“Maybe there shouldn’t be forgiveness!!” he shouted at me with righteous indignation that only a teenager can pull off without seeming over the top. I had to stop and think about that. All my life I was taught to forgive. Even before processing the sins of others and their full impact on me, I was supposed to forgive them. Maybe my son was on to something.
We had been talking about the shooting in Atlanta of six women at spas and massage parlors. They were all women of Asian ethnicity. The intersection of race and sex and gun violence had obsessed the collective psyche of our society in ways not seen since the Donald Trump was banned from social media. My oldest son took the tragedy especially hard. When he’s not at school, he’s watching anime shows on his phone. He won’t watch them with English translations. He insists on listening to the original Japanese voice actors because he thinks they are better. He doesn’t understand Japanese, so he has to read the English subtitles; impressive since he has dyslexia and that means significant extra effort on his part. One of his best friends at school is Vietnamese. We watches a lot of “woke” Tic Tok videos, that are heavy on societal judgement. He was angry at the world and had no patience for nuance.
We were a racist country and we always had been and nothing had changed. Looking back I think I was a little scared of his intensity. I tried to inject some calming dialogue into his raging tirade. “Things have gotten better,” I insisted. “We still have a long way to go, but it isn’t as bad as it once was.” I told him the stories my dad had told me about how it was after World War II and how people loathed the “Japs.” He gleefully leaped from the topic of World War II to the containment camps calling them “concentration camps.” I continued my futile efforts to quell my son’s righteous rage against the nation he was born into as he trashed the police officer/spokesperson who minimized the attacks by saying the perpetrator “had a bad day.”
I had mixed feelings toward that officer. He was the target of a torrent of social media driven societal judgement and fury that I felt was disproportionate to his crime. He had been insensitive. He had posted a racist Facebook post about the coronavirus and China. He was wrong and he used some bad judgement. His decisions were harmful and hurtful to the victims and the nation. I disagreed with the idea that somehow this man should become a pariah for all time as a deterrent to racists. That was where I unwisely decided to plant my flag.
I told my son that when we shame people for making stupid choices like that officer did, that we create a backlash. Millions of people have posted racist crap on social media. Millions of people have said racially insensitive things. Does that say something about our culture? Yes. Do we need to be better? Yes. Do we need to make it clear to that officer that he needs to do some introspection? Yes. Does it help to create a martyr out of a police officer that many people know and love and can relate to by publicly shaming him and disregarding anything good he has ever done in his life? No. My son wasn’t having it. That was when he unloaded on me.
I was just as bad as everyone else. Would I be defending that shooter if he wasn’t white? (Incidentally I did not defend the shooter, nor will I ever defend such acts.) Why was I so quick to jump to my forgiveness line? Why did I feel compelled to defend racist behavior? That was when he said the statement that has echoed in my mind ever since. “Maybe there shouldn’t be forgiveness.”
I’ve pondered on that sentence for a while. Maybe there shouldn’t be forgiveness. Yesterday I got a text from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints that suggested that a good thing to do before Easter is to forgive someone. I’ve pondered on my own tortured relationship with the concept of forgiveness. The way some devout members talk about forgiveness is seems like they are mistaking it with Easter candy, something we can pass out to everyone without thought or concern. It’s like in their world lives are never shattered, abuse is never a problem, and we are all carrying around petty grievances that we can choose to set aside and everything will be roses again. Maybe some people live like that. My perspective is different.
The first time I chose not to forgive someone was in fourth grade. I had been in a tortured and toxic relationship with another girl for two years. She was bad for me on so many levels. She was spiteful and vindictive and treated me like dirt. Once we were playing a game of pickup sticks and she insisted that I had moved a stick when I hadn’t. Usually I would just let her have her way, but this time, I held my ground. The game ended in a rage and I knew that she would be expecting my groveling apology so we could make up. She might take a week or so to punish me before she accepted. That was our usual pattern. This time I was mad. I was tired of her games. I didn’t apologize. Weeks went by and I stood by myself on the playground fighting the urge to go and fix our broken relationship. When eventually she came to me to make things right I told her I didn’t want to be friends anymore.
Of course, I was living in a small town. She ended up in my ward when my family moved and we had to be friends since all of our friends were mutual. Still, she never got to treat me like dirt again. I refused to forgive. Sometimes I think its worth resisting that urge to make everything pretty again. Its so hard to do though. Like a whitened sepulchre, its compelling to continue making the outside of a rotten relationship look good. You can’t change the smell though. Time only makes it worse. Sometimes you just need to move on.
“Move on.” If I had a dime for every time I had told myself to do that I would be a wealthy woman. What makes moving on so hard to do is that you’ve invested so much time and effort into the relationship that you don’t have anything else. Toxic relationships suck everything into them like a black hole. I didn’t have any other friends in fourth grade. I spent recess alone. There was that girl or there was nothing for me. I chose nothing. If I had it to do again I would chose nothing again. I’ve chose nothing again and again rather than have the comfort of dysfunction.
“Maybe there shouldn’t be forgiveness!!” My son’s rage at me the other day revealed what both of us know. I want to jump to forgiveness with racial injustice. I want to make things pretty. I want to think that we as a society are making progress on race. I want to give grace and I want others to give grace. I want everyone to get along and sing together in the songs of brotherhood and sisterhood. The fact is, sometimes there shouldn’t be forgiveness. Sometimes we have to sit in the uncomfortable mess that we have created in this world and feel the pain of it.
There needs to be individual accountability, and society is pretty united on that. If some POS goes out with a rifle and shoots a bunch of women, he should go to prison for the rest of his life. If some officer says some stupid sh*t that makes a painful societal wound hurt even more, he needs to be reprimanded and never made a spokesperson for the department again. Society understands that people need to be held accountable for their sins. But what about collective accountability? That’s where things get hairy.
What about the person who sold the guy the weapon he used to commit the shooting? What about the friend that noticed he was becoming unstable? (Assuming someone knew.) What about the attitudes within the police department that made that officer feel like it would be okay to minimize the horrific crime against a marginalized population? What about the creator of the meme that the officer posted that made fun of the coronavirus and its origins in China? What about the former President of the United States who regularly stokes the flames of Asian American racism? What about the people who voted for him or ignored him or even agreed with him as he spouted his hatred and mockery? What about systemic racism? What about societal sins?
Individual sins are relatively easy. A person breaks the law. He runs a stop sign. The law is enforced by the traffic cop who issues a ticket. The perpetrator is punished by having to pay a fine or take a class. They are forced to confess and forsake their crime by the society before they are able to drive again. If they continue to engage in unsafe driving, their license is suspended. Nothing controversial about this process. Systemic problems are much more thorny and controversial. Sometimes healing and forgiveness can’t happen because wounds keep getting ripped open. Collective sin spreads like a pandemic.
Systemic problems run in families. Families can become dysfunctional in a heartbeat. Old unhealthy patterns and coping strategies get passed on and it seems like there is no way to change. Taking mental illness seriously and getting treatment is hard especially when families don’t want to change. Being a cycle breaker takes work and leadership. There’s not a lot of companionship when you’re blazing a trail. That’s okay. I’m with you.
There is a difference between forgiveness and healing. Sometimes moving on isn’t going to be comfortable and sometimes you have to end or drastically change relationships to do it. Moving on can be painful and lonely. Healing might seem like an etherical dream that comes to other people. It can happen. Forgiveness is harder. I’m not there yet, but I see the finish line. Someday I’ll savor that sweet draft of forgiveness. For now, I’ll sweat it out and keep moving on.