The final session of the Repairing the Breach Learning Journey occurred at Procter Center on Saturday, February 8. Fifteen people gathered to continue our collective, sometimes, gut-wrenching, liberating work of racial healing. Using Desmond and Mpho Tutu’s The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World, our work and discussion centered on forgiveness in the context of racial healing, which must include self-forgiveness. A primary intent in focusing on this particular topic was to offer an opportunity for people to begin to grapple with, not only what it means to forgive, but what can happen when true forgiveness gives way to unrealistic yet often believed notions of forgiveness.
I continue to be profoundly grateful to participate in the creation of sacred spaces where safety gives way to vulnerability and offers the lost pieces of our souls to find their way back into our minds and bodies. I am amazed at the willingness of many to first prepare individually and then work collectively towards healing. While I have learned so much from being engaged in reading and research, I have found that my deep learning occurs in the moments of practice that are offered all day, every day. In leading healing and justice work with groups and organizations, I naturally become a student of those I engage with, benefiting from the well of knowledge that is offered in these settings. My experiences in the Learning Journey and the larger work of Becoming Beloved Community have been no exception, and lessons learned quite honestly have stretched me beyond imagination. What follows are a few blessed lessons about trust, intentions, and forgiveness that I have received along my journey of internal racial healing (which naturally demands that the things left undone be repaired) within and beyond Becoming Beloved Community. These experiences may be useful to those who are journeying the path of Becoming.
Trust(worthiness) precedes and follows forgiveness, and trust must be considered in the context of forgiveness. When forgiveness is necessary, then trust also has to be addressed. I have experienced and been witness to the wake of damage that occurs when trust is presumed, left unexamined, and forgiveness forgotten. Early on, The Book of Forgiveness offers two almost incomprehensible challenges: 1) “there is nothing that cannot be forgiven” and 2) “there is no one undeserving of forgiveness.” When reflecting on the continued harm caused by our separation from God and one another more broadly, and specifically within the context of racism, these statements seem unfathomable.
When groups come together to fight racial oppression, my experience has been that there is often an agreement (in which I actively participate) that trust is something that is inherent and can be bestowed to one another through the act of verbal consent. The intent of performing justice work together is often served up as being worthy enough to bypass the scrutinization of underlying intentions of why people have chosen to engage in this painfully liberating work. I have come to recognize that it also bypasses exploration of the inherent harm to one another that occurs while engaged in the work. In my research on racism denial, intent was often used to suggest innocence for words or actions, offering an off-ramp to negate harm and responsibility. In efforts to help people become more conscious of their actions, attention is often directed to the impact of racism rather than intent of potential harm. A challenge in relying on intention is the ability to claim innocence to a wrong. Hidden within the notion of intent is the false belief that trust can be agreed upon and carried out without challenge and accountability. Practices of trustworthiness require that people acknowledge harm, seek and offer forgiveness, and identify and work through the issues that caused the breach. Trustworthiness then, does not presuppose trust, rather is evidenced by patterned, continued practices of congruence between words and actions, and acknowledgement and responsibility when we fall short of these practices, as we inevitably will.
In my own personal work, I have come to understand forgiveness as a continual process and practice that requires accountability, and one that can lead to spiritual liberation. Forgiveness is neither a subversion of justice nor an escape from behavioral consequences, yet our shared history tells another story. I take a selfish position when it comes to forgiveness. In forgiving, particularly around but not limited to issues of race, I can release resentment that holds me captive to the daily stings of life and that present barriers to living into my highest and best. For me, forgiveness is a profoundly radical act of self-love in which I seek my own healing and liberation, regardless of what others do or do not do. On the other hand, forgiving for me does not mean forgetting. It would be unwise – and dangerously irresponsible – of me to forget repeated and patterned harm caused by individuals, groups and systems (and sometimes myself). My remembering rather serves as wise counsel from which to guide and make decisions. Forgiveness then, does not remove choice in my own agency and self-stewardship, both of which have become liberatory practices. By forgiving, I become clear-minded and can then (with the assistance of the wise council of my memory) make decisions that are in alignment with my divine self.
In my work, forgiveness is rarely a part of organizational vernacular or practice. More often than not, in the context of racial healing, forgiveness can be used as an off-ramp for the avoidance of examining the ways in which our interactions with each other may actually (re)produce the practices of racial dominance we are fighting to end. Practices of avoidance and self-protection take precedence over relationship and connection which are foundational to the grueling work of racial healing and Becoming. Racialized histories are always present in the work of racial justice and healing. Frequently, our own racial historical experiences with one another – while personally remembered – remain out of sight and unspoken. These experiences then reside as frightened and resentful prisoners in our bodies and minds. Combined with the relational infractions that occur during the course of rushed, time-structured everyday interactions, our relationships are infected and integrity to the work of Becoming is compromised.
Good intentions, presumed trust and the absence of forgiveness are no match for the operations of racial (and other forms of) dominance that reside in our minds, bodies and interactions. The system of racism and oppression never sleeps. Dominance is always seeking ways to not only maintain the status quo, but to evolve into new and more sophisticated ways of keeping us divided and unconscious. Unexamined antiracist knowledge and practices often underestimate the depth and breadth of racialized trauma and dominance and the impact it continues to have on each of us. How we relate to one another, and whether or not those interactions embody the vision of Becoming are critically important.
This work will go as far as we take it. Self-forgiveness reminds us that we are each more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. God’s forgiveness liberates us from the many false social identities that we have accepted by choice and force. I challenge each of us to live into the image of God, offering lived-evidence to ourselves, each other, and our communities.