Join the Conversation on Forgiveness

Welcome to a periodic edition of My Weekly Resistance. 

We encourage you to have some conversations with family, friends, colleagues, neighbors…….

A couple of days ago, the four of us met to catch up on life and recent political events. After a bit, our conversation turned to the situation facing Virginia Governor Ralph Northam over the racist photos that appeared on his pages in his medical school yearbook. One of us raised this question: How should we understand (and act upon) the revelations of racist expressions and actions by key public figures in the white majority community. Should we demand that those who committed these ugly, misguided, hurtful actions be removed from public office? In essence, can or should such actions in one’s past be forgiven…and, if so, how?

The problem of owning up to our past actions and moving forward is one we all share as individuals. Given that the issues are long standing reflecting the embedded racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of oppression in our society, they continue to resurface among a wide swath including the supposedly liberal population.   So what is an excusable mistake and what isn’t?   What is a real change of heart, and what is the proper remedy? Can a tarnished leader – one who once claimed the moral high ground – continue to lead? How?

But the questions are not only about the one who has acted and the response of bystanders who look on (which we all were in this case) but also about the impact on those who are members of the group targeted by the words or actions.  We must also ask what they need to let go of the anger, the shame and/or hurt and move on.

We shared ideas and opinions and more questions arose:Are there actions that can be forgiven (but not condoned) and moved beyond and are there actions that cannot? What are the criteria for deciding such a question?   How would we know whether any expressed remorse or regret was sincere? What must be present to convince others of the sincerity of an apology?  Is remorse or regret enough? If not what else is needed?  What does it look like/sound like to take responsibility for what we have thought, said and done?  What, if anything, should we do to repair the harm?  What, if anything, are we obliged to do to prevent such harm by and to others in the future?

 We chatted, we listened, we pushed each other. And we complicated our thinking.

 We think it important for you and others to have similarly explicit conversations about race and equity, about gender and consent, about language and othering, about forgiveness.   These are challenging topics; they come “freighted” with privilege, ignorance, blindness, and the lived experiences of racism and other system-wide oppressions. We must all grapple with our mistakes and misunderstandings. And we need to reexamine our beliefs as we explore our own possibilities for growth, change and transformation.  We must all practice fearlessness even as we sometimes risk causing offense because we are not used to talking about these topics.

Because of these challenges, we at My Weekly Resistance think it’s vital that we be very intentional about how we talk with one another as we try to build some shared understanding and a sense that we are members of a community. 

We’d like to suggest that before you begin such conversations you think about following:

  1. Conversations among individuals of a shared race or ethnicity might be different from those among mixed groups of people. Keep in mind not only who is in the conversation but who is not present.

  2. Before beginning any “deep” conversation, make sure there is time and space for you and others to HAVE such a conversation. It might be over dinner. It might be over coffee. It probably shouldn’t be “in passing”.

  3. Agree to some simple norms for talking together. Your list might include not interrupting, not speechifying, listening to understand, having an open mind, disagreeing agreeably, being open to new learnings, speaking your own truth, listening with respect. You can find more guidelines here (

  4. There’s no need to come to agreement. Good and valuable “civic conversations” often make issues more complex because new perspectives have been brought to light. Use this conversation as a chance to learn, rather than “win!”

  5. Stop when anyone feels that they’ve gone about as far as they can go. This is the sort of conversation that can stop and start again later. Be open to that ambiguity.

  6. Enjoy the interactions, allow yourself to “sit” with discomfort, practice having an open mind. This is one of the foundational activities of a healthy and functioning democracy.