I was working in The White House when the press release arrived: “Pew Survey Finds Almost 1/5 of Americans Believe President Obama Is a Muslim.”
I spent years having to talk to reporters and draft statements to counter this curious belief. It’s now clear to me that, while the belief persisted for many reasons (including the way faith is used as a political weapon), a major reason was that media, racists, and liberal elites alike tend to treat African American Christianity as a cultural, not a theological, phenomenon.
I have never said this publicly, but it is one reason I believe President Obama has “gotten away with” explicitly religious language that, coming from a white President, would earn him screeds on liberal websites accusing him of violating the separation of church and state. But with a black President, many media pundits, racists, and white secular elites seem to shrug off his faith statements as arising from cultural baggage, not sincerely held beliefs.
I thought of this as I watched Charleston family members publicly forgive the man who killed nine of their loved ones during a Bible study at Emanuel AME Church.
I do not know if I could be like Nadine Collier, who told Dylann Roof, “You took something very precious from me, but I forgive you. It hurts me. You hurt a lot of people, but may God forgive you.” I do not know if I could have had the compassion of Anthony Thompson, who exhorted Roof to “repent. Confess. Give your life to the one who matters the most, Christ, so he can change your ways no matter what happens to you and you’ll be okay.” Roof will be okay? Why should his future be hopeful when he snuffed out nine precious lives? These questions are difficult, and without Christian faith, the answers would likely make forgiveness look utterly foolish.
The confounding forgiveness of the Charleston Nine families has led some to ignore its motivation and propose their own. Some of those who expressed righteous indignation at the disgusting right-wing attempts to invent motivations for Roof—rather than accept his explicitly racist statements and beliefs as his motivation—now refuse to take the family members seriously when they say it is a sincere, thought-out expression of their faith.
Hanna Rosin, for instance, seemed to suggest that black forgiveness was a legacy of white supremacy. Others turned the conversation to whether or not forgiveness provided an easy out to the public, allowing whites to move on from the systemic injustices and racist doctrines that permeate much of our society. By the end of Roxane Gay’s op-ed in The New York Times, the autonomous, self-initiated (to our knowledge) motivation of the black family members was replaced with uncited references to “demands for forgiveness” from “white people,” and a universal declaration that “black people forgive because we need to survive.”
Is it really that difficult to imagine that these families forgave for reasons other than to please white bystanders or advance a social cause? If the family members identified their forgiveness with their faith, is it right to insist that their willingness to forgive is a result of their race? They did not forgive to express the values of their race or to represent the character of their country, but to be faithful to their God. (To their great credit, journalists like Chris Hayes and Ta-Nehisi Coates, though amazed and uncomprehending of the act of forgiveness—like many of us—have taken the faith of the family members seriously. Many others have done the same, across the political spectrum, including people like political commentator Jamal Simmons.)