My Story: Critical Forgiveness: Relationships, trust and our responsibilities to community

Dr. Tyson Marsh
Dr. Tyson Marsh

Despite the collective experience we have all been through in the past three years, the experience has not been equal, which can severely limit the possibility of collective understanding and action directed at dismantling inequitable structures. We still have relationships, however, and the possibility of relationships offers the promise of building those relationships to promote trust and collective understanding — and to act.

We must preserve our relationships. My relationship with the world is deeply shaped by my identity as a Black, Indigenous, Muslim descendant of enslaved peoples. Those relationships, individually and collectively, have significantly shaped my life’s journey, decisions I have made and possibilities I can imagine. Yet I hold privilege.

We are all at different stages of understanding the complexities of our relations with one another within and across the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, socioeconomic status, faith, spirituality and other experienced identities, largely due to our privileged identities. Further complicating these relations are the systems, structures and institutions that these identities play out in, along with their foundations in white supremacy and heteropatriarchy. This is where trust comes in.

Through trust, and building relationships through trust, we can come to communicate and share story. In acknowledging the value and rigor of story and the voices and experiential knowledge of minoritized communities, we can come to new understandings, develop new plans of action to realize our full humanity and right our relations with all living things.

Relationship is inevitably damaged due to evil acts and transgressions, and to maintain relationships and our relations, the only solution is to find new possibilities in forgiveness.

In acknowledging the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., it is as if his understanding of forgiveness was written for our times. It is difficult to even think about the notion of forgiveness against the backdrop of ongoing global inequities and injustices made transparent and exacerbated by the pandemic, racial violence, political violence, white supremacist violence and fascism, legislated violence aimed at women and trans folks, sexual violence, and I could go on.

But Dr. King deeply understood the value of forgiveness:

“Forgiveness does not mean ignoring what has been done or putting a false label on an evil act. It means rather that the evil act no longer remains as a barrier to the relationship.” [Dr. King as cited by philosopher Helgard Marhdt in 2022.]

In other words, to forgive is not to forget but rather to repair or restore the relationship and rebuild trust, so that the evil or transgression is not committed again. But what is so revolutionary about forgiveness?

Philosopher and author Hannah Arendt in 1998 argued that forgiving is “the only reaction which does not merely re-act but acts anew and unexpectedly, unconditioned by the act which provoked it and therefore freeing from its consequences.” Here the act of forgiveness is a choice as opposed to a reaction to a transgression.

Forgiveness, then, can be liberating and offers the possibility to repair relationship so that we may more clearly see one another’s humanity and ensure that future transgressions against our humanity and that of others does not occur. When these transgressions continue, however, a more critical approach is required.

Inspired by Dr. King, and in an effort to seek stronger personal and spiritual connections with the world I interact with on a daily basis in and outside of schools, I have been intentional in reflecting on the idea of forgiveness. Though I have struggled with the concept, through work with Dr. Joanne Marshall, one of my thought partners both spiritual and academic, we have come to a more critical understanding of forgiveness as “a cognitive choice or emotional change toward healing relationships after injustice has occurred while considering the power and privilege of those involved,” as we described it in a 2022 article.

In articulating this understanding of critical forgiveness, inspired by Dr. King’s work, we have come to some interesting insights in relation to forgiveness in its more critical form that I would like to share here, in remembrance of Dr. King’s legacy and his commitment to holding power accountable.

First and foremost, the problem with forgiveness is when it is followed by inaction and the failure to correct transgressive behavior. The transgressor is not always just an individual but often an individual working on behalf of or within an institution. It is our responsibility as members of a community to hold that individual and the institution accountable because collectively we all deserve better — and, out of love for our community and its individual members (there is no love for institutions), we work to help the transgressor repair their humanity, as our humanity is connected.

Though the institutions we engage and interact with on a daily basis often offer commitments to diversity (even if only performatively), forgiveness is about holding people accountable, which is also of course a power relationship rooted in race, gender, sexuality, ability, socioeconomic status and other identity constructs. While we struggle to create spaces within these institutions to carve out a space for ourselves, we often leave our spirituality and faith at the door, or at least keep quiet about it.

Understandings of forgiveness, however, are often through faith-based and spiritual identities. If we make no space for our spiritual selves within the contexts of institutions and communities, there is little hope for engaging whole opportunities for understanding and making sense of forgiveness when it is called for. We must be whole in engaging in this work, and we cannot be if we silence our faith and spirituality in the broadest sense, as they are central frames of reference in interpreting and being in the world.

To reiterate, our identities place us in different relationships with the communities and institutions we engage with on a daily basis, and those identities, privileged or minoritized, are rooted in inequitable power structures. When a transgression occurs, it is imperative that we take power into account.

A helpful strategy, from my experience, is to be intentional in centering the voices and experiential knowledge of those who have been transgressed against. I have seen institutions place the onus of healing on the community that has been transgressed against, as we have witnessed time and time again across college campuses in relation to the racial reckoning around anti-Black violence in 2020. This serves to silence and disempower Black students, staff and faculty, as anti-Black violence and trauma is consumed but no action is taken. We must hold our institutions accountable to action, not statements about performative values that are never acted upon. Without action, there can be no forgiveness.

Additionally, it will serve us well to acknowledge that the power structures we engage across community and institutions will always work to divide and conquer already minoritized voices across identity constructs of race, gender, sexuality, ability, socioeconomic status, etc. That is how power structures maintain themselves. As such the wisdom produced by generations of Black feminist scholars, mothers, sisters, daughters and activists can be insightful in helping us understand these power structures from an intersectional lens. We must understand how power structures intersect and work to reproduce one another via structures such as racism, ableism and heteropatriarchy, to name a few. This way, we can collectively stop fighting for the scraps thrown to the floor and see how we are entitled to a full meal at the table. To be concise, forgiveness always requires understanding.

Finally, though we all move through and experience the world as a result of our identities, with a little critical reflection we can come to understand how our identities inform the choices we make and the opportunities we have. We must step outside of ourselves, understand our respective privileges, and use what power and agency we have to disrupt those power structures that impact our hopes, possibilities and, most importantly, our ability to dream of alternative futures.

With enough critical reflection, we will inevitably come to the realization that the power structures of white supremacy, heteropatriarchy and ableism impact us all in dehumanizing ways. Forgiveness can never be an option if the transgressor continues to deny the transgressed of their humanity, dehumanizing themselves in the process.

Dr. Tyson E.J. Marsh is associate professor in the School of Educational Studies. Growing up in Eastern Washington, he said, his education was void of the experiences of his community, and he didn’t see himself in the curriculum. He became an educator to provide young people from minoritized communities with a different experience and to teach future educators to do the same.

By Tyson E.J. Marsh

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