Making Room for Community (1)

This is the first of a series of consecutive posts under the same title.

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Forgiveness, Contrition, and Reconciliation

One should never underestimate the resentment of the wealthy towards the insolence of the poor.

—The Invisible Committee, To Our Friends*           


One morning toward the beginning of the summer just recently ended, I was especially struck by the juxtaposition of three different news articles on the front page of the New York Times. It was the morning of Thursday, June 25, 2015. The first of the three articles, in the order I read them, was about the formal sentencing to death, just the day before, of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bomber. The second article was about the shooting just a week earlier, on June 17, of nine African American church members at “Mother Emanuel” African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The third article was about the far higher incidence in the United States of such homegrown right-wing terrorist attacks as the Charleston church shootings, on the one hand, compared to such Islamic-extremist ones as the Boston marathon bombings, on the other.

The second article I read that morning, addressing the recent shootings at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, was actually about the responses to the nine shooting deaths, as voiced by the family members of the victims. The piece described how, in the arraignment hearing for Dylann Roof, the accused shooter, one after another various members of the families of those killed spontaneously, with no prior consultation among themselves, offered forgiveness to that shooter.

In contrast, in the first story I read, about the sentencing to death of Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon shooter, a very different situation was depicted. In that case, as the article presented it, almost all of the Boston victims and victims’ family members who were cited insisted that they did not and would not forgive the bomber. A small number of them, by that and earlier accounts I had read or seen broadcast, did say they were going to forgive, or at least try to. But even in those rare cases, the nature of the forgiveness they offered was very different in foundation and effect from that offered by those involved in the Charleston case—a point to which I will eventually return below.

The third article that caught my special attention that morning was focused on the contrast between the public perception of the source of the greatest “terrorist” threat to America and Americans, and what law-enforcement agents and statistics confirm really to be the case. By the opinion polls, by far the majority of United States citizens identify “Islamic extremism” or the equivalent—such as animated those who flew the planes into the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and the field in Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001—as being the potential source of “terrorism” most to be feared. However, as recounted in the article, the statistics on which law-enforcement agencies across the county themselves primarily rely demonstrate that, since September 11, 2001, almost twice as many “terrorist” attacks and deaths have been perpetrated by indigenous right-wing, anti-government extremists—such as were Terry Nichols and Timothy McVeigh, the perpetrators of the pre-9/11 Oklahoma City bombings that remain the second most deadly “terrorist” strike ever on U S soil—as by those claiming some sort of Islamic inspiration.

The juxtaposition of those three different news articles in that morning’s New York Times engendered the thoughts I will share in this post concerning the interplay of three factors: forgiveness, contrition, and reconciliation.


In the article about the testimony of the Boston Marathon victims and their families at the Tsarnaev hearing, more than one person cited made remarks to the effect that any forgiveness for Tsarnaev (or his dead brother, the other bomber) would have to be preceded by some show of genuine contrition on his part. In effect, they said that they would not extend any forgiveness to Tsarnaev until after he had first confessed to what he had done, and shown signs of honest regret and desire to atone for it. For them, forgiveness would be extended only after the way had thus been cleared for it by such contrition. Forgiveness was not to be given before such display of honest regret and desire to make amends, but only after it—forgiveness as a sort of after-given, rather than a fore-given, of contrition, as it were.

In contrast, the responses from the victims of the Charleston shootings and their families at the arraignment of Roof, as depicted in the article devoted to them, was strikingly different on just that score. One after another, those who had been made to suffer by the shooter offered forgiveness before it had ever been requested. They made no mention of needing first to have Roof confess to his transgressions and display genuine contrition, before they would offer him forgiveness. They forgave him without him even asking them to.


Another difference between those two cases, the Boston Marathon bombings and the Charleston Emanuel A.M.E. Church shootings, that caught my attention as I read about them in that morning’s Times was a matter of ethnic or “racial” differences. The Charleston victims’ voices all came from African American, or “black,” Christians who were freely offering actual forgiveness to a “white” perpetrator, whereas the voices from Boston, the ones that spoke only of a possible forgiveness under certain conditions, came predominantly from “whites,” and were addressed to a Muslim immigrant from Chechnya.

That contrast brought more than one thought to my mind. The first was that a possible “advantage,” as it were, to being a member of the oppressed part of the population rather than the oppressing part—belonging, in a general sense, among the oppressed, rather than among the oppressors—might be that being one of the oppressed may bring with it a sort of freedom to forgive, whereas being one of the oppressors may tend to enchain one to the defense of one’s entitlements.

The second thought that came to me when I noticed the contrast at issue had to do with the generally overwhelmingly positive reaction of the mass media—and apparently of the public that consumes that media—to what the victims said in both cases, despite the obvious differences between the two sets of victims’ responses. Press and public all but unanimously praised the black victims of the Charleston shootings for spontaneously forgiving the perpetrator of those shootings, without him asking for their forgiveness first, or even admitting he’d done anything for which he might need to be forgiven. Yet the same press and public were equally united in voicing approval of the Boston Marathon bombing victims for refusing to forgive the bomber, at least until he had admitted his guilt and expressed sorrow for what he had done. The thought that came to me from the conjunction of those two equally positive public reactions to those two very different cases was a second possible explanation for that phenomenon, besides the one I just mentioned about the constraints of entitlement and the liberty of the oppressed.

What occurred to me was that the more or less institutionally encouraged view in a society such as ours—namely, one riddled by inequalities and inequities, especially along “racial” lines—is that not only is it a right or even a privilege of the oppressed to forgive their oppressors, but it is also what such a society expects or even demands of the oppressed. On the other hand, in such a society it is never a right of the oppressed to strike back against their oppressors—and it is often taken as nothing but do-gooder “political correctness” to talk about any need to forgive them if they dare to do just that.


It is also worth noting that the very few Boston victims who actually did say they forgave the bomber, made a point of explaining that they were doing so solely for their own sake, not for his. In contrast, none of the Charleston victims was reported as saying something similar (at least in the Times article I read that day, or any other accounts I read later, heard, or saw later, for that matter).

As a matter of fact, none of them said they were offering forgiveness either solely for their own sake, or solely for the shooter’s.   Rather, they emphasized that they felt called to offer forgiveness because of who they were as member of the community to which they belonged. They experienced a call to forgive for the sake of their community as such, in order that it might continue to be fostered.

By how it struck me, at least, they can be taken to have meant not only their own community of the faithful at Emanuel A.M.E. Church, but also—and precisely because of the very nature of their own limited Church community—the broader community beyond. What they said can and most probably should be taken to extend, ultimately, all the way out to that open-ended, all-inclusive, worldwide human community that, inspired by their example, we might call the community of universal reconciliation.

Such radical extension well beyond the limits of their own limited African American faith community is strongly suggested, for one thing, by the fact that the white shooter was himself warmly welcomed into the bible study meeting that was going on at the Church when he entered the building. Once inside, he was embraced by the congregation, until he eventually pulled out his gun and began firing. Such openness to others—to any “neighbor” who happened by, whether already known or a complete stranger—as accorded with their understanding of their own Christian faith, was central to the communal identity of the shooting victims themselves.


What interests me about the difference in victims’ responses in the two cases, the Boston Marathon bombings and the Charleston A.M.E. Church shootings, is not a matter of any differences in moral fiber or strength of character of the victims, either individually or collectively (taken one by one or group by group). No such differences were apparent to me from the reports, nor would they be of any special interest to me even if they were. Rather, what interests me in the contrast between the two cases of victims’ responses is that they suggest two very different understandings and models of how the interplay of forgiveness, contrition, and reconciliation operates in relation to the emergence, institution, and maintenance of community. What interests me can be put most succinctly, perhaps, in the form of two different answers to the following question: Which comes first, forgiveness or contrition, with what effect upon reconciliation, to establish or reestablish community?

By one understanding, contrition must come first. Contrition, by that understanding, is the condition for the possibility of forgiveness: the sincere expression of regret and desire to atone make the offer of forgiveness possible—though never mandatory, it is important to add. Finally, it is the conjunction of those two, contrition and forgiveness, that then makes reconciliation possible—though again not mandatory: the extension of forgiveness always being voluntary, it may not be offered, which means that reconciliation will not be effected.   That, it seems to me, is the model suggested by the Boston response.

On the other hand, the Charleston response suggests a significantly different understanding and corresponding model. By that second understanding and model, what begins the whole process is forgiveness, rather than contrition. That forgiveness is what then effects, all on its own, reconciliation. That already effected reconciliation, in turn, is what makes genuine contrition possible.


As Augustine teaches, and using his terms, the very awareness of sin is of itself proof that God has already extended the grace of forgiveness for that same sin. It is only such grace that first allows one to become truly aware of the fact of one’s sin: finding oneself being freely and fully offered forgiveness for something one has done is what first of all lets one genuinely experience one’s guilt. Save for the prevenient grace of forgiveness already extended before it is even requested, the offender cannot plumb the depths of the offense, and hence cannot come fully and genuinely to regret his or her offending deed. Unless such unearned, gratuitously offered forgiveness first opens the way, contrition cannot come into its own.

Without such libratory anticipation allowing one to experience one’s real guilt, any expressions of sorrow one might make for what one has done are at best a routine conformity to social expectations, done to forestall any possible unpleasantness. So, for example, when I accidentally brush against someone on the subway or in the grocery-store aisle, I will typically say I’m sorry, just to maintain sociality.

In my judgment there is nothing at all to apologize for in making such purely conventional apologies. They are perfectly acceptable, and even to be respected. It would be boorish not to make them. Nevertheless, such apologies display no real contrition; and that, in turn, is primarily because no real offense has been committed in the first place.

Nor is there really any contrition in cases where I say I am sorry just to avoid being punished for something I’ve done. A child caught stealing cookies from a cookie jar who verbalizes sorrow only in order not to be disciplined—and maybe to protect the supply of cookies within reach, fully intending to steal some more as soon as the coast is once again clear. Or a murderer might tell a judge he is sorry to for his deed in hopes of escaping the death sentence, as many of the Boston Marathon victims thought was true of Tsarnaev’s eventual expressions of sorrow for what he had done.


Communities that define themselves through some property that all and only members of that community possess necessarily exclude everyone else, everyone who fails the qualifying test of ownership, of possession, of the property at issue. Unless one can prove such possession to the satisfaction of the group, one has not met the eligibility requirement for belonging to it. Such communities are built by entitlement, the right of title to the property that defines the group. Along their borders such groups always build walls to keep out the un-entitled—and they always make the excluded and un-entitled themselves pay for those walls, we might add. They are gated communities. Closed tightly in upon themselves, such communities remain unforgiving toward all breaches of their security. They can last only so long as such breaches are contained, and their walled borders remain secure.

All walls come crumbling down eventually, however. Therefore, no such communities—proper communities of property, as it were—last forever. Every empire ends sooner or later.


On the other hand, a community built by forgiveness—such a community as the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, given the witness of the victims of Roof’s white-supremacist attack—is guaranteed to last. Like love itself, such a community lasts forever, even after all the walls of the building in which it is housed come tumbling down. It is as eschatological–as much a matter of eternity now—as the freely offered, unconditional forgiveness that builds it. That is precisely because it is a community built upon openness and inclusion, and can only be maintained by continually erasing its own borders to admit ever again new members, with no end to that particular endless-ness.

Such an eschatological community, built by unconditional forgiveness, is just the sort of community Étienne Balibar, a contemporary French sociologist and political philosopher, describes at one point in Equaliberty (Duke University Press, 2014), a collection of his essays from over the last twenty years.   Balibar at that point (page 93) envisions “a community that itself has no ‘property,’ and thus no common good (no res publica or common-wealth) to preserve, appropriate, or identify with,” a community that “can only be approached in terms of an injunction to make a place for alterity,” and thus “a community without community that has nothing in common but non-property, the resistance of its own members to identifying with some ‘proper.’”

Communities built and maintained by the sort of forgiveness offered to the Charleston shooter by the members of Emanuel African American Church are just such altogether improper communities.

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The next post will continue this series on “Making Room for Community.”

* Translated by Robert Hurley, South Pasadena: Semiotext(e) 2015, page 133.

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