Pastor Johann Christoph Arnold is the author of Why Forgive? and a co-founder of Breaking the Cycle. Below we share two letters to the editor he has penned in response to the ongoing unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, following a grand jury’s decision not to indict a police officer in the shooting of an unarmed teenager.
Day 1:As predicted, the Ferguson grand jury decided not to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown. And as expected, chaos erupted and violence swept through the streets. The nation is watching fearfully, wondering how this will unfold. Michael Brown’s family is devastated and wants Wilson to be held accountable.
While all of this is understandable, this moment offers an opportunity to find a better way, one that will honor the memory of Michael Brown and bring peace to Ferguson.
For another perspective, see Dispatch from Ferguson by Eugene Rivers in Plough Quarterly No. 3.
South African novelist Alan Paton writes that if a crime has been done to you, there is only one way to recover, and that is to forgive. It is my experience working in public schools that forgiveness is the only thing that can break the cycle of violence. If this is true between children, how much more applicable is it for adults?
Darren Wilson should reach out to the family of Michael Brown and ask for forgiveness. The same needs to happen between the police department and the black community, to start rebuilding the trust that has been broken. Imagine if Officer Wilson would reach out and the family would accept his expression of remorse. Such an encounter would become a model for the entire world, wherever there are racial and ethnic tensions. It would show that violence need not always be countered with violence, but can be overcome with love, compassion, and forgiveness.
Our divided nation stands at a crossroads. From the president on down, we are assured that “the rule of law” has held the day. But where is the meaningful change we all hope for?
Many years ago, facing an equally polarized nation, another wartime president had a different vision. Abraham Lincoln sought not to assuage our fears, but rather redirected our national consciousness inward: “It is the duty of nations as well as of men…to confess their sins and transgressions, in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon.”
Who speaks with such clarity today? All of us – those in government and media, those who enact thoughtless criminality, and those who quickly seek to “move on” – must embark on a journey of reconciliation and forgiveness. If we don’t, we risk repeating the failures of history. But with such efforts, I have hope that Lincoln’s reassurance may yet ring true, “that the united cry of the nation will be heard on high and answered with blessings no less than the pardon of our national sins and the restoration of our now divided and suffering country.”