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Forgiveness Without Accountability Keeps Us Trapped


Forgiveness Without Accountability Keeps Us Trapped

 Jul 14, 2023

Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory & The Apartheid Museum 

I knew visiting South Africa would present many opportunities to learn about the activists, dissenters, and disrupters that worked tirelessly to end apartheid. Even more so, I knew Nelson Mandela would be essential to that legacy. At the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory and the Apartheid Museum are replicas of the prison cell he was incarcerated for 18 years on Robben Island. Having not yet visited the sight, I walked in these replicas with a feeling of, dare I say, anger. Because directly across from the replica at the Centre of Memory are photographs and stories of the ways his fight for justice sacrificed his relationship with his family. Several panels detailing his life highlighted the ways the “liberation struggle had become Mandela’s life and the ANC his family,” and throughout his quest for freedom, he sacrificed “domestic life to the struggle.” During his imprisonment, he lost his mother, a son, and intimate relationships with his family. His family had to endure threats, violence, and more because, by choice or not, they were also thrown into this fight with him. Yet, there were several moments where I read that he wasn’t bitter after his incarceration and how forgiving Madiba was to those who stripped so much from his life. I wrestled with this.  I wrestled with this for two reasons, and I use questions to ground my reflections: (1) I could not help but ask the question, what will the fight for freedom cost us? Cost me? (2) What would happen in our movements for social transformation and racial justice if we did not forgive? 


What is the cost of pursuing social transformation? 

Knowing that so many of our freedom fighters sacrificed time with those they love for a future that we have not seen unsettles me a little. And it’s for, possibly, selfish reasons. It has me considering the sacrifices we make daily to ensure future generations will not have to bare the pain of oppression as we do. How many nights have I missed at our dinner table working to ensure education is the catalyst for social transformation? How often have I had to disappoint my nieces because Tati is too busy? How many times do I lay awake afraid that one IG post will piss off a white supremacist enough that I get hate mail to my family home? I sat in front of those images, and my soul whispered, “Is it worth it?” 

[image description: photo of a quote from Nelson Mandela from his unpublished autobiographical manuscript written on Robben Island in 1976 taken at the Nelson Mandela Centre for Memory that says, "I have often wondered whether a person is justified in neglecting his own families to fight for the opportunities of others."] 

The hopeful answer is “of course it is.” And maybe that is my response because many of our freedom fighters, both past and present, feel that there is no other option. They do not have the luxury of checking out of what is hurting us and our communities. Instead, they engage in a praxis of joy living and making. Embracing love in it’s fullest form pushing forward, and fighting for our collective liberation and freedom, they have shown us what it means to practice a discipline of hope. A hope that the actions they take today will continue to build upon previous movements and provide new paths for future movements to come. May we learn from their commitment and dedication. May we learn that there are some sacrifices that are made whether we want to make them or not. 


Should a forgiveness framework be incorporated into our movements for liberation? 

During one of our evening indabas, we discussed whether forgiveness as a framework should be incorporated into our movements for liberation. I offered this question: Where has forgiveness really gotten us? What would have happened if Madiba was bitter? Would Afrikans, a small population in South Africa, still hold so much power? From a US context, what would happen if we held a posture of unforgiveness in our movements? Maybe those police officers do not deserve forgiveness from the families that have been traumatized and hurt. What would change for us? How would we move differently? I know, I know, “but Ashley, isn’t that the Christian thing to do?” Eh. That’s not my theology. And truthfully, could it be that this problematic Christian theological framing has us constantly excusing the actions of our oppressors simply because they “apologized?” How many times have we heard that forgiveness is more for ourselves than for the person who harmed us? You can keep that. Forgiveness without accountability and change keeps us trapped in a cycle of harm and self-deprivation. Forgiveness without accountability is complicit in our erasure and denies the beauty of our humanity. I’m good on that, beloved. 

Some of you will read this and quote Matthew 18:21-35 where Jesus teaches his people that we should forgive “seventy times seven.” Yet many of these teachings are about interpersonal relationships. Quarrels between families, a prodigal son, a woman caught in adultery, and more. In Luke 17: 3, Jesus teaches us that forgiveness only comes if a person repents and changes their ways. They must be accountable for their actions and do something about the harm they have caused. Forgiveness, then, is not freely given. Additionally, these persons are not institutions, governments, or empires. When Jesus is on the cross experiencing the harshest form of state-sanctioned violence, he says, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Again, forgive the people for their ignorance, not the empire killing his body.  I say all of that to acknowledge that these governments, empires, institutions, and more do not deserve our forgiveness unless they have taken full accountability for the harm they have caused. Our forgiveness is earned when they develop and uphold policies that correct their actions. Until then, we will hold the line, and they can continue on their path to hell. 


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