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Forgiveness: An Alternative Account

Matthew Ichihashi Potts—

In the weeks after George Floyd was murdered, when people were marching and protesting in cities across the United States, a video of author and activist Kimberly Jones went viral. In the video, Jones speaks forcefully in defense of protestors and of the occasional property damage that accompanied their protests. Through six minutes of intense monologue, Jones piercingly diagnoses the racist violence of American history and economy. She does so in words unmincingly charged with emotion and averse to euphemism. Jones concludes with this damning line: “They are lucky that what Black people are looking for is equality and not revenge.”

That last line of her video has haunted me since I watched it in the late spring of 2020. It was with me through a significant part of drafting my book Forgiveness. This is not only because I find Ms. Jones’ critique throughout the video powerful and true, but because her final, damning line is basic both to what I think forgiveness ought to be, and also, to the forms of justice forgiveness ought to promote. 

I want to be clear, however: what forgiveness ought to be is not what forgiveness usually is or has been. I don’t know that Ms. Jones would want to use the language of forgiveness, and I understand why. Indeed, other authors have written with eloquence about the failures of forgiveness in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Forgiveness has been at times weak and insipid before the gruesome and irreversible fact of injury, and mostly because it has become deeply conflated in conventional wisdom and (especially Christian) practice with two things: the abatement of anger, and the offer of reconciliation. When forgiveness requires that victims relinquish their anger and invite reconciliation, it can be unwarranted at best and harmful at worst. 

It turns out, however, that these associations with anger abatement and reconciliation are both peculiar to modern morals and entirely unnecessary. In fact, in scriptural sources on forgiveness, anger and affect are irrelevant. Jesus never tells his disciples how to feel, he tells them what to do. Christian moral philosophers up to the eighteenth century wrote about how forgiveness requires a robust response of anger to alert victims to the presence of harm. It is not necessary that we give up anger toward our enemy, these thinkers say. It is only necessary that we love our enemy, and love and anger are not mutually exclusive. Only lately have our moral authorities become uncomfortable with victims’ anger. We might suppose this has more to do with the authorities’ aversion to their own discomfort than with the righteousness of victims’ rage.

Neither does forgiveness require reconciliation. We can love someone from whom we are estranged, of course, especially if they are a danger to us. When we offer someone forgiveness, we are not saying that they have earned our trust, or that all barriers to relationship have been overcome. We are simply refusing to engage in reciprocal harm. Though reconciliation is a worthwhile goal, it is not always justified and not always safe. There remains a great deal of moral space between the refusal of vengeful retaliation, on the one hand, and a fully restored relationship on the other. The assumption that an offer of forgiveness must also invite renewed intimacy will prematurely close the gap between simple retaliatory restraint and full reconciliation. Forgiveness can forswear revenge, even from a great distance.

Certain wrongs do not afford any possible compensation. Whatever else reciprocal or retributive harm accomplishes, it cannot restore the past or undo what’s done. This is why an angry forgiveness, one as wary of reconciliation as it is of retaliation, doesn’t ignore justice. Rather, it gives the lie to reciprocity as the only form of justice and proposes a cautious alternative. The justice toward which forgiveness aspires is one that rejects the compensatory fantasies of retaliation. Instead, forgiveness invites us to the harrowing challenges of real repair. But these challenges will be harrowing. Real repair will mean speaking truth to power; it will mean serious, significant redress; it will mean honoring victims’ righteous anger. Repair will mean reparation, it will mean making things right. All of which is to say that in the wake of grave wrongdoing, full of righteous anger and suspicious of unearned reconciliation, forgiveness seeks equality, not revenge.

Matthew Ichihashi Potts is the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals at Harvard Divinity School and the Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church at Harvard University. He is the author of Forgiveness: An Alternative Account, a reflection on forgiveness as the refusal of retaliatory violence through practices of grief.

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