There’s a heartfelt essay in today’s New York Times entitled “Why I Can’t Forgive Dylann Roof” by Roxane Gay. This follows from the very emotional scenes when the family members of the murdered South Carolina church-goers confronted the monster who killed their brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, and by-and-large forgave him for his unforgivable deeds.
Gay herself admits to being a theist and says “I believe God is a God of love but cannot understand how that love is not powerful enough to save us from ourselves.” She goes on to turn the conversation (perhaps rightfully) into one about racism. “The call for forgiveness is a painfully familiar refrain when black people suffer,” she says. “White people embrace narratives about forgiveness so they can pretend the world is a fairer place than it actually is, and that racism is merely a vestige of a painful past instead of this indelible part of our present.”
She goes on to conclude:
What white people are really asking for when they demand forgiveness from a traumatized community is absolution. They want absolution from the racism that infects us all even though forgiveness cannot reconcile America’s racist sins. They want absolution from their silence in the face of all manner of racism, great and small. They want to believe it is possible to heal from such profound and malingering trauma because to face the openness of the wounds racism has created in our society is too much. I, for one, am done forgiving.
Given all that black Americans have had, and continue to have to endure, this is an understandable reaction. The problem is that it rather misses the point of the expressions of forgiveness by the church-goers. Turning the other cheek is part of the Christian narrative, and so these devastated South Carolinians were acting perfectly in accord with that narrative. Humans do horrible things to one another, but in the end God will sort it all out.
So I’m reminded of the unforgettable scene in Dostoevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov called “Rebellion,” in which the “intellectual” brother Ivan confronts his pious brother Alyosha. Alyosha wants to toe the standard line of hope and forgiveness, and a merciful God who will ease all the suffering of innocents in some future state. Ivan, on the other hand, regales him of tales of the grossest barbarisms visited upon children.
He tells one particular tale to emphasize a point. An eight year old boy was throwing stones and hurt the paw of the favorite dog of an army officer. The officer had the boy held, and the next morning had the child stripped, and–in front of his mother–set him off running and sent the dogs after him. They caught him and tore him to pieces in front of her eyes.
Ivan concludes by telling Alyosha that for him the price of the suffering of innocents is too great.
“I want to forgive. I want to embrace. I don’t want more suffering. And if the sufferings of children go to swell the sum of sufferings which was necessary to pay for truth, then I protest that the truth is not worth such a price. I don’t want the mother to embrace the oppressor who threw her son to the dogs! She dare not forgive him! Let her forgive him for herself, if she will, let her forgive the torturer for the immeasurable suffering of her mother’s heart. But the sufferings of her tortured child she has no right to forgive; she dare not forgive the torturer, even if the child were to forgive him! And if that is so, if they dare not forgive, what becomes of harmony? Is there in the whole world a being who would have the right to forgive and could forgive? I don’t want harmony. From love for humanity I don’t want it. I would rather be left with the unavenged suffering. I would rather remain with my unavenged suffering and unsatisfied indignation, even if I were wrong. Besides, too high a price is asked for harmony; it’s beyond our means to pay so much to enter on it. And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I am bound to give it back as soon as possible. And that I am doing. It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return him the ticket.” (The Brothers Karamazov)
What’s fascinating about this is that Ivan isn’t embracing atheism; he isn’t saying God doesn’t exist. Rather, he’s saying the familiar problem of evil is unsolvable and he’s placing justice higher than God. From this point of view, the Charleston parishioners are being perfectly consistent: They’re accepting that the suffering on earth will somehow be atoned for, contra Ivan; but, from this position, Ms. Gay’s position is incoherent. You have to choose between a loving God and Justice. As Ivan notes, you can’t have both.