“The whole apparatus of absolution and forgiveness strikes me as positively immoral.” These words, written by the bellicose atheist Christopher Hitchens, will resonate with Christians who decry the racial leveraging of forgiveness that followed Amber Guyger’s trial in Dallas. After Brandt Jean’s moving gesture and warm embrace of his brother’s killer, a debate about the nature and demands of forgiveness has prompted a critical examination of a tenet we once took for granted.
Without fail, the same white Christians who crawl out of the woodwork to applaud black forgiveness are nowhere to be found when the topic shifts to racial justice. Or, perhaps more dangerously, white Christians who say they are committed to racial justice betray naïveté when they declare that justice is reducible to forgiveness.
Either way, forgiveness becomes an act devoid of a reciprocal obligation. It announces a new state of affairs without eliciting a response from the offender. It’s an indicative without an imperative, a word that goes forth and returns empty, to borrow a phrase from the prophet Isaiah. And since it expects nothing from the perpetrator whose offense is named in the act of forgiving, it condones the status quo of our racialized world. Indeed, pure absolution without repentance is heavy artillery for a culture intoxicated by whiteness.
If we hope to glean any wisdom from this cultural moment, we must return to the drawing board and consider forgiveness anew. The theologian Fleming Rutledge provides a strong framework that takes us back to where we started: “Christopher Hitchens was on to something when he opined that forgiveness is immoral; there is a widespread tendency among Christians and their critics alike to speak almost exclusively of God’s mercy and forgiveness, with no corresponding theme of judgment and ‘making right what has been wrong.’”
Among white evangelicals and mainline Protestants alike, the themes of judgment and rectification have been eschewed in favor of a nice God who wants Christians to be nice people. Mainline Protestants in particular are inclined to champion social justice while thumbing their noses at the “primitivism” of divine wrath, which demonstrates a failure to adequately wrestle with the painful, refining character of grace.
Grace hurts. It hurts because there is always a divine “no” on the other side of God’s “yes.” Grace lives in the dissonance it evokes, the social ties it breaks, the world it requires us to leave behind.
Before white Christians can experience the full goodness of God’s light, the rays must burn like refining fire until whiteness has been purged from our souls and our social ecologies. Only after our whiteness has been drowned in the waters of baptism can we rightly understand wrath as the outworking of divine grace. Indeed, forgiveness without judgment propagates cheap grace and makes no moral demands, which brings to mind a memorable quote by H. Richard Niebuhr: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”
The raging fire of God’s judgment is also the rectifying power of God’s grace. As the late biblical theologian J. Louis Martyn argued, the Greek word that usually gets translated as “justification” in Paul’s letters should instead be rendered “rectification.” Far from asserting that God merely justifies individual believers, Paul envisions a new creation where the walls of hostility are broken down in the one flesh of Jesus Christ. The antagonisms of Jew vs. Greek, male vs. female, white vs. black, gay vs. straight constitute the world that is passing away. But in the Cross, we are crucified to this world and its structuring elements, and we are raised as a new creation that inheres in the life of our Savior.
This is a far cry from the view that God merely declares us righteous and allows us to become beneficiaries of absolution without a corresponding moral obligation. Rather, Paul calls us to participate in a reality that supplants the social antagonisms of the old age. We call it rectification because it’s about making right what was wrong, which is also called justice. So, for Paul, there is a reciprocal element of forgiveness — not in the sense that God’s forgiveness is conditioned by our repentance, but in the sense that our repentance is an outgrowth of the rectified world that forgiveness engenders.
Let’s think about it in musical terms. Grace is like a musical chord consisting of multiple tones: Forgiveness is one tone, and repentance is another. You don’t need to be a musical theorist to know that some tones mutually resonate with each other. For example, you can strike a key on the piano before stepping on the damper pedal, and its frequency will organically produce a second (or third or fourth) tone due to its vibrations. Likewise, forgiveness is the tone that organically “sets off” the tone of repentance, which then “participates” in the reality that forgiveness generates. While the tones are distinct, they are inseparable as a single chord, producing a gracious movement of reciprocity. Forgiveness opens a space for reparation and restoration because repentance is the proper outcome of forgiveness.
But when white Christians laud forgiveness at the expense of repentance and racial justice, they perpetuate the antagonisms of the old age and abandon the proper goal of absolution. By eschewing God’s rectification, this vision contradicts the concrete manifestation of God’s forgiveness, preserving its appearance while contradicting its essence.
Thus, it would be a mistake to characterize Brandt Jean’s forgiveness and Allison Jean’s scathing exhortation as two contradictory expressions of faith. Rather, these are two notes of a single chord — a “yes” to the humanity of all people (including Amber Guyger) and a “no” to the power of whiteness that holds us in its grip. Taken together, their collective response embodies what Martyn calls “rectifying forgiveness.”
Someday, when the dross is burned away and we heed the call to make right what has been wrong, white people will look back at Allison Jean’s searing judgment and see it as a consuming fire of grace. And we don’t deserve it.