“The tradition of forgiving was central to the civil rights movement, and it’s grounded in two things,” said the Rev. Jonathan L. Walton, a professor of Christian morals at Harvard and minister of its Memorial Church. “One cannot be held accountable for how others treat us, but we can be held accountable by God for how we treat others. So forgiveness and reconciliation are central to us. Particularly for Martin Luther King, it was not about defeating an enemy but defeating injustice by bringing people from opposing sides into beloved community.”
Some of those moments of reconciliation have been soul-stirring in their force. One thinks of former Gov. George C. Wallace of Alabama rolling his wheelchair into a reunion of Selma marchers in 1995 to renounce the segregationist beliefs that had defined his political career. Yet even if the offender never apologizes at all, black Christianity has repeatedly offered God’s grace in the all-too-real world.
“Forgiveness is just expected,” said the Rev. Douglas A. Slaughter, pastor of Second Baptist Church in Aiken, S.C. “Even as a child, we were not allowed to hate the racist but to hate racism, and to fight against it. We were taught ways to understand that the racist is more in need of understanding than we were. It’s just how you were raised.”