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Tweeting the Impossible Forgiveness: Some Resources from Continental Philosophy for Thinking about Charleston, Mercy, and Social Media

On Wednesday, June 18, in Charleston, South Carolina, a tight-knit group of black men and women at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church welcomed a young white man to pray and read with them at their weekly Bible study. As they were wrapping up, the white man stood, announced his racist rationalizations, and shot at them. He killed oiine: Susie Jackson, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, DePayne Doctor, Ethel Lance, Daniel Simmons Sr., Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, and Tywanza Sanders. Two days later, at a bond hearing in a Charleston court room, the daughters, mothers, and sisters of those killed spoke to the suspect: they made clear their grief and made plain what he took from them. “I will never be able to hold her again,” said Nadine Collier of her mother, Ethel Lance. However, in their unspeakable pain, they also said unfathomable words—words like mercy and forgiveness. Collier forgave her mother’s murderer, and some of the family members prayed that God would do the same.

As these incredible words made their way out of the courtroom and into our national life, I found them also amplified and accelerated by my social media. These achingly personal words were duplicated and reduplicated at greater and greater remove from their sources. They became one more meme to scroll past on my timelines. Perhaps those who retweeted and “liked” these words of mercy and forgiveness felt that some light had slipped out from a long, bitter night of national sorrow. After all, in this one tragedy, our country’s noisiest issues now clattered together: religion, race, gender, and guns. Tweeting, posting, sharing, and liking—often without a moment’s hesitation—might shed some light or hush the din. Don’t we all reach to recall our best when thrust among our worst? Forgiving an unforgivable act is unquestionably the human being at its best. It speaks to something of our highest possibilities.

I am concerned, nonetheless, that it is that very height which makes the social media celebration of radical forgiveness a rather tricky business. I wonder whether in our rush to announce the triumph of forgiveness we do not also muffle a quiet but sensible voice that suspects that something here is too good to be true. In the immediate aftermath of such personal atrocity, how could anyone say something so impossible and really mean it? Do they really, in the shock of grief, know what they are saying?

Perhaps I am too cynical. Even those who express no interest in forgiving the Charleston shooter, like the New York Times’s contributing op-ed writer Roxane Gay, insist they respect those who can.[1] Having witnessed our human nature’s highest possibility, I suspect most of us want to ratify our more generous impulse and decide to think more hopefully. Thus, we tweet, post, like, and share that radical forgiveness is real, that mercy from the wounded is possible, and that love conquers in the face of hate. As a Christian, I believe all of these things to be true.

But having witnessed forgiveness and love in Charleston almost exclusively through the lens of Twitter and Facebook, I wonder whether our publicizing does justice to forgiveness. Does forgiveness translate to our timelines? And how, if at all, does our social media testimony do justice to that which we have witnessed?

Saint Augustine wrote in his Confessions that time was something he understood only until he had to explain it, whereupon he could not produce a satisfactory answer. I suspect that our social media sleight of hand—by which we draw all eyes to forgiveness in extremis only to tuck our doubts away unnoticed—evinces a similar conundrum: we know what forgiveness is, but when we are asked to explain it (“How can it be so?”), we find that our thoughts abandon us. In such circumstances, I find it helpful to turn to the thoughts of others.[2]

Jacques Derrida’s doubts about forgiveness are famous (and perhaps infamous). Derrida argued that forgiveness is impossible by pointing to its inner incoherence: only the unforgivable is in need of forgiveness. Where there is no fault, or the fault has been repented of, or where amends have been made, there is no longer any need of forgiveness. If what would be forgiven is so meager a wrong that the aggrieved can say, with ease, “It is nothing,” then surely there was never much to forgive in the first place. But in the face of the unforgivable, how can forgiveness in good conscience be accepted, let alone offered? It would be an affront to justice. Thus, where forgiveness can be received, it need no longer be given, and where it can be offered, it cannot be accepted. For Derrida, forgiveness is a self-deconstructing exchange. It implodes its own conditions of possibility. One might extend Derrida’s analysis by saying that our thoughts and feelings about radical acts of forgiveness are impure because forgiveness itself can never be pure. The thoughts we hide about radical forgiveness are those that tell the full truth of the matter.[3]

Paul Ricoeur, another French philosopher, understood Derrida’s problem with the idea of pure or radical forgiveness but thought Derrida was overlooking an essential element that would resolve the question—what Ricoeur called the “vertical.” According to Ricoeur, Derrida treated forgiveness as though the act of giving and the act of receiving were the only dynamics at play. But forgiveness in Ricoeur’s view is not merely an exchange between equals but something offered from a “height” and received from a “depth.” Thus, in addition to the horizontal play of forgiveness, there is also a vertical dimension, and Ricoeur understood this depth as moral fault, for, he believed, the person who might receive forgiveness and the person who might give forgiveness do not stand on neutral ground. Regardless of whether forgiveness is extended, we are all accountable to the demands of moral and social justice.[4]

The person at fault is, to borrow a term from Saint Athanasius, “corrupt,” but Athanasius’s use here evokes something different than our contemporary sense of corruption. In his work On the Incarnation, Athanasius explains that God became incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ so that Christ’s gracious condescension might heal our corruption. Yet this corruption is not merely a failure to follow the rules—though certainly corruption arises from active disregard for God’s justice—instead, corruption also refers to the contamination of an otherwise good system, the fall into disorder of something orderly. Athanasius suggests that corruption infects, kills, and decays its host and host community. And so, when we fail to maintain justice, we let in something sickening that, if left to fester, will inevitably lead to death, decay, and decomposition.

For Ricoeur, the depth of fault passes through each of these layers. To recognize one’s fault is to “avow” that one stands guilty in the face of justice. More subtly but perhaps more troublingly, the Roman Catholic philosopher William Desmond explains that the depth of fault also includes the ineluctable force of all of our past failures and sins upon who we are in the present. Indeed, this is true of all of our past actions, insofar as they are simultaneously indicative and constitutive of our moral character, for good or ill. In the case of Dylann Roof and the killing in Charleston, Desmond’s point would have us remember that racist murders do not happen in a vacuum, either personally or nationally; they have a history. Moreover, even if I acknowledge my culpability, I cannot make myself a person who is no longer at fault; what I did will always have been done and will always have been done by me. Desmond voices this as one more possible objection to the notion of forgiveness: who by merely saying so (“I forgive—it’s nothing”) can make what has been no longer be?[5] Or returning to those memes that overtook my Facebook wall last June, who can erase Dylann Roof’s act of murder from his existential history?

Desmond and Ricoeur describe the fundamental depth pertaining to fault in different ways but to the same effect. Desmond suggests that each free decision we make backs us into a corner and, in a certain respect, deprives us of our freedom. We can no longer choose to be a person who did not do those things, whether good or evil. Our self-determination turns on us when we use it, strewing an indelible past all around us. Our actions—past and present—weigh us down, sometimes to the depths. This may seem strange, but Desmond is making a fundamental (although perhaps ambiguous) point about the relationship between our finitude and God’s infinite being. Our freedom, without some participation in God’s will, makes itself into unfreedom. However, when it comes to explicit acts of sin and evil, Ricoeur helps us put a finer point on this. He notes that it is not just our self-determination in general that takes us to the depths but the contrast between our actual faults and the possible good we might or should have done. For Ricoeur, we sink into the depth of fault when we fall short of the person we might have been, when we are less than justice called us to be.[6] By linking Desmond’s and Ricoeur’s ideas, we find that the weight of our fault inclines us to further fault. The kind of being that we were made to be (i.e., good, moral, and just) begins to fall apart and decompose over time. God’s creation in me ceases to be not all together but as it might have been.

I can see, then, how rarely my past actions conform to the best possibilities for justice for which I was created; I can see that the verticality of my fault runs deep. But what can be said about the height of forgiveness? By height Ricoeur means a quality or way of being that shifts our existence closer to that for which we were created and closer to the God who created us. All moral goodness takes this height. But the height of forgiveness cannot be mere conformity to our best possibilities. Realizing those possibilities would be to realize justice, to realize shalom. And it is difficult to imagine anyone claiming that justice demands victims forgive their victimizers. No, forgiveness is something else: an unforeseen possibility, a goodness beyond the ethical. Forgiveness is a higher height.

Rather than describing forgiveness as impossible, Ricoeur calls it “difficult.” This may seem a drastic de-escalation from Derrida’s pessimism about forgiveness, but Ricoeur’s sense of difficult is not easy to match. The opportunity to forgive appears before a person only under circumstances of trauma, only under circumstances in which we are the painful recipients of another’s fault. Again, where there is no fault, no forgiveness is needed. In fact, the opportunity to take the height of forgiveness offers itself at exactly the same moment when we could reasonably beg to be excused from our moral duties and obligations to justice, out of grief or rage or fear. The greater the violation we have suffered, the more society is willing to excuse us from the burden of our ethical duties. For example, many employers offer bereavement leave. The difficulty of forgiveness, then, is above and beyond our ethical baseline, and its difficulty grows with the severity of the wounds inflicted upon us by those who are at fault. Forgiveness must traverse this span, from the extra-ethical height of forgiveness to both the depths of the victimizer’s fault and the entirely different depths of a victim’s own victimization.

But if forgiveness really is some kind of excess when compared to our potential for moral goodness, does its height put it out of our reach? Is it so difficult that it might as well just be impossible? Another Catholic philosopher and theologian, Cyril O’Regan, suggests that this is precisely the sense in which forgiveness is impossible. That is, forgiveness appears impossible to the wronged until, mysteriously, it is not. The fault of others is not overcome through greater effort, courage, or even trust between people; O’Regan’s phenomenology of forgiveness suggests instead that time itself plays a role in forgiveness emerging as a possibility.[7]

This may often be true, but it helps us very little in making sense of the forgiveness that burst forth so suddenly in Charleston. Desmond offers us a more theological suggestion. “To be delivered from the bind we ourselves are,” he writes, “another willing than ours seemed needed.”[8] In other words, in order to forgive and be forgiven across these heights and depths, we need to receive a capability beyond our capability. Out of respect for the boundaries distinguishing philosophy and theology, Desmond does not say whose willing he has in mind. It is God’s.

Two days after being drawn into the depths of hateful, violent, racist American fault, we witnessed the forgiveness of the unforgivable. And being so transfixed by its brilliant height, we did what witnesses do: we testified. We tweeted, posted, liked, and shared. I am concerned that our social media testimony does not do justice to what we have witnessed.

People sometimes speak of damning someone with faint praise, but here we may have a case of damning with swift praise, and the damned are those of us who are doing the praising. What are we revealing about ourselves in our rush to amplify the forgiveness? When we publicly laud forgiveness, who is receiving the praise? Who benefits from it? And whose well-being do we have at heart?

I suspect it is our own. I am even more suspicious when the praise, the benefit, and the well-being land with white, male, Christian people like me. But more than simply suspecting mixed motives, I am concerned that in our best intentions we still do harm. In our rush to announce a victory for mercy, we turn forgiveness into something normal. In our haste to tweet, post, like, or share, we flatten forgiveness into its dullest lines. This leveling conceals the vertical traverse of those who forgive and the difficulty they endure in doing so. Thus, when we endlessly duplicate forgiveness on social media, even to praise it, forgiveness becomes stained with the ease of tweeting, posting, liking, and sharing. This strange and improbable human possibility takes on a mask of profusion: in appearing easy and frequent, forgiveness comes to seem like one more human moral possibility, like one more easy exchange between our capabilities, our duty, and those to whom we are obliged.

One danger in normalizing forgiveness in this way is that we might come to take it as something to expect or even to demand from others or from ourselves. Without intending to, we turn forgiveness into a law. Mercy becomes the one duty we enforce upon those who are victimized. And thus, when we forget forgiveness’s height, we mistake it for something waiting in reserve, for something that is easily at our disposal. In addition, the depth of fault also becomes covered up: the bonds of time and being that link us to our actions are weakened, and the seriousness of our sins is belittled. Even worse, we may come to see those who would be forgiven as those who are owed forgiveness. Is there a more terrible inversion of our most dire moral circumstances? Forgiveness cannot and must not become procedural. Just because forgiveness is possible does not make it foreseeable; it does not offer license to facilely expect it from others or ourselves. It is difficult and improbable, yet that forgiveness will appear need not surprise us. But the when and where and how may always remain mysterious until after the fact. Even then, we may only narrate the conditions of our surprise.

However, my worries about how we narrate our surprise at radical forgiveness should not be read as a prohibition against tweeting, posting, liking, and sharing our reactions with one another. After all, in churches all over the world—churches like Emmanuel AME—Christians weekly and even daily testify that God made us alive together in Christ when we were dead through our trespasses.[9] This is our responsibility and our joy. But Christians should also bear in mind that when we testify, we testify “to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine” (Eph. 3:20 NRSV). Our forgiveness in Christ does not just heal our ethical corruption; it also elevates our way of life above the normal run of things in unforeseen and sometimes unforeseeable ways. Our witness to the gospel must communicate this. So too, then, with our social media discourse about radical forgiveness: we need to make sure that we find ways to announce our joyful surprise at the unforeseen and unforeseeable. Although this may be more difficult, it is certainly not impossible.

[1] See Gay, “Why I Can’t Forgive Dylann Roof,” Opinion Pages, New York Times, June 23, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/24/opinion/why-i-cant-forgive-dylann-roof.html.

[2] Augustine, Confessions, XI, xiv, 17.

[3] See Derrida, “Le Siècle et le pardon,” Le Monde des débats (December), since translated in English as “To Forgive: The Unforgivable and the Imprescriptible,” in Questioning God, eds. J. Caputo, M. Dooley, and M. Scanlon (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2001). See also Derrida, “On Forgiveness,” in On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness (New York, NY: Routledge, 2001).

[4] Ricoeur, Memory, History, Forgetting, trans. Kathleen Blamey and David Pellauer (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 457–506.

[5] Desmond, “It Is ‘Nothing’—Wording the Release of Forgiveness,” ed. Michael Baur, Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association 82 (2008): 1–23.

[6] Ricoeur, Memory, History, Forgetting, 462–65.

[7] O’Regan, “Forgiveness: Forgiveness and the Forms of the Impossible,” ed. Michael Baur, Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association 82 (2008): 67–84.

[8] Desmond, “It Is ‘Nothing,’” 18 (emphasis in the original).

[9] See Ephesians 2:5.

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Jonathan Heaps :
Jonathan Heaps is a PhD student in systematic theology at Marquette University. His scholarship focuses on Catholic philosophers and systematic theologians of the twentieth century, such as Maurice Blondel and Bernard Lonergan.

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