Forgiving Hate Crimes: The Case of Dylann Roof

Guest post by Luke Brunning and Per-Erik Milam

Luke Brunning is British Academy postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Oxford. He researches topics in ethics and moral psychology.

Per-Erik Milam is postdoctoral fellow with the Gothenburg Responsibility Project at the University of Gothenburg. He writes on forgiveness and moral responsibility.

On 17 June 2015, Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old white supremacist, murdered 9 people at the Emmanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina. On 15 December 2016, Roof was convicted of the murders and in January was sentenced to death.

 

This act of racially motivated terrorism stood out even in a year of news dominated by unjustified killings of people of colour. However, the event also received widespread attention because of what happened in the days that followed Roof’s arrest. Family members of some of the slain parishioners publicly forgave him for killing their loved ones.

 

Their decision to forgive has been controversial. One dimension of the controversy is moral. Some commentators have praised the victims for their generosity and grace. Others have expressed concern that forgiving white racism sends the wrong message and perpetuates a narrative of unlimited black forgiveness. Another dimension is conceptual, with some commentators suggesting that the very nature of forgiveness precludes forgiving in such circumstances.

 

In this post we consider both dimensions. We suggest that there are unrecognised obstacles and limits to forgiveness, that these obstacles can be seen most clearly in the case of hate crimes, and that they are present in the case of Dylann Roof.

 

Forgiveness is not just a judgment or a feeling; it’s a practice with the aim of resolving a moral conflict, typically between a victim and a wrongdoer. Moreover, forgiveness is part of a larger practice of holding one another responsible. While the details can differ, the steps are familiar:

 

  1. Offence: A wrongs B (e.g. Elaine tells a racist joke at a party)
  2. Reaction: B blames A (e.g. Salman is upset with her)
  3. Response: A responds to B’s blame (e.g. Elaine apologises, or justifies her behaviour)
  4. Conclusion: B responds to A’s response (e.g. Salman forgives her, or refuses to forgive)

 

Forgiveness is just one possible resolution. Conflicts aren’t always resolved with forgiveness; and, unfortunately, some conflicts are never resolved. Obstacles to forgiveness can impede every step of the resolution process. One can want to forgive and try to forgive, but fail to do so; and one can forgive ineffectively or unsuccessfully. Those who tried to forgive Dylann Roof may have faced various obstacles.

 

We often think of forgiving as up to us and open to anyone, but it can be difficult even in the best circumstances. Wanting to forgive is often not enough. It may take time and effort to overcome your anger, sadness, or frustration; and sometimes you just can’t do it.

 

For many people, however, circumstances are far from ideal. Both the offender and the context of the offence can be obstacles to forgiveness and both are visible in the Dylann Roof case. The offender can impede forgiveness because they control an important step in the practice of holding responsible (Step 3). For example, if Elaine responds to Salman’s blame by becoming dismissive, defensive, or denying that she’s done anything wrong, then she gives him no reason to forgive her. This is exactly the position that Roof’s victims are in. He hasn’t apologised or shown any remorse for his actions. To the contrary, he’s said that the massacre was necessary and suggested that he would do it again. In doing so, Roof has rejected their attempts to forgive and denied them a reason they might have had to forgive.

 

The context of an offence can also be an obstacle to forgiveness because it shapes the entire process of holding one another responsible. This idea is familiar to those who think about hate crime. Hate crimes are uniquely harmful in virtue of the prejudice that they express and the circumstances of oppression in which they’re expressed. The circumstances that make hate crimes possible as a distinct type of wrongdoing are also obstacles to forgiveness. Their influence can be seen at each of the four steps.

 

The circumstances of oppression amplify the harm of an offence and worse offences are harder to forgive, especially when motivated by prejudice and hatred (Step 1). Crucially, though, these circumstances shape everything downstream of the wrongdoing, too. A society in which one can be the victim of a hate crime is also a society in which one’s response to being victimised—anger, frustration, disappointment—will itself be shaped by oppressive norms and the seeming inevitability of such attacks (Step 2). It is a society in which the anger one feels in response is more likely to be ignored, doubted, or criticised, both by the offender and by society (Step 3). And it is a society in which, if one does try to forgive, and even if one announces that one has, the attempt may not be effective (Step 4). A society that dismisses one’s blame, can also dismiss one’s forgiveness. And a society that expects forgiveness, especially unconditional forgiveness of terrible crimes, drains it of its power in the same way that a society of liars drains promises of their power. By systematically legitimising and normalising violence, hatred, discrimination, and other dimensions of oppression, a society can systematically undermine the ability of the oppressed to forgive. The result is a classic bait and switch. Forgiveness is seen as a powerful response by victims, especially to acts of hatred. But the same circumstances that create the need for such a powerful response—the circumstances that breed prejudice, hatred, and violence—can rob it of its force.

 

The controversy surrounding those who forgave Dylann Roof betrays the complexities inherent in the practice of forgiveness. His actions still resonate painfully both for the families of his victims and for those who recognise the persisting threat of racially motivated violence. While we (the authors) occupy a position of privilege and are far removed from the experiences of Roof’s forgivers, we’ve argued that the practice of forgiveness is not exempt from the distortions and burdens of power. The circumstances of oppression can make forgiveness incredibly difficult, perhaps even impossible, and to find oneself in such a position is to be doubly harmed.

 

We are not suggesting that black Americans can’t forgive white wrongdoers. Rather we’re suggesting that members of any oppressed group, face additional obstacles to forgiving. These victims are more likely to encounter offenders who give them no reason to forgive, reject their forgiveness, or co-opt it. And they are more likely to face a society that misunderstands, ignores, or denies the deeper significance of racial violence. All of this is true in the Dylann Roof case. If we’re right, then forgiveness is not a panacea. It cannot be viewed in isolation from its broader communicative context. If we praise forgiveness as a response to wrongdoing, as many do, we should also actively combat the influences that undermine the ability of some to forgive freely. Forgiveness in the aftermath of hate crime will only resonate if society is receptive. At present, as hate crime, racism, and bigotry are in the ascendency, forgiveness may become harder precisely as people need it most.

 

The authors would like to thank Allison Don and Kathryn Norlock for their comments on an earlier draft of this post.

6 comments on “Forgiving Hate Crimes: The Case of Dylann Roof

  1. TayJayZizzles

    Sometimes forgiving means becoming the bigger person and expressing a moral power over the wrongdoer. I believe that just because you are not given a reason to forgive does not mean that you should not forgive them. Forgiveness is a free gift to be given to show that the wrongdoer does not have the power to make you feel angry, sad, or another negative feelings. In the case of the victim’s families, they have expressed forgiveness to show that they will not be kept down by these negativities. Many of these people have also expressed their forgiveness because they feel that there will be retribution in the end. Roof murdered people of the Christian faith who believe in a kind of unconditional love. This love can equate to an unconditional forgiveness. They believe that because they are Saved and forgiven, they should forgive those who do them wrong. It is an expression of love and of their moral power. I do think that people of the African American community do have to forgive more because they are almost socially expected to do so. There have been many wrongs done to them as a community from slavery to Jim Crow Laws to other forms of modern discrimination; however, they have not been given the chance to have proper justice. It’s a kind of social injustice that has permeated our culture for so long that it is hard to completely flush out. I believe that these little signs of forgiveness will show that they are willing to forgive those who harm them even if they don’t “deserve” it. It is about being the one with the more moral power than the one that is seen as being right.

    Reply
    1. Per-Erik

      Thanks for this comment! I’m sympathetic to the idea of forgiveness being a free gift and also to it being an exercise of moral power. But I think that, even on this view, the circumstances of oppression can make it harder for a person to forgive or forgive effectively. I feel like it’s harder to give a gift to someone who doesn’t want it and rejects your reason for giving it. For example, Roof said his reason for committing the murders was to increase hate between whites and blacks. And, if society expects you to give the gift, then the meaning of giving it is severely undermined. Likewise, I think one’s moral power is diminished if it is constrained and undermined in these ways.

      Reply
  2. CBehmes

    I do not exactly agree with your argument that Roof’s position that he would commit this crime again if given the opportunity could completely negate the opportunity for the victims (or in this case, their families) to forgive him for his actions. For many conceptions of forgiveness, such as those expressed by Bishop Butler, Macalister Bell, Claudia Card and Margaret Walker, repentance by the offender is not required for the victim to be able to offer forgiveness. Although repentance can be offered when an offender realizes what they have done or the harm they have caused; repentance as a requirement can muddy the situation. In the case of Roof and the victim’s families, I don’t think they can wait for him to repent because he believes his crime was called for and the right thing to do. For this reason, if the victim’s families choose to forgive, they must do so knowing that they are forgiving an unrepentant man. Luckily for these victims, to sincerely forgive is not based on Roof’s repentance. The members of Emmanuel AME who have forgiven have done so by renouncing blame for Roof and no longer resenting him (either for who he is as a person or for the actions he committed). This aligns with their Christian faith, which like TayJayZizzles mentioned, involves the belief that because they are forgiven for their sins so must they forgive others for sinning against them.

    I do, however, like the points you brought up about how a society that perpetuates hate crime that also demands forgiveness but then questions the sincerity of the forgiveness is detrimental to the fundamental ideas about forgiveness. Unfortunately, our society is one in which crime against others exists and forgiveness is sometimes seen as a requirement of the victim, rather than a gift the victim has the right to give or withhold. Until our society can stomp out oppression and wrongdoing, forgiveness by those who are in the minority will always be difficult and yet seemingly expected. Even if nothing is being done to stop the actions being done that cause the need for forgiveness in the first place. The Roof case is a perfect example of this and you explained this facet of forgiveness in a way that needed to be said.

    Reply
    1. Per-Erik

      Thanks for your thoughts on this post! I think you and TayJayZizzles are both pointing to important features of our concept of forgiveness. I don’t have a complete answer to your point of disagreement, but here are two thoughts. First, even if repentance isn’t necessary, the fact that the offender still endorses their action and would do it again, must make it psychologically difficult to forgive. Second, even if repentance isn’t necessary to forgive, forgiveness is (in my mind, at least) fundamentally a response to the offender. Just as blaming is a response to the offender’s attitudes and actions, forgiving is a response to their attitudes and actions. If their attitudes and actions remain the same as those that prompted blame, then what is one responding to in forgiving? You mentioned that some people believe they must forgive, so maybe they’re responding not to the offender but to whatever grounds that moral imperative (e.g., God’s command). Or maybe they’re responding to some deeper goodness that they believe everyone has, even when their attitudes and actions say otherwise.

      Reply
  3. Nick

    I can’t see why I would want to forgive somebody for killing my family at church. More likely I would want revenge on him. If he didn’t receive the death penalty at trial, I would probably be inclined to arrange a very painful death for him in jail. I would be willing to spend quite a bit of time and money to revenge my family and I doubt I could move on until the score was settled.

    Reply
  4. Heather

    I agree with your assertion that oppressed people groups face additional challenges to forgiving wrongs. Historical context matters. Forgiveness is much easier between equals. The United States has a long history of ideological racism of individuals as well as (and supported by) institutional racism. The thirteen and fourteen amendment might have freed slaves and made them citizens, but the extent to which they were carried out didn’t show evidence of remorse from the government. In the case of United States vs. Cruikshank (1876) the courts ruled that the fourteenth amendment could only prevent the state from violating citizens’ rights, but could not prevent individuals. This ruling overturned the only three convictions, of the 98 men indicated, of the Colfax Massacre in which 150 black men were killed. This is an early example of higher powers (the state) refusing to support the equality they claimed exists. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 didn’t fix the disproportionately high incarceration rate or more severe sentencing of black people. How can a system apologize? I’m not sure it can, but I believe it can improve. Part of improving that system is condemning injustice with tenacity recognizing that those wrongs aren’t isolated incidents but a trend of oppression.
    Far be it from me to tell someone to forgive or not to forgive, but when a member of an oppressed people group chooses to forgive a wrong doer, I believe we should ensure that there is a proper amount of indignation. Justice still needs to be brought even if victims have given up their personal resentment.

    Reply

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