Amid the ongoing tide of mass shootings, the case of Dylann Roof remains chillingly distinct. One evening in 2015, he was welcomed into a Bible study meeting in Charleston, S.C. Roof argued theology, remarked on the unfortunate color of his Black hosts’ skin, and shot nine dead. Shortly, he was arrested. Almost as shortly, several of the victims’ family members addressed him on closed-circuit television, saying they forgave him.
Americans reeled. Some questioned whether the quick leap to clemency could be genuine. Others simply did not know where to place it in the standard repertoire of American behavior. Forgiveness is not our way. Its rare emergence in this case was surely noble; it also felt wrong.
In “Forgiveness: An Alternative Account,” Matthew Ichihashi Potts takes the Charleston slayings as his point of departure. (Now 28, Roof is in prison and appealing a death sentence.) A professor at Harvard Divinity School and a Christian minister, Potts argues that we need a new framework for thinking about forgiveness. For scaffolding, he turns to novels by four writers: Kazuo Ishiguro, Marilynne Robinson, Louise Erdrich, and Toni Morrison. Each of his four chosen texts, he notes, begins and ends in grief.
Potts’s reading of “Gilead,” by Robinson, is especially compelling, not least because it invites reacquaintance with that mysteriously radiant work. In his view, the novel recasts the biblical story of the prodigal son. “Gilead” is a fiercely moral work in which three generations of white ministers, all named John Ames, wrestle with the justifications for violence. Ultimately, the narrator, John Ames III, confronts the fallout of self-righteousness.
Potts suggests that real forgiveness does not deny or diminish grief. Rather, it accommodates anger, acknowledges the permanence of a wound, and persists as a form of mourning. It does not forget but seeks to construct a habitable future in the wake of loss.
Potts builds some of his thinking on the work of the legal scholar Martha C. Nussbaum, who is often described as one of our leading public intellectuals. How public is open to debate: Her book “Anger and Forgiveness” presumes an erudite readership.
Still, as Nussbaum notes, forgiveness has become an “in” topic; a quick online search reveals a staggering number of books on the subject, most of them properly categorized as popular psychology or self-help. What accounts for the spike in interest?
Most Americans would acknowledge that we are a ticked-off nation. And indeed, Nussbaum is less interested in forgiveness than in anger, its usual antecedent. She regards anger as harmful across a range of relationships, from the personal to the societal, and draws on classical literature as a means to fresh understanding.
Importantly, she wonders whether the forms of forgiveness we usually apply are the best means of transcending anger. In particular, she dislikes the kind of groveling often required of wrongdoers, considering it a poorly disguised form of retribution. She also traces it, brilliantly, to the Judeo-Christian conception of a scorekeeping God.
Though temperate in tone, “Anger and Forgiveness” at times seems the labor of someone trying to talk herself out of a deep personal grievance. My prying mind would have liked to know more. (The most we get from her is an anecdote about a man who presumes to lift her bag into a plane’s overhead bin, leaving Nussbaum seething.)
More emotionally accessible is “The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World,” written by Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu with his daughter and fellow South African cleric, Mpho Tutu. Addressed to people seeking to forgive or be forgiven, it offers a structured approach that includes journaling and guided meditation exercises.
Father and daughter both bring serious bona fides to their subject. Mpho came home one day to find that her housekeeper had been murdered. As a boy, Desmond watched helplessly as his father abused his mother.
Much later, in the course of his ministerial work, and as the chair of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Tutu both witnessed and heard described horrific acts of violence. He came to see forgiveness as essential to ending cycles of vicious reprisal. Like Nussbaum, he perceives a choice between restorative and retributive justice, urging societies toward the former.
In the parable of the prodigal son, Nussbaum finds a model of unconditional love and forgiveness. And yet she raises this plaintive question: What if the victims of profound wrongdoing do not express anger because they have too low an opinion of their own dignity and rights?
Five years after the Charleston slaughter, which claimed the life of a cousin, the Rev. Waltrina Middleton wrote that insisting on a narrative of forgiveness is dehumanizing and violent. Why deny families, on the anniversary of a never-ending grief, “the right to lament?” she asked.
Forgiveness is not forgetting, the Tutus write. Nor is it quick.
M.J. Andersen’s column appears monthly.