Forgiveness as a Tool in Healing and Combatting Social Injustice

In beginning this research, I was searching for an answer to an ongoing question that plagues this country. In previous research I’ve conducted, I have examined many issues regarding racial injustices in America and how they have plagued specific groups of people. From the school- to-prison pipeline to the ineffective War on Drugs that have continued the in the state sanctioned terrorism on African Americans and people of color in the United States. After reading countless journals and analyzing many texts that delve into the hate policing placed against minorities, I grew frustrated. In not wanting to negate history and ignore its effects, I am left asking, how do we move forward?

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The idea of forgiveness can be used as a key piece in building peaceful societies as well as peaceful individuals. It works to establish a society and a culture of people who are willing to recognize wrongdoing for what they are and choose to not allow the hurt to multiply. By working forgiveness into the core of a society, we can empower individuals to examine their own hurt, work through it and eventually work towards social harmony. Forgiveness will be one of those human competences which although imperfect, may help us to build more peaceful societies, because in the same way that we have learnt to hurt each other, we can learn to forgive each other too (Robles). In can be a challenging phenomenon to overcome, or even ask of for individuals with years of targeted hurt. However, when are continuing in the conversation of ‘how do we move forward’, it is a key component in ending repetitive cycles of vengeance and fear.

In 2015, Dylan Roof, inferably unaware of the value and sanctity of human life walked into a South Carolina church to manifest the evil festered in his heart. He sat in service, an odd spectacle; an unknown white man in an all-black church. He gained their trust and arguably their love. In keeping with his preconceived plan, he aimed his gun at his first target, an unexpecting African American. He aimed his gun at the next and then the next, until nine members of the Emmanuel A.M.E Church were shot and killed. It was a horrific memory, a tragic event that will soon fill American history books around the nation. Innocent blood was shed for no other reason than to infiltrate his poisonous rationale that some life is not valuable. Roof’s heinous acts were cruel and awful and immoral, undeniably so. But were his actions forgivable?

A few weeks after the horrendous act, Nadine Collier, daughter of Ethel Lance, who was killed by Roof spoke and offered hope to not only her enemy, but the world. She said, I forgive you. You took something very precious away from me. I will never get to talk to her again. I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you, and have mercy on your soul. You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. If God forgives you, I forgive you. ____ These words, easier said than understood are the very words that can grant someone freedom. Understandably, forgiveness can make one cringe at the thought of pardoning someone for a hurt or loss or deep wound inflicted on to them. It has been said that this appears to be a form of weakness. However, this paper aims to advocate for forgiveness as the first step in healing, combating social injustices and moving towards desired social outcomes, such as racial reconciliation. It is only when we are willing to

It would be challenging to fully explore the depths of forgiveness without first exploring the womb in which forgiveness lives; compassion. The ability to release someone from their guilt and reestablish a relationship, to have the power to cancel the debt of another to experience the freedom that comes with giving a pardon to excuse somebody for a mistake, misunderstanding, wrongdoing or an inappropriateness is only possible through compassion.

In his book Adam and Eve in Scripture, Theology and Literature; Sin, Compassion and Forgiveness, author Peter B. Ely, explains that compassion means entering the weakness, or suffering, or distress of the other person and seeing it as my own. If I cannot see that the sinner who did this or that horrible deed against me (or against us) shares a common human weakness that afflicts all human beings — including me, the offended– then it’s hard to be forgiving (Ely). To get to forgiveness we must be willing to see the human in our oppressor. It can be challenging when our oppressor is the face of terrorism, but, there is a healing that transpires that allows us to move forward in a healthy way. Joseph R. Canale argues in Altruism and Forgiveness as Therapeutic Agents in Psychotherapy that the act of forgiveness can be viewed as a prescription for a happier and healthier psychological existence during this lifetime, a prescription that through love brings a sense of fulfillment and through forgiveness, a peace of mind. (Canale) It is only when release resentment that we can focus and be free of peace hindering motives, such as revenge, anger and hatred.

Civil rights leader, Martin Luther King Jr. precedes in this notion of forgiveness as key in combatting social injustices. We must recognize that the evil deed of the enemy-neighbor, the that hurts, never quite expresses all that he is. An element of goodness may be found even in our worst enemy when we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies. When we look beneath the surface we recognize that his hate grows out of fear, pride, ignorance, prejudice and misunderstanding, but despite this, we know God’s image is ineffably etched in his being. Then we love our enemies by realizing that they aren’t totally bad and that they are not beyond the reach of God’s redemptive love.

It’s compassion that allows us to forgive that grants us freedom. It is easy and probably within good reason to believe that one is not as bad as Dylan Roof. We might find ourselves saying that there is no way I could ever commit such an act. But this belief falls short of grasping the understanding that in what lies in the heart of one human has the possibility of finding a home in the heart of the same person who could never do such a thing. We can fall victim to the same transgression as our enemy neighbor. Indeed, there are wrongs that can never be made right again, but the pure essence of the act itself, but forgiveness is what allows us to be set free from the past. Again, it is the only way to cease the repetitive cycles that keep humans repaying hurt with another hurt.

When Nadine Collier, offered forgiveness to Dylan Roof, she continued in the process of healing that would make her time on earth bearable. Instead of harboring the pain Roof caused her, attempting to hold it against him, she released it. She released the countless nights she might otherwise have spent reliving the hate that might have stirred in her that tragic evening. She released the pain of recalculating all the ways she could find so that Roof could feel her grief and bear her pain. In a study by Neal Krause and Christopher G. Ellison, their findings reveal that older people who forgive others report they experience fewer symptoms associated with a depressed affect than older people who are unable or unwilling to forgive other people for things they have done. (Krause) To reiterate, she, in her forgiveness, continued the process of not allowing that soul-wrenching, hope-seizing event to keep her hostage or a slave. Because Collier chose to forgive, she can continue in that hopeful stride towards freedom.

This is, however, a key piece needed in not only understanding forgiveness as the greatest weapon for humanity, but in executing. We must understand what exactly forgiveness is and is not. As articulated by theologian Tim Mackie in a teaching on why forgiveness is so vital to the movement of the Kingdom of Heaven, forgiveness is not ignoring or forgetting the wrongdoing. It is not condoning or excusing it, nor is it tolerating or allowing further abuse. It is imperative to make clear that if someone is in an abusive situation, be it, mentally or physical, it is more important that they find a way out, rather than beginning the process of forgiving. Forgiveness is also not returning to the way things were before or allowing the offender to escape consequences (Archive). Understanding this can allow us to take therapeutic forgiveness as individual cases arise and possibly as a model for society.

Individually, when we choose to forgive, we are giving ourselves a specific place of power that allows us a better chance at make clear choice for moving forward. As said before, we are not fogged down with feelings of insecurity and anger that might cause hostility that can further ensure the disruption in the relationship. Instead, we are able to clearly decide if continuing in the relationship is best or not. As a model for society, when a hurt group of people choose forgiveness, whether the hurter makes amends towards contrition or not, that group can reestablish a sense of dignity and control over their position in society. This is in no way discrediting the continued systems that might actively be working against them, but it allows them to resist the friction peacefully, as Martin Luther King Jr practiced.

It has been said that this type of social practice, forgiveness, cannot lead to justice as it is potentially can only serve as an interpersonal act. However, the very nature of forgiveness is a socially constructive act that gives way to social justice. Hannah Arendt describes forgiveness as the only reacting which does not merely re-act but acts anew and unexpectedly, unconditioned by the act which provoke it(Arendt). Miroslav Volf takes this idea a bit further, claiming that knowledge of justice requires forgiveness. She claims that to agree on justice, you need to make space in yourself for the perspective of the other (Volf). This leads us back to compassion as the only way of truly achieving forgiveness. Forgiveness is in no way opposed to justice, as if to forgive meant to overlook the need to right the wrong done. It is rather the fullness of justice, leading to that tranquility of order which is much more than a fragile and temporary cessation of hostilities, involving as it does the deepest healing of the wounds which fester in human hearts. Justice and forgiveness are both essential to such healing (XXXV).

So, when we speak on forgiving, we are not saying that what is being forgiven is okay or excusable or even justifiable, we are saying though, for there to be true peace and genuine freedom that releases a person from the bonds of oppression, terrorism and dehumanization, forgiveness must take life. Yes, we want justice for the countless black bodies that have been wrongfully taken advantage of, abused and mistreated by a country that has and continues to step on and look down on people of color. Yes, we want justice for the innumerable violations of human rights taking place daily, for those incidents that make it to primetime and those that don’t. Justice is an inevitable and undeniable demand for those who are far too familiar with the inability to feel sea in their skin for fear their esteem won’t surmount their skin color. However, while are waiting for justice, we don’t have to wait for freedom.

Our society, by the grace of God has long progressed past the inherent and super pronounced state sanctioned hatred that once made up the aroma of our country. The air is continuing to distillate the stench caused by our enemies next door. We are moving forward and can continue to do so if forgiveness is what leads us in our walk towards irrevocable freedom. Many psychologists that use forgiveness therapy on their clients emphasize to them that forgiveness is voluntary and unconditional and does not involve the offender’s response. It is the replacement of negative feelings with prosocial feelings toward the offender by recognizing the essential human core that we all possess. This brings about a cumulative healing effect that is transformational for the client (Menahem). Understanding that forgiveness frees the person forgiving from mental pain influences how well a person and or society can move forward in a way that produces the great social outcome. In a study by Lorraine Toussaint, he concludes that conditional forgiveness of others is associated with risk for all cause mortality, and that the mortality risk of conditional forgiveness may be conferred by its influences on physical health (Toussaint). Forgiveness gives the hurt the power and willingness to go out and heal the hurts, right the wrongs and ultimately change society.

The chain of grievances ends with forgiveness. This model was used during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa where the participants adopted the idea that your actions do not fully define you. They called it ubuntu and Bishop Desmond Tutu said that in doing so, we are making each other human. When someone is wronged, he or she is dehumanized, but the one who committed the offense is dehumanized as well. Two people are dehumanized and in the process of reconciliation, the perpetrator becomes less than the victim but somehow the perpetrator is human, the goodness is still there so when the perpetrator confesses, his or her humanity is restored, and, on that basis, alone reconciliation is possible. If winner takes all, there can be no common future (Kane).

As Pope John Paul ii said in his message of His holiness for the celebration of the world day of peace, The is not peace without justice and no justice without forgiveness (XXXV) We see the forward moving idea of forgiveness through leaders with similar philosophies. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s non-violent approach for fighting injustice with love and forgiveness led to such triumphant victories as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which banned discrimination in employment and public accommodations based on race, color, religion or national original, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which restored and protected the right to vote, and the Immigration and Nationality services Act of 1965. All of these were achieved based on forgiveness as the wrench in unscrewing centuries of injustice.

In a speech Dr. King gave on forgiveness, he emphasizes that forgiveness is a catalyst creating the atmosphere necessary for a fresh start and a new beginning (King). If both the offender and the offender harbor hatred, an unwillingness to forgive, it will result in both parties pulling a rope in opposite directions, attempting to take it as far they can until it snaps. Whereas, forgiveness means even if one party is walking away, the other must choose to stand firm, patiently, until the other party realizes he can go no further with the rope unless his counter walks with him.

Forgiveness through compassion is a strong tool in combatting social injustice. The healing that ensues within the individuals practicing forgiveness allows deeper impact to take place. The acts of forgiveness of the family members in Charleston after the tragic shooting drew focused attention to deeper issues of racial violence in the South, resulting in the removal of the Confederate Battle Flag from the South Carolina State House grounds after years of efforts to accomplish this (Jorgensen).


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Forgiveness As a Tool in Healing And Combatting Social Injustice. (2019, Jun 26). Retrieved November 27, 2022 , from

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