a place of solace and rejuvenation. It can also be harmful: when we can vent just enough of the pain on Sunday to be able to report peacefully to the subpoverty-wage workplace on Monday, we are less likely to change anything.
For me, the imperative goes deeper than the safe question of forgiveness versus unforgiveness. Fundamental societal change is not about vengeance. It is about justice. It is not about vendettas. It is about visions and transformations that charge ahead in spite of fear and resistance.
My litmus test for forgiveness? When it spurs actual action to challenge and change what is wrong, I not only welcome it but call for it. But when it serves as a long-standing addiction to pacified inaction, I say it's time for rehab.