Forgiveness, Racial Healing, and Justice

forgiveness and healing

What role does forgiveness play in the work of racial healing and justice? 

On my podcast this week, I am replaying an interview with my friend Niro Feliciano. This conversation first appeared on her podcast, All Things Life. One question Niro asked is about the role of forgiveness when it comes to racial healing. I haven’t talked or written much about forgiveness before, so I wanted to share an edited version of those thoughts: 

Niro: I notice in the church that we talk a lot about forgiveness first. I think we’re all called to forgive as people of faith. But can you talk a little bit about why forgiveness doesn’t come first in this process [of healing]?

Amy Julia: Finding ourselves in need of forgiveness— whether for our implicit participation in unjust and racist systems or in overt things that we have done that have harmed other people—brings us to a place of humility. I even think it brings us to a place of helplessness.

Asking for forgiveness involves lament, confession, repentance. It means saying, “Something has gone really, really wrong here, and I’ve been a part of it. I want to reckon with it and acknowledge the harm of it.”

Then we wait. Forgiveness may or not come. And even when forgiveness is offered, that doesn’t mean that reconciliation happens. It’s like we’ve accrued a debt with someone, and if they forgive us the debt is wiped away. Receiving forgiveness gets us back to zero. But it doesn’t put us in the black. After forgiveness, there’s the work of repair and the possibility of reconciliation. That’s a long road. 

We can feel confident that we have been given forgiveness from God, and it is a gift of God that we are able to forgive one another as human beings. But even God’s forgiveness doesn’t mean that now our relationships among humans are totally restored. It doesn’t mean that we say, “I trust you, and we’re going to be great.” There’s still work to do in order to repair and to build trust and to listen and to learn and to grow. 

One of the things I so admire about our daughter Marilee is her honesty. There have been times when I have truly messed up, and I’ve said to her, “I’m very sorry. Will you forgive me?” And she responds, “No. I’m hurt. I’m not ready to forgive you.”

I appreciate her honesty because, if someone asks me for forgiveness, I always say, “Yes,” as if, “Oh my gosh, it would be wrong if I didn’t forgive you.” I don’t own how I really feel. I don’t go through the hard emotional and spiritual work of forgiveness.  I just do what I think the “right thing” is to do.  Marilee’s honest response is “I’m sitting in this hurt for awhile, and I’m mad at you because you shouldn’t have done that.” I hope she’s learning grace and forgiveness along the way, but I appreciate her unwillingness to forgive because of her honesty there.

And I think that for a lot of us—who are white Christians in particular—acknowledging pain means sitting in the discomfort and uncertainty of those broken relationships. It means pleading with God to come and help us do the work by the Spirit of Jesus to actually repair and heal.

Niro: I think, like you said, that first piece is just acknowledging that there is a wound—understanding what that wound looks like, maybe where it came from. And your example with Marilee reminds me of when I’m in the office and I’m facilitating sessions either between a parent and a child or a couple, and one person describes a situation and how they were hurt in that situation. And the other person says, “Well, I’m sorry.” That response is not effective until that person understands what they’ve done to hurt the other person and why they need to be sorry for it.

Amy Julia: Right. Until you have a more complete understanding of the picture, you can say, “Sorry,” but still not understand what you’re apologizing for. And then the apology becomes a bandaid. You’re more likely to cause hurt again or participate in harm again unless you really understand how it evolved to be the situation it was. I think that it’s so important, as people of faith, that we understand that process—that we understand the process to get to the healing, to get to the repair—and what has to come before it.

{Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, speaks with power and grace about the need for truth telling as a first step towards confession, repentance, forgiveness, and repair in the most recent episode of the Ezra Klein Show.}

To hear more of this interview, go here.


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Hi, I’m Amy Julia.

I write about faith, family, disability, and privilege.

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