On Forgiveness and Repentance

Take a deep breath, dear reader. Why did my last blog post have to be so explicit about childhood trauma?

Because I’m committed to making the world a better place for the teenagers who are now going through what grown-ups spent my teenage years with their eyes closed, pretending couldn’t possibly be happening around them. Because when adults tell me now, as an adult, “I’m sorry that happened to you,” or “I’m sorry I did that to you,” I want to see their verbal “sorry” backed with observable, meaningful action to prevent those harms from happening again. Faith without works is dead.

I don’t tell the stories of my childhood trauma because I’m unhealed; I tell these stories because I have done the work to heal, and I have come to realize that my silence helps no one but abusers. I tell my stories out loud to take away your plausible deniability that this is happening in your own county, your own city, your own communities. I tell my stories so maybe another 11 year old, hurt by the same unjust and abusive systems that began as slave patrols, which we’ve refused to dismantle and re-culture for the past 400+ years, won’t have to tell their stories of childhood abuse 23 years from now.

My mother says if I’ve truly forgiven her, I would let the past go and not bring it up again. But there is another 11 year old to whom my past is still happening. Forgiveness doesn’t mean pretending the harms never happened. Forgiveness is agreeing to work through the mess of repairing the damage rather than holding onto anger about the harm that’s been done. You do not have to be physically present with your abuser while they undertake the work of repentance, to forgive them. Repentance is agreeing to work through the mess of repairing the damage you’ve contributed to, refraining from perpetuating that harm against anyone else again, and taking a stand against allowing that harm to be committed against others again.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean folks of African descent whose grandparents endured chattel slavery should “forget” the harms white people have done to them. Forgiveness means they give us the chance to make reparations and repent.

Repentance means white folks step up to help heal the damage we’ve caused, and stand up against allowing that harm to be committed again. Repentance requires white folks to acknowledge, “I can’t change the past, but I’m going to make this active effort to ensure this harm doesn’t continue to be the next generation’s future any longer.” Repentance means denouncing mistreatment of humans; holding our elected representatives accountable for abuses of the 13th Amendment’s exception clause and its role in the for-profit prison system; holding our local county jails accountable for their worker release program’s failure to pay minimum wage to shackled, enslaved laborers who are disproportionately Black, Indigenous, and/or Latine; and cultivating community resources that divert our neighbors away from prisons, drugs, and crimes against one another, proactively.

Forgiveness from Native American peoples doesn’t mean they stop talking about their experience of colonization ever again just because we feel bad and want to forget our grandparents ever started it. Forgiveness means Native American peoples agree to let white people put our apology into action and contribute to their collective healing. Their forgiveness is an opportunity for us to stop perpetuating harms, and put our sincere desire for a better future into motion by humbling ourselves and offering our energy to restore and rebuild what we’ve unjustly taken from them.

Repentance means we show up for Native Americans in the supportive ways they ask us to, without defensiveness, and take our white discomfort about this to our therapists instead of unleashing our guilt-driven feelings onto people we’re supposed to be making amends to. Repentance means honoring every existing Treaty, giving back custody over lands to the tribes from whom they’ve been taken, investing as much in the search for missing and murdered Indigenous people as we’ve invested in Jon Benet Ramsey and Gabby Petito, and shifting ourselves to non-fossil-fuel sources of energy that do not require white-owned companies to encroach on sacred or Treaty-protected lands held by Native American peoples. If you are not showing up in some way to end the genocide, you do not repent of the genocide, and you are contributing to the ongoing genocide.

Repentance is agreeing to work through the mess of repairing the damage you’ve contributed to, refraining from perpetuating that harm against anyone else again, and taking a stand against allowing that harm to be committed against others again.

I name abuses that I’ve personally experienced because it’s a way to offer everyone who has been complicit in abuse an opportunity to repent. When I’ve made these offers in private, they’ve been dismissed. So now I make the offer publicly, before a wide audience. When people of color take a knee, or protest in the streets, or even just quietly shake their head at me while my white-culture-trained mouth is moving again, I am grateful to them for expressing to me, in the best way they know how, that there is more opportunity for me to repent of my ways of thinking, of doing, and of being that keep causing them harm. I also am sorry that their less-public, less-attention-grabbing efforts fell on un-listening ears for so long.

My mother doesn’t want to hear the opportunity I keep offering her to have a relationship with her own offspring, if she would please, please, please just repent of the abuses she emptily says she’s “sorry” for. This is as simple as not attempting to silence me or deny my identity, and just doing something — literally anything constructive at all — to keep the same abuses from happening again to other children like me. But, abusers take the opportunity to repent as if it’s an attack on their personal character. Abusers want us to pretend the harms never happened, and maintain their comfort at all costs.

Why wouldn’t everyone want to repent and be forgiven by those we’ve wronged? Why does anyone say, “You should talk to your therapist instead of writing online. Not everyone needs to know about the family’s dirty laundry,” as if my therapist can do the work of ending child abuse in your neighborhood for you? As if my therapist can make reparations or call your legislators for you? As if my therapist can show up in November to hold your nose and vote Democrat on your behalf?

As if the point of airing my trauma-stained laundry is for me to feel better, rather than for you to learn something new, discuss these learnings with your neighbors, and do better?

Take a deep breath. We have an opportunity to do better for one another, starting today, here and now. What will you do with the opportunity?

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