Sunday, February 14, 2010

History and forgiveness

Once again Brad DeLong points me in the right direction, which in this case is to a column by Ta-nehisi Coates at the Atlantic site:

It's been twenty years since Nelson Mandela got out. This was like the defining political event of my youth. I was either a freshman or sophomore in high school, can't remember which. What I think is pretty cliche: Whatever South Africa's problems, the fact that the country (and its leaders) did not descend into mass revenge mode is an enduring tribute to compassion and empathy.

It's a great object lesson on how to handle being wronged. It's one of the things I've struggled to accept as an African-American. There is no Rosewood. Often you are wronged, and by your hand, or even in your lifetime, your persecutors will never be brought to account. There are limits to our justice. It doesn't mean you shrink in the face of injustice (South Africa did no such thing) but that you recognize that it's not really in your power to even the odds.

I've been thinking about this a lot in my study of the crimes of slavery, the Civil War and Jim Crow. I don't think the scales will ever be evened. I don't even know how you would begin to do that in any kind of moral way. That said, I want to differentiate between recognizing your limits, and sweeping a wrong under the rug. Our greatest problem, in regards to the legacy of white supremacy, is not it's effects, it's that we don't understand the rudiments of what happened.

There is a long and interesting comment section for this post, much of it about the Confederate general Longstreet, but on the main topic this response is sterling:
You know, I think part of what you're getting at here is revelatory. Most people believe forgiveness is conceptually similar to absolution, in that it is a transaction between people, given from one to another for wrongs against them, and that it wipes the slate clean.

In fact, forgiveness is a far sweeter and more complex thing. It has little to do with the person or thing being forgiven; they are incidental. Instead, it is a letting go within yourself; a surrendering of the right to feel victimized and hurt. You use the example of slavery and systematic dehumanization and oppression of blacks and the longing to have some "evening of the odds". Who is most affected by gripping the hurt of that injustice so strongly, so closely for so long? Who does it weight down and fill with anger and tip over and spill onto the ground? Not the people who perpetrate the injustice; just the people who suffer it.

The revelatory aspect of your post comes in your distinction between recognizing and calling out injustice, and allowing it to take hold in your heart like a cancer: "It doesn't mean you shrink in the face of injustice..." to "That said, I want to differentiate between recognizing your limits, and sweeping a wrong under the rug."

To reiterate: forgiving a wrong is not absolving a wrongdoer. 99% of people conflate these two very, very different concepts. Forgiveness is something you do for yourself; absolution is something you do to someone else.

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