Reconciliation is only possible when forgiveness meets repentance. And meaningful social change requires the kind of social reconciliation that can only emerge through aggregated instances of both forgiveness and repentance. In South Africa, during the process of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the failure of widespread repentance among whites to match widespread forgiveness among blacks constrained the possibilities for meaningful change. The United States now confronts a similar challenge: Awe-inspiring forgiveness without repentance will not bring reconciliation. Dylann Roof will not be reconciled with the families of his victims absent his repentance. And no matter how many black Americans forgive the unpayable debts owed to them by white Americans, white America will not be reconciled with black America without repentance.
Forgiveness does not displace legal accountability, and forgiveness without repentance does not bring reconciliation. But forgiveness is more than a “discourse” (Xolela Mangcu), a balm for mental and physical health (Matt Schiavenza), or a means of survival (Roxane Gay). It is not simply “noble” and “impressive” (Damon Linker). These well-intentioned efforts to domesticate forgiveness — to make it comprehensible — ultimately fall short. As Michael Wear wrote yesterday in Christianity Today, “the critiques of forgiveness in recent days are strikingly similar to the critiques against nonviolence during the civil rights movement.” Those behind the critiques — then and now — have “misunderstood the allegiances of the black Christians they criticized.” In fact, those offering forgiveness see “no conflict between forgiveness and full-throated, sacrificial advocacy for change.”