Posted by: smstrouse | July 11, 2015

“No Cheap Grace for White America”

There’s been a lot said and written in the wake of the murder of the martyrs of Charleston – so many ways of expressing shock, sorrow, outrage and all the other emotions that have been roiled up by this senseless act. There has also been much said and written about the forgiveness extended to Dylann Roof by the victims’ relatives.

Their act of forgiveness raised a lot of questions about how people of faith respond to acts such as these. We’ve seen it happen before. The Amish school shootings in 2006 comes immediately to mind. A former seminary classmate forgave the man who murdered her husband and daughter. It’s hard for most of us to fathom how they could do that. Could I do that? Does it let the wrongdoer off the hook too easily? Is it cheap grace?
There’s a really good interview with the Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, in which  she reminds us that religions have always wrestled with how we respond to wrongdoing.
Thistlethwaite is Professor of Theology and former President of the Chicago Theological Seminary. She’s also a contributor and editor of Interfaith Just Peacemaking: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives on the New Paradigm of Peace and War, which offers practices of repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation.
She admits that she initially opposed including the forgiveness aspect in the book because of the ways it’s been used against battered women. And now in this case, she wants us to remember that forgiveness is not a “get out of jail free” card, that repentance is part of the process. A relative of one victim said about Roof, “I forgive him and my family forgives him. But we would like him to take this opportunity to repent. Repent. Confess. Give your life to the one who matters most: Christ. So that He can change him and change your ways, so no matter what happens to you, you’ll be okay.”
Maybe this call to repentance will have an effect on Dylann Roof. Maybe not. We can only hope, for his sake, that it does. But Thistlethwaite doesn’t stop with Dylann Roof. She takes the issue deeper and speaks to all of white America: “White America craves this language of forgiveness because they want to forget. You want absolution, but you don’t want to confess, you don’t want to repent, and you don’t want to change.”
That’s a powerful indictment. Are those of us who are white able to hear it, feel it and do what is necessary to confess, repent and change? I’m afraid Thistlethwaite is right; in very large part, we are not. I can’t imagine us collectively doing what Pope Francis did in Bolivia  last week when he apologized for the “many grave sins” committed by Christians against indigenous peoples in South America.

But, at the same time the process of canonization of Father Junipero Serra continues, to the dismay of Native Americans who see him, not as  a saint, but as an agent of brutal colonization. Will the Pope also apologize for this?

All this is to say that the issue is not simple. Racism isn’t going to go away just because our churches had services of repentance and mourning last week. With repentance comes change. With change comes action.

As Thistlethwaite declared, “There is no cheap grace for white America!” We are not off the hook. We do not get a free pass on this. Racism does not go on the back burner until the next time it so violently rears its ugly head.

I don’t have good answers for how we’re going to achieve reconciliation. I often think the only way is to do what South Africa did with its Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Also by Canada in response to the damaging legacy of Indian residential schools.

Could America – land of the free and home of the brave – be free enough and brave enough to undergo the same kind of truth-telling and, hopefully, reconciliation process?

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