By renouncing their allegiance to the King, the delegates at Philadelphia had committed treason and embarked on a course from which there could be no turning back.
“We are in the very midst of a revolution,” wrote John Adams, “the most complete, unexpected and remarkable of any in the history of nations.”
In a ringing preamble, drafted by Thomas Jefferson, the document declared it “self-evident” that “all men are created equal,” and were endowed with the “unalienable” rights of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” And to this noble end the delegates had pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.
Such courage and high ideals were of little consequence, of course, the Declaration itself being no more than a declaration without military success against the most formidable force on earth. John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, and eminent member of Congress who opposed the Declaration, had called it a “skiff made of paper.” And as Nathanael Greene had warned, there were never any certainties about the fate of war.
But from this point on, the citizen-soldiers of Washington’s army were no longer to be fighting only for the defense of their country, or for their rightful liberties as freeborn Englishmen, as they had at Lexington and Concord, Bunker Hill and through the long siege at Boston. It was now a proudly proclaimed, all-out war for an independent America, a new America, and thus a new day of freedom and equality.
At a stroke the Continental Congress had made the Glorious Cause of America more glorious still, for all the world to know, and also to give every citizen soldier at this critical junction something still larger and more compelling for which to fight.David McCullough, 1776, 136-37
I wrote this piece a couple of months ago, after the Amber Guyger conviction, so it is a little dated. I never did anything with it, but I like it, and I think the points I make stand, so I’m posting it now.
What is the state of the specifically Christian virtue of forgiveness in our world today?
Recently in the news, the story of Botham Jean and Amber Guyger returned to the headlines, following Guyger’s conviction and sentencing for the shooting death of Jean in their apartment building one night several years ago. Guyger was a white police officer who was off-duty and entered Jean’s apartment one night (mistakenly taking it to be hers, according to her own account of the incident) and fatally shooting what she thought was an intruder, but in reality was simply a man in the supposed safety of his own home.
Guyger became another symbol of the continuing problems of racism and the inability of people of color to occupy spaces – both public and private – free of harassment or even the threat of harm due to their skin color or ethnicity. This young, white, blonde woman is an easy caricature of both white fragility and naivety, but also of the problems with the relation between policing, guns and race.
So, for those (like myself) concerned with the state of race relations in our country in 2019, and who accept as truth the idea that racism still plays a potent and important role in American public life, the scene of Botham Jean’s brother, Brandt, embracing and forgiving Guyger at her sentencing hearing last month is one that is difficult to contextualize, to say the least. The avalanche of praise heaped on Jean’s act from media organizations and representatives who are white or who present a view of the world that historically is white, brought up questions of both the responsibility of POC to practice forgiveness and whether doing so does more harm than good to race relations.
I want to leave those questions aside, and address one more nakedly sectarian in nature: what is the state of the specifically Christian virtues of forgiveness and reconciliation in a world that is becoming more and more cognizant of the historical problems related to power relations around race? To be more specific: is Christian forgiveness still a virtue worth being practiced? This question is especially relevant when we think about the ways in which forgiveness has been wielded as a manipulative tool of false healing by those who have long benefitted from the subjection of one group of people based on their skin color. Is forgiveness an outmoded and quaint relic of the past, one that must, according to some, be sublimated beneath the seemingly more pressing virtues of justice and equity? Do Christians even have the right to encourage an ethic of forgiveness when it comes to these issues of immediate socio-political concern?
My own leanings in favor of forgiveness are probably evident in the framing of these questions. These questions arose for me in the days after The Hug as I watched progressive Christian friends and acquaintances on social media (many of them white) lambast the scene as one that was unjust, unfair, and manipulative, and the accompanying screeds against the necessity of historically marginalized groups to forgive those who have historically committed wrongs. What happened, I wondered as I read post after post, to Jesus’ directive to his disciples (of which we Christians today are to still consider ourselves) to “forgive others as your Father forgives”? Where did the imperative to “forgive our sins as we forgive the sins of others” go? What happened to the reversal of power imbalances inherent in the act of forgiveness freely given? Did we learn nothing from the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, to say nothing of the words of Christ himself? Why does a beautiful act of forgiveness – one not performed, as far as I can tell, due to coercive outside forces – spark such anger, and frankly un-Christian responses, from those I consider siblings in Christ? When did forgiveness become something to avoid for fear of the release of anger and hate that such a freeing act conveys? Why must the praise directed at one man’s act be equated with those acts of deceit and deception I referenced earlier?
Questions upon questions upon questions, all struck up by one act that should have been a beacon of light in a very dark time. I suspect I am not the only one asking such questions. And I suspect I am not the only one who gets whiffs of not totally true outrage at a specific wrong, but rather, an eagerly seized opportunity to practice virtue signaling.
None of this questioning is meant to dismiss the honestly articulated concerns and questions raised by POC about the way people with less-than-honest motives manipulate these kinds of scenes to quash down any actions or conversations that may actually address issues of race relations. I completely understand and sympathize with these arguments; I too have seen where bad actors have been able misuse false scenes of forgiveness to further oppress POC.
On the other hand, none of that very real danger should allow us who claim the mantle of Christianity to set aside the need to practice forgiveness, and to practice it when it is especially hard, inconvenient or dangerous. Our example for life comes from him who forgave his murderers as they crucified him on a cross. His act of forgiveness was an act of seizing power from his oppressors, even as they continued to oppress. The forgiveness he showed – an act that was the culminating moment of a public ministry that was by and large predicated on the need for oppressed peoples to practice radical forgiveness towards those who were afflicting them – initiated a world-changing revolution, powered by a love for the other that is not dependent on that other performing some act worthy of love. In fact, the radical nature of that dangerous love is made all the more earth-shattering because of the reluctance, inability and/or refusal of those with power to forgive first. When one chooses to be the breaker of the cycle of violence through an act of unsolicited and unfairly given forgiveness, they become in fact the bearer of a new kind of power, a power more akin to that wielded by an non-coercive and completely loving God. It really is the only kind of effective power that an oppressed people has that can really begin the process of correction and healing. God’s kingdom – a Kingdom predicated on love, on mercy, and on justice – cannot be initiated by the sword. It can only be brought about by laying down one’s self for others, to show what is in fact possible to a world that only sees impossibilities. That Kingdom is one where reconciliation – the joining together of those once separated by the powers of sin and death – is present, because reconciliation can only come from a people willing to forgive, no matter the cost.
When Christians see the act of forgiveness that Jean practiced towards convicted murderer Amber Guyger, we should see an act that is in harmony with our own story of how the world works. Rather than sacrificing our story in order to be relevant to the political concerns of the world – no matter how right and just those concerns are – we must instead recognize that the liberation we want for the world, and for all the oppressed peoples who inhabit it, will only come from countless small acts of unsung forgiveness, forgiveness given when it seems completely uncalled for or unfair. Forgiveness, and the attendant reconciliation it entails, is the only way to achieve the justice and love of God; in short, it is the only first step possible towards the world we all want.
Some quick thoughts in the Chick Fil A brouhaha that has blown up (again) over the last few days as the news that the fast food chain will no longer be donating to the Salvation Army and FCA, organizations that have historically been unfriendly towards LGBTQ+ people:
Chick Fil A refraining from putting funds towards these organizations in favor of instead diverting that money towards organizations focused on homelessness, education and hunger awareness initiatives is not the equivalent of putting that money towards organizations that support LGBTQ+ people (especially LGBTQ+ youth, since homelessness is a priority for them and 40% of homless youth in America identify as LGBTQ+.) Its not like Chick Fil A has all the sudden pledged its bottom line to Planned Parenthood, GLAAD, or PFLAG, and religious conservatives need to stop acting like they have. To do so is to make clear that, first, ones abiding hatred of/disregard for LGBT people in the our country, all of whom are just regular people worthy of all the love and respect one can give. Second, the palpable anger over this decision makes it clear that many Christians continue to shove any and all other social concerns far down the list behind anything related to sex and/or LGBTQ+ people, thus confirming many of the stereotypes and assumptions people make about Christians.
Additionally, the idea that this is in some way about “leftists” or “cancel culture” or some part of some mythical war on Christianity is pretty wild. What this is is something conservatives are usually pretty defensive of: pure capitalism. Chick Fil A saw the writing on the wall, recognizing as they expand further and further across the nation that support for the LGBTQ+ community is very high across the board. If there is some underlying motive at work here, it is the profit motive: Chick Fil A wants to continue making boatloads of cash off of its food, and apparently, they recognized that continuing to stand as the premier anti-LGBTQ+ business entity in the United States was going to begin cutting into the bottom line. So they made a change. And that’s not the fault of some magical leftist-secularist cabal intent on destroying all Christians in America or something; instead, its the power of positive social change meeting the hard realities of modern capitalism.
The last point I want to make is this: I don’t think this decision moves the needle morally in any way, either positively or negatively. I think its a pretty morally neutral action; it’s not some huge moral or ethical victory for the LGBTQ+ community. Chick Fil A still continues to be associated with conservative Christianity. The wheels of capitalism continue to churn. This all plays into the same strains that drive my own personal refusal to participate in boycotts of businesses for various political or social stances. Making moral choices the driver of purchasing decisions is a fool’s errand; there are really no “good” choices when it comes to deciding with who to spend your money, outside of choosing to solely spend money locally with businesses you know and are intimately acquainted with, a choice that is largely unavailable for most people today, due to the structure of modern global capitalism. Unless you choose to completely disengage, you might as well spend money in a way that is economically and logistically viable for your family, and focus your moral energies elsewhere.
Anyways, Chick Fil A not giving money to FCA and the Salvation Army is good thing, as far as any thing good can come from modern capitalism, but really, its a mostly empty gesture that none of us should care much about. Its not worth the elation of the left, or the panicked overreaction of the right. Just like so many things our social media feeds want us to think matter.