“I never thought I would be able to forgive somebody for murdering my mom,” Chris Singleton, a former minor league baseball player and activist told the newspaper USA Today in 2015. Just days before, an avowed white supremacist, Dylan Roof, came to the basement of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina on the pretense of studying bible with those gathered. Roof proceeded to open fire, murdering nine people who came to Mother Emanuel for fellowship and study. Among the victims was Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Chris’s mother.
Two days later, after Roof had been arrested and was brought into the courtroom for a bond hearing, the family members of victims piled into the courtroom and for the first time faced the murderer of their mothers and sisters, wives and husbands, fathers and brothers, sons and daughters. As the hearing came to its climax, the community had an opportunity to address the terrorist. One after another, members of the church sat on the witness stand. Without premeditation or planning, Nadine Collier, who lost her mother, Ethel Lance, took her place, and while fighting back her own tears, said something so unanticipated that it erupted like a graceful thunder, changing the air in the room.
“I forgive you…” she said woefully, “You took something really precious from me. I will never talk to her ever again, I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you and have mercy on your soul.”
Others, but not all, followed suit. Singleton later recounted that he only chose to forgive Roof sometime later, while playing baseball, and that what he felt in the act of forgiveness was not weakness, but a sense of power and liberation.
I, like many, were astonished. How exactly, can someone who is a victim forgive so powerfully and so quickly? If anything, it seems that in our cantankerous society we hate to forgive each other. Forgiveness is a form of weakness; it means that somehow whatever unjustified act or slight that scratches at our sense of self must be guarded and counterattacked ferociously. We lie in wait for others to make mistakes, to call them out, so that we feel justified in our own mutual self-righteousness.
But on that day in 2015, Collier and others seemed to have retrieved great power from beyond the moral horizon and broken the script on our expectations of forgiveness.
It was a revelation.
Roof took something indelible away from the community and these families. His guilt is clear, his punishment clearer. This is what the hearing and subsequent legal negotiations were about – how to restore order to society. But what the victims expressed in the hearing, and later at other times, punched through the societal structures of justice, which is why it is so astonishing to many of us.
Crimes can create a bond between victim and perpetrator. The events of criminality shackle together the guilty and the innocent in the mutual trauma of violent acts. It is the job of justice to settle what is owed to the victims and to society. Justice seeks to rectify claims and punish the guilty. Societies deal in justice by sublimating the violent urge towards vengeance by appeasing anger through incarceration or monetary recompense, but justice will never reach the revelatory spaces of forgiveness. Long before emotional intelligence was studied, the rabbis of the mishnah knew the different textures of the human experience. In the mishnah the rabbis show that recompense and forgiveness are two different categories of being. “A thief cannot be forgiven, even after he repays the victim, until he seeks forgiveness.” (Mishnah Bava Kamma 8:7) The matter is never truly settled until both the physical and emotional landscape are attended to. The victim is never free from trauma and the thief never free from guilt, until they broach upon the liberating force of forgiveness.
Justice is meted out by societies, forgiveness by individuals. Justice is about settling a claim; forgiveness is about letting go of one. Justice binds people together in the mutuality of trauma, while forgiveness liberates them from those very bonds.
You can’t forgive someone for the actions they took, only the motions they caused. The letting go, the freedom, is not for actions past, but for the emotional bonds that crimes create.
Forgiveness is revelation. Forgiveness is liberation.
We find both of these moments in this week’s Torah portion, Vayechi. As the parsha opens, we find that Joseph has forgiven his brothers for their torment, for his years of slavery and imprisonment, for exile from his family and homeland. (Genesis 45: 4-8) Years later, after their father Jacob dies, the brothers are unsure if Joseph’s act of forgiveness was simply an appeasement. They come to him, saying that Jacob had left them instructions for Joseph to “forgive your brothers, for the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.” (Genesis 50:16) They go on to say that “we are prepared to be your slaves.” (Genesis 50:18)
Their fear is sensible; there is no cultural or biological reason that anyone should forgive another person. How can you truly forgive for being sold into slavery? The brothers were preparing themselves to pay for the punishment of their crimes, and yet Joseph, like Nadine Collier and Chris Singleton thousands of years later, seems to pull power from beyond our common experience. Weeping, he says, “Do not fear, am I a substitute for God? Even though you have considered evil against me, God ponders the goodness in us, so that we all might live as many people.” (Genesis 50:19-20)
Here too, forgiveness is a liberating revelation. Joseph tells his brothers that he is severing the bonds of trauma between them. Their actions cannot be taken back, but their fear and shame can be. When the brothers approach him, they assume the harshest of justifiable claims will be had. As they sold him into slavery, they too must now become slaves; but Joseph responds not with justice, but with forgiveness.
It is as if he says in this moment, “I know what you did, it’s not okay. But God has given us the imagination to be more than that. I don’t want to hold us captive to this thing anymore,.God wants us to thrive, and the goodness inside of us is God’s concern.”
Vengeance ties us to our past; forgiveness frees us from it.
There should be no pressure to forgive. There is no timeline for forgiveness; it can take a lifetime of healing before one is able to forgive, and that’s okay. It is never too late to forgive, but it can certainly be too soon.
In this moment, Joseph frees himself from the cycle of pain of the past, and presages the central message of the Torah – that justice and love are part of the covenant. Recompense is an act of justice, balancing the scales of need across a society so that each is given what they are owed (an eye for an eye) while forgiveness comes from a different place, not one of exchange or transaction, but one of transformation and metamorphosis, freeing us from the shackles of time and shame (you shall be holy). Forgiveness begins in our divine imagination, revealing a world to us that liberates us from the pain of being a victim, and the shame of being a perpetrator. While societies focus on justice, each of us can attune ourselves to redemption that comes through forgiving each other.