What Cornel West got wrong about forgiveness

“…we are talking about spiritual issues…” Cornel West IMG_1525

All too often tragedy momentarily focuses our dulled ears and glazed eyes to razor sharp clarity. The shooting death of nine members of Emanuel AME church in Charleston, SC, brought to stark reality the cauldrons of violent prejudice that simmer below the surface of politically correct Americana.

The news frenzy emerged as a loud, chaotic chorus scrutinizing American racial narratives, the confederate flag, mass violence, gun control and a myriad of intersecting issues. Within that larger symphony the family members of Emanuel AME struck a searing heartfelt note as they spoke forgiveness.

“…I forgive you, and have mercy on your soul.” Nadine Collier, daughter of victim Ethel Lance

The words rose above the endless babble to resonate with a lucid truth that is rare in the speculation drama we call television broadcast news.

In response was the voice of Union Theological Seminary philosophy professor, Dr. Cornel West. In an interview with CNN he spoke on many relevant points about the racial narrative in America, but in regards to the one note of grace in the midst of tragedy he was wrong – shamefully, flat out wrong.

“That when we talk about forgiveness, you notice how quick the white press wants to accent Black people forgiving.  Forgiveness is not an utterance. It’s a process. We are a loving people. We’ve taught the world so much about love because we’ve been hated so, but to forgive a day or so after…something wrong with that – that’s a twisted sympathy and a pathological empathy – you forgive as you have worked it through – You just make sure you don’t hate. That’s the key. Don’t hate. Forgiveness comes later. But the press wants to accent forgiveness – we are a fighting people as well as a forgiving people.” Cornel West, interview June 22, 2015.

Forgiveness does not come later…or sooner…or in any predetermined timeframe, and it certainly does not come as externally prescribed by Dr. West.

These were not words of twisted sympathy for the murderer standing behind thick-plated glass.  These were words of courage, words hard won and words that will stand as a reminder to a will and choice that is rooted in the power of grace.

They are words of chosen grace.

Forgiveness is an act of will. It is a statement of faith. It is given in trust.  Not trust in a process, inevitability or human capability, but a trust in God. “I forgive you” are words born from a confidence in the blood that empowers them, the blood of Christ. They are uttered only with the strength of heart to choose them.  We can choose them only because they have first been IMG_3227given in abundance to us.  We are forgiven.

Forgiveness is immediate and continual and yes, it can be a deep and extended journey. But without the spoken assurance of existence, forgiveness withers and dies within us, drowning in human process.

You do not process what you cannot utter.  Whether spoken out loud or solely in the deep recesses of your own heart forgiveness is an utterance.

“…they overcame him because of the blood of the Lamb, the word of their testimony, and they did not love their life even when faced with death.” Revelation 12:11

Without utterance forgiveness has no power.  We overcome by our testimony, by loving not our own life, our own rights – rights to demand justice, to exact an eye for an eye, the right to harbor vengeance or seek retribution.IMG_0288

This is what makes their testimony so powerful. Family members who had every right to stand and demand justice, explanation, apology, punishment, put their rights away, stood and chose to give mercy.

It should prompt us all towards self-examination.  When pressed, when faced with the one who comes to steal, kill and destroy, will we stand in courage and overcome?  Will our forgiveness remain rooted with our faith, will our testimony speak truth, and will our life remain in God?

In God alone does our forgiveness live.  Forgiveness is not dependent upon any human determined process nor correlated with any psychological stage of grief.  It is not tied to a particular emotion or temporal feeling. It does not remove responsibility or obliterate consequences. It does not mean that grief is forgotten, that wounds are quickly healed or that long term pain and struggle will not ensue. Forgiveness is not sympathy nor does it denote acceptance.

Forgiveness chosen in the immediate, in the privacy of prayer or in verbal exchange is no weaker, diluted, less powerful cousin of forgiveness “processed,” whatever that means.

Forgiveness is individual and God-breathed and that is what appalls me about Dr. West’s statements. He is no divine arbiter of grace.

Cornel West does not get to decide what defines forgiveness – how it is given, how it is spoken, when it is transmitted, when it is or is not sincere – and neither do I.

But his decision to publicly degrade and deride these family members, his arrogance in defining their words as something other than a sincere expression of trust in God is shameful.  Shame on you, Cornel West. Your comments are the epitome of character assassination; in your own words the “refuge of those who hide and conceal” and are spoken without compassion, integrity or truthful witness.*


The family members in Charleston took steps of courage and faith in speaking out what they believe. They have overcome by the power of their testimony, by their love and by the blood that covers them as they walk a journey of true discipleship.

May we uphold them along the way.

Cornel West Interview with Poppy Harlow (CNN) (12:45 pm PT June 22, 2015) http://www.cnn.com/videos/us/2015/06/22/cornel-west-confederate-flag-harlow-nr.cnn

*To read the powerful words of the family members involved in the Charleston shooting check out https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2015/06/19/hate-wont-win-the-powerful-words-delivered-to-dylann-roof-by-victims-relatives/

*Cornel West’s words were from his FaceBook post in response to Michael Eric Dyson.  They are cited by Ben Cohen, April 24, 2015 in an article titled “Cornel West’s Response to Michael Eric Dyson is Pathetic” appearing in The Daily Banter. http://thedailybanter.com/2015/04/cornel-wests-response-to-michael-eric-dyson-is-pathetic/

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s