White Americans are making too much of black people’s ability to forgive in the wake of the Emanuel AME church deaths. It is not a special act. It is what the Lord requires (Matthew 6:12). We are also justifiably angry. Four preachers, one a pastor, and six women are dead. The Lord requires that we forgive our enemies and do good toward them (Matthew 5:43-46). However, black folk are justifiably angry (Ephesians 4:26). The same Bible that requires forgiveness permits anger. We understand that anger, if allowed its full measure, can be harmful (James 1:19-20; Proverbs 20:22). However, Dylann Root is not solely responsible for the litany of insults, sleights and murders we endure because of American racism. Our anger is larger than one nefarious moment.
We have been longsuffering in America. We forgave the Middle Passage which brought Africans to the Americas, including the United States. We forgave America for slavery (1619 – 1865), hoping the sea of blood at Gettysburg, Antietam, Ford’s Theater (Lincoln) and on plantations and lynching trees was enough. Even after the South opposed our freedoms through the Black Codes and terrorized us through the Ku Klux Klan and local sheriffs, we forgave that. We forgave Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). We forgave the murders of Emmit Till and Cheney, Goodman and Schwerner. We forgave the courts that defied Brown v. Board of Education (1954) until federal judges like C. Clyde Atkins issued consent decrees to desegregate school districts. We forgave the deaths of four black girls in Birmingham and the deaths of Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr. and, in Miami, Arthur McDuffie and Nevel Johnson. We forgave the deaths of Oscar Grant III, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Rumain Robinson, Tamir Rice, Eric Harris, Walter Scott and countless others. Yet, more forgiveness is required by God (Matthew 18:21-23) and expected by white America.
Still, anger is justified in the deaths of the Emanuel AME Nine. Those deaths are the result of collective sin. We ought to be angry that white people do not openly condemn racism within their families and that many teach it to their children. We ought to be angry that states defy the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment under the guise of state’s rights to perpetuate legalized symbols of racial division like the Confederate flag. We should be angry that white supremacists thrive. We should be angry that non-black Christians waited until nine believers died in Bible study before worshipping with black Christians. We should be angry that young whites harbor old hatreds. I wish white folk would be angry and not vote for Presidential candidates who lack the decency to say racism is a collective American sin. I wish white Americans would be angry that their relatives and friends caused a spike in gun sales each time Barack Obama was elected President because they fear his blackness. We should be angry that Congress surrenders to racism and refuses to do their sown duty. Americans should abhor racism everywhere it exists.
Black folk are forgiving but we are not a forgetting people. There is something about having been slaves and oppressed people that makes us lean toward forgiveness but remember that David Walker, Toussaint L’Ouverture, Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner and Malcolm X, Huey P. Newton, and Eldridge Cleaver were black too. Forgiveness is required but righteous anger is justified.
Jeffrey Dean Swain, JD, PhD, is Dean of Campus Ministry and an Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at Florida Memorial University and author of Black and Still Here and six other works.