"Ye that do truly and earnestly repent of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbors, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking henceforth in his holy ways, draw near with faith, and take this holy sacrament to your comfort; and, meekly kneeling, make your humble confession to Almighty God."
Thus reads the minister's invitation to congregants in the Methodist church to partake in the Lord's Supper. I grew up in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. Though I have not taken Communion within that denomination since 2003, when I left to join another denomination, I found strands of the ritual's litany seeping out from distant memory into the forefront of my mind in the wake of the massacre at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, S.C.
As new details emerged about the domestic terrorist attack and the man who allegedly carried it out, headlines began to change the subject from atrocity to forgiveness. Barely had funeral arrangements been made for Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Cynthia Hurd, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Depayne Middleton Doctor, Daniel Simmons Sr. and Myra Thompson before the families of the victims spoke in court to the alleged shooter, "I forgive you," and the nation was called to healing and unity.
I don't begrudge the survivors of the massacre the peace that is said to accompany forgiveness. Many times, I have heard that forgiveness is a gift to the person offering it, not to the receiver. I'm sure that members of victims' families who are Christian also felt a duty to forgive the shooter.
On the Sunday following the hate crime, those who hadn't reached the point where they could forgive the shooter said they "felt bad" about that. Christ is our ultimate example, and from the cross -- just before he became the victim of what could be interpreted as a government-sponsored murder, an assassination plot by people who feared losing their power, or a lynching -- he says, "Forgive them, father, for they know not what they do."
But before that moment, Jesus says something else:
"If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying 'I repent,' you must forgive them" (Luke 17:3-4).
Jesus expresses forgiveness not as mandatory, but conditional. First, the person on the receiving end of potential forgiveness must repent.
As he prepared people for Jesus' arrival, John the Baptist urged a similar order:
"John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" (Mark 1:4).
He wasn't standing in the Jordan River like a game operator at a state fair, saying, "Step right up, free forgiveness! Come get your forgiveness here!" He urged sinners to repent in exchange for forgiveness.
It is a transaction we as a nation too often have disregarded or applied unevenly in our rush to heal from the effects of our racialized past. When slavery ended in the United States, black people were still expected to know their place and not to aspire to equality with whites. When blacks ascended into state legislatures throughout the South during Reconstruction, a wave of racial terrorism began. The history of the U.S. civil rights movement is so gutted that we validate only nonviolent resistance and Martin Luther King Jr. quotes about holding hands and driving out hate with love, as if King never demanded systemic, economic, cultural and moral change.
Today, African-Americans are told to get over it or are called race-baiters for pointing out racial disparities in criminal justice, housing, employment or voting. But Jews are permitted to never forget and Rebels' descendants storm Amazon.com for Confederate battle flag memorabilia to honor their ancestors -- as if their ancestors did not fight in support of a moral wrong. Although books on African-American history abound and one undergraduate class in the subject could give anyone enough information to contextualize today's systemic inequality, reparations aren't even up for debate.
Though nine people in Charleston paid for it with their lives, there is no accountability for the country's racist past or present. There has been no repentance en masse on the part of white Americans, not enough grief over racist acts and effects, not enough turning away from racism to live "in love and charity" with neighbors of other races, not enough intention to lead this country to a new life. The nation is not in communion because too many white Americans, and perhaps especially white Christians, come to the altar unworthily, without examining themselves or their religion. At the same time, too many black Americans -- in the name of love, good religion, or belief that God will take care of it; or perhaps for self-gain, the need for approval, a fondness for images of a white God, or peace of mind -- let them.
No one should be let off the hook so easily. I am not at all advocating for black people to take up arms and indiscriminately assault or kill white people. That would only bring about the race war that the Charleston terrorist wanted. Besides, violence, while hard on the soul, is too easy a solution for our country's deep-seated problems. I do, however, support black people holding on to righteous anger that leads them to demand repentance of everyone, whether they are colleagues or classmates expressing racial microaggressions or policymakers with the power to enact systemic change.
Forgiveness can wait. Black lives can't.
Then shall this General Confession be made by the Minister and all those who are minded to receive the holy communion, both he and they humbly kneeling, and saying:
"We do earnestly repent, and are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; the remembrance of them is grievous unto us. Have mercy upon us, have mercy upon us, most merciful Father, forgive us all that is past, and grant that we may ever hereafter serve and please Thee in newness of life."
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