Who Deserves Forgiveness?
Two recent stories got me thinking about forgiveness last week. The first involved Levi Pettit, the SAE member who, along with other members of his fraternity, got caught on video singing a song that referenced lynching. The second story involved Joey Casselberry, a college baseball player from Bloomsburg University who referred to Mo’ne Davis as a “slut”in a recent tweet, apparently after hearing that Davis would be the subject of an upcoming Disney movie.
Pettit and Casselberry faced intense criticism for what they did but the actions of a handful of black folk also garnered a good deal of attention. A group of black elders, including clergy and at least one state senator, stood behind Pettit while he apologized during a public statement. Mo’ne Davis took things to a different level when she not only stated she forgave her offender but also contacted his school to ask for his reinstatement after they kicked him off the baseball team. Both instances present interesting case studies in forgiveness.
Criticism of the folks flanking Levi Pettit was both swift and predictable. One writer let it be known that black folk don’t owe racists forgiveness. I found that proclamation curious since I’ve never heard anyone suggest we did. Others wondered why faith leaders and elected officials would allow themselves to be used as props in a carefully orchestrated public relations exercise. The reaction to Mo’ne Davis was more nuanced. Some saw her gestures as signs of a girl whose maturity is far above her years. Others thought she shouldn’t have felt compelled to forgive someone who treated her with such blatant disrespect. Even those who might have understood why she wouldn’t want to dwell on the incident found it inconceivable that she would ask (or be advised to ask) for his reinstatement. I’ll be honest, even I was surprised she went that far. I know I wouldn’t have been spending any of my precious time advocating for someone who showed no regard for me. I think many of the reactions (including mine) to these two stories are driven by our understanding, or lack thereof, of forgiveness.
Anger, rage, frustration, and resentment are totally normal and understandable when we have been deeply injured by someone. In fact, I would be highly suspicious of a person who told me they never felt any of these emotions. The issue is not whether we feel intense emotions, it’s what we should do with them. We all need time to process anger, but at some point it needs to find a final resting place. I believe forgiveness is always an appropriate response to an offense. That’s because holding on to anger and resentment doesn’t hurt our offender; it hurts us. And it never fully satisfies our desire for retribution either. Forgiveness is about our feelings. It’s not about the actual offense or the person who injured us. Forgiveness is the process by which the injured person is set free emotionally; it isn’t about minimizing what was done to us or giving a free pass to the person who hurt us. The other reason this issue evokes such strong feelings is because we confuse forgiveness with trust. The former is a decision by the offended to let go of hurtful feelings. The latter is a process initiated by the offender to restore a relationship that their actions disrupted.
Understanding the power of forgiveness is important for anyone who wants to have healthy relationships and a healthy life. Studies show that bitter people have higher blood pressure and more likely to die of heart disease. People are guaranteed to offend us. And we will undoubtedly offend others at times. These two things are absolutes. The real question is how we should handle these inevitabilities.
Each of us has to make a decision about how we want to handle the offenses we endure on a regular basis. The fact that Mo’ne Davis chose to forgive Joey Casselberry speaks volumes about her character and maturity. It is quite possible that she is bombarded by vile, disrespectful, racist, and sexist comments on a daily basis. Her decision to forgive this very public instance of disrespect might just be a part of how she maintains her emotional health. Everyone won’t make that choice. Similarly, the people standing behind Levi Pettit during his public statement may have chosen to forgive because they were informed by their faith. The clergy flanking him surely understand the central role forgiveness plays in the Christian faith. Jesus taught his disciples about the link between their capacity to forgive others and God’s capacity to forgive them. But again, not everyone shares their faith.
There are some who have no desire to forgive Levi Pettit or anyone else who has been caught doing or saying something racist. That choice is theirs to make and the consequences are theirs to endure. We’ve all seen people who have let anger and bitterness come to rest on the inside. And we’ve seen the corrosive effect those emotions can have on a person’s health, relationships, and overall quality of life. There are any number of ways that people will hurt us during our lifetime–abuse, abandonment, infidelity, betrayal, dishonesty, racism, sexism–and each give us reason and the right to be mad. But failing to make peace with those feelings can keep us stuck and unable to move on with our lives. We all must practice some level of emotional triage. If we don’t, even the most minor offense will elicit a disproportionate response.
I saw a video of a man on Facebook who was talking about his relationship with his late father. You could see his anger start to build as the video progressed and eventually the resentment he held became so obvious that you could turn the sound off and still see exactly where he was emotionally. I don’t know how long this man had been storing these feelings but I’m certain that they will continue to eat at him unless he decides to forgive his father. So it is with all of us. We must decide whether we will forgive the people who have hurt us. And like this man, even when the offender doesn’t (or can’t) ask for forgiveness we should love ourselves enough to forgive.