Finding Mercy in Merciless Times

By David Kyuman Kim

“We forgive him.” “I have no animosity in my heart for him.” This is what the family of Robert Godwin Sr. said to Anderson Cooper on CNN two days after Steve Stephens murdered their father on Easter and broadcasted the awful act on Facebook. The shock of seeing a murder on social media was only surpassed by the moral witness of a grieving family saying “We forgive.” The expressions of forgiveness and mercy would be astonishing arguably at any time, but in this American moment, one rife with animosity, hatred, and the dramatic resurgence in racially-motivated crimes, forgiveness comes as a shock to an unforgiving system.

After all, Godwin’s murder is the latest in what has come to feel like a relentless spree of violence. The white supremacist James Jackson travels from Baltimore to Manhattan looking for a black man to kill. He makes good on his promise by murdering Timothy Caughman with a sword in broad daylight. Jackson readily confessed to police after his arrest that he killed Mr. Caughman as “practice” for a racist murder spree he was planning. A few weeks earlier Adam Puriton shouts “Get out of my country!” and then shoots and kills Srinivas Kuchibhotla, an Asian-American engineer, in a bar in Olathe, Kansas.

These are just a few of the spectacularly awful hate crimes we know of since Donald Trump won the Presidency on November 9th, 2016“ — “11/9,” a day of infamy that many felt strong correlations to 9/11. Many of us were left to wonder how the merciless rhetoric of the campaign trail would find hold from the White House. With the murders of Mr. Kuchibhotla, Mr. Caughman, Mr. Godwin Sr., now we know.

These murders are amongst dozens of hate crimes perpetrated since Donald Trump won the presidential election. Indeed, Since Trump’s astonishing ascension to the presidency, hate crimes against Americans of the south Asian diaspora, Muslims, Sikhs, Jews, and Latinos especially Mexican-Americans have intensified with an arguably unsurprising yet inarguable persistence and purpose, all while the pathological commitment to anti-Black racism has not abated.

A recent study by the Southern Poverty Law Center confirms that the number of hate groups rose for a second year in a row in 2016, with the most dramatic growth in anti-Muslim hate groups — from 24 in 2015 to 101 in 2016. Even within the first month after the election the SPLC collected 1,094 reports of hate crimes. Radical right wing groups have become enlivened by the election of Trump, and why wouldn’t they feel energized by a President who wields his executive power to ban Muslims and Mexicans from our borders and feels justified to do so in the base and twinned convictions of Islamophobia and capitalist-fueled xenophobia?

Trump himself fell into office because of the Democratic Party’s preferential option for whiteness, evidenced most glaringly by Hilary Clinton’s choice of Tim Kaine as her running mate. To add insult to injury, the Democrats took for granted the votes of the communities of color that make up what Steve Phillips calls in his bestseller Brown is the New White “the new American majority.” These communities of color felt uninspired and unrepresented in the last election which resulted in historically low turnout at the polls in the states like Michigan and Florida that Hillary Clinton lost by the narrowest of margins. Taking the support of the “new American majority” for granted effectively amounted to disenfranchisement for these communities of color — an abandonment of voting rights and culture. And disenfranchisement, as evidenced by the unleashing of white supremacist hate and xenophobic policies, amounts to political hate.

To wit, the hatred we know as racism was the dark wave that surged underneath the cries of “make America great again.” Trump’s campaign slogan has used American nationalism as a cloak to cover and subsequently legitimate white hate and violence.

So what hope does our democracy have in the face of this American winter of hate? What will save America from itself, from its pathological commitment to white supremacy and racism? The short and long answer is love. Love — by which I mean the values and practices of compassion and generosity, forgiveness and mercy, care and understanding — is an underutilized natural resource for our democracy. It is the call of solidarity you hear at rallies for Black Lives Matter and in the massive crowds arrayed by the Women’s March. Love is the surprising yet welcome response to violence.

We might begin to counter what can feel like the relentless tide of hate by recalling that the Godwin’s statements of loving mercy are the not the first of our times. Recall the arraignment hearing of Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who murdered eight members of Emmanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, SC who had welcome Roof into their prayer meeting. At the hearing, family members of the murder victims addressed Roof directly and spoke words that would stun the nation: “I forgive you.” This statement of mercy and of witness to love unsettled moral partisans on all sides. For those positively moved by these words, as well as for those shocked at the mere idea of forgiving this hate-filled murderer, the loving mercy performed by these families was difficult to comprehend. Why? Because for admirers and detractors alike, witnessing ready and swift forgiveness in the immediate wake of the heinous murder of loved ones was both awesome and awful, admired yet incomprehensible. It was a shock to the system and to the culture.

Ohio recounted their forgiving mercy to the media, which is to say, to a public audience. The aggrieved families of Mother Emmanuel issued their forgiveness directly to the self-confessed murderer Roof. Some criticized the Charleston families as simply performing the act rather than actually forgiving Roof in their hearts with sincerity and integrity. Perhaps these critics were incredulous because the very idea of forgiving one responsible for the death of a loved one is beyond comprehension, beyond belief. Such is the cynicism of our times. And yet such is also the power of a defiant faith that insists that the world as lived is insufficient and that we can do and be better.

Such is hope. Such is the power of acts of love. Such is the need of our democracy. Love won’t trump hate. But love may very well be what saves us.

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