By Rev. Brian A. Tillman
Who could forget the horrendous murder of nine black churchgoers and the terrorization of many others in Charleston, South Carolina, on June 17, 2015? Who could forget the bond hearing where several relatives of those murdered made statements forgiving the shooter?
They forgave him just two days after he killed people precious to them. Many people were shocked at their very generous words of forgiveness. Some were upset with the speed of their forgiveness. Others felt their gesture was the way forward to fight racism.
Their swift forgiveness was an act of unbelievable grace for an individual who did not want it, still has not accepted it, and doesn’t feel he needs it. It was forgiveness without repentance. It is noble and Christian. It is one of the greatest examples of loving the enemy. It is not, however, a model of reconciliation.
Many persons racialized as white want persons of color to take this approach with the racism experienced in the past and in the present. We often hear, “Why can’t you let go of the past? Why don’t you just forgive and move on?” This demand for forgiveness is made without contrition, remorse, or repentance.
Repentance is something you do with your hands, feet, heart, and actions. In the work of racial reconciliation, I have come to understand reconciliation to include six phases that eventually run concurrently. I have previously written about the first two phases—resistance and recognition. Repentance is the third.
Repentance occurs when the participants in injustice repent to God and to those who have endured the injustice, while the endurers work to forgive. Repentance requires work by the offender towards, or for, the offended. In her book, Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation, Jennifer Harvey lays out what she feels someone seeking to repent and to be forgiven should do. It includes the following:
- Communicate effectively what wrong the perpetrator did to the victim.
- Communicate effectively to the victim why what the perpetrator did was wrong.
- Communicate effectively to the victim the particular ways the perpetrator is actively committed to rectifying the wrong.
- Offer to the victim good reasons why the perpetrator will not harm the victim again.1
Notice Harvey’s four-step process includes no demand for forgiveness. An offender cannot demand forgiveness; forgiveness can only be hoped for, prayed for, and—if offered freely—received as a gift.
Persons of color are often told to forgive racism and racists when there have been no actions to warrant it. Many white people are sorry for slavery in the past, but fail to see racism existing in the present and do nothing to work toward its elimination. Ignorance of what racism is, not knowing what they are participating in, and not knowing what they are saying are presented as reasons enough for all to be ignored while racist acts, statements, policies, and laws are given a pass. This leaves the work of reconciliation only for the persons of color. Racism has been built and sustained at the expense of persons of color. Why should the work to reconcile it be left at their expense also? United Methodists teach that repentance is a “turning away from behaviors rooted in sin and toward actions that express God’s love.”2 This is a major part of justification, our sacred word for forgiveness.
How, then, have we come to this place where forgiveness is demanded without repentance? According to Jesus, an expectation for forgiveness only comes after repentance. Jesus says to “Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive.”3 There are two obligations in the above scripture: 1) sin must be rebuked and 2) forgiveness must follow repentance. This does not mean that forgiveness cannot be granted without repentance. It can! The wonderful people at Mother Emanuel AME Church have shown us that. But that forgiveness is in the control of the offended; not the offender.
Those who have orchestrated racism and those who have benefited from it must commit to the work of repentance. Forgiveness can neither be demanded nor expected; it is a gift miraculously—even divinely—offered despite the offense. Therefore, demands for forgiveness without repentance seem more about hushing the oppressed rather than making things right; a command of silence instead confession of wrong-doing. For them, if the oppressed would just stop talking about racism, the world would be a better place. So, they work to hush the prophets. They do so because they know that "when prophets are silenced, injustice prevails."4
Persons of color can move to forgive as swiftly as we’d like, but we must still demand repentance. Without repentance, forgiveness means nothing to those who benefit from our oppression and there is no hope for reconciliation. Remember, reconciliation’s goal is nothing short of restored community. There is no community without forgiveness AND repentance. White people can only demand repentance and they must demand it from each other. When they do, only then is racial reconciliation possible.
The Rev. Brian A. Tillman serves as the chair of the Commission on Religion and Race in the North Georgia Conference of the UMC and also serves as an associate pastor at Ben Hill UMC in Atlanta. He often hashtags to: #ResistToReconcile
 Harvey, J., Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, (2014), 97.
 Luke 17:3.
 Boesak, A. A., & DeYoung, C. P., Radical Reconciliation: Beyond Political Pietism and Christian Quietism. MaryKnoll, NY: Orbis Books. (2012), 115.
[Posted December 5, 2017]