Forgiveness at What Cost? NYU Silver Faculty Respond to the Charleston Church Massacre

Associate Professor Alma Carten and Clinical Assistant Professor Linda Lausell Bryant penned an op-ed reflecting in the aftermath of the shootings at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston last month by a white supremacist.


Black people have historically drawn strength and solace from their religion and the church. Dr. Andrew Billingsley, the African American scholar, writes with eloquent authority on the significance of the Black church in his book Mighty Like a River, the Black Church and Social Reform (Oxford University Press, 1999.) He has referred to the Black church as the only institution in the African American community that has not been recreated in the image of whites. His research illuminates the role of religion in contributing to the resiliency that has allowed blacks as a people to overcome the various forms of terrorism they have endured over the nation’s history that have been necessary to sustain doctrines of white supremacy. This resiliency, and the power of the teachings of the Black church was poignantly illustrated as the family members of the nine victims who were slain in the Charleston, South Carolina church massacre, almost without exception, forgave the individual who carried out this horrific act of terrorism.

The theme of forgiveness has been the predominating message in the media, and we witnessed its transformative effects as the response of Charleston residents and the nation ran in total opposition to the shooter’s intent that the killings would be the catalyst for a race war. At the same time that religion and the Black church are acknowledged for buffering blacks against the full effects of racism, we must not lose sight of the trauma that white racism, whether it is real or perceived, can have on the mental health of blacks. There is increasing evidence that when unexpressed, the effects may be far more devastating, and for blacks lay the foundation for future behaviors symptomatic of post-traumatic stress syndrome. As we process the events of the Charleston murders, we need to examine more closely the toll of such fortitude on the human psyche when, by any measure, an understandable and justifiable human impulse to a terrorist act of such magnitude is to respond in kind, and not to do so can in fact be very costly. Dr. Alvin Poussaint, Harvard psychiatrist, draws on the subliminal meaning of religion to the black experience in his book, of the same title as the Negro Spiritual, Lay My Burden Down: Suicide and the Mental Health Crisis among African-Americans (Scribner, 2000) in explaining the rising suicide rates expressed in various forms of self destructive behaviors of young black males who may envision the afterlife as a better place. Terrie M. Williams, a clinical social worker and the author of Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We're Not Hurting (Scribner, 2008) uses powerful personal narratives of blacks from all walks of life to illustrate the high toll of hiding the pain associated with the black experience on mental health. Dr. Joy DeGruy, researcher and scholar, developed “post traumatic slave syndrome” as a theory for explaining the effects of unresolved trauma on the behaviors of blacks that is transmitted from generation to generation.

Yes, we should laude the humanity of the response of Emanuel AME Church, that is itself deeply rooted in the black experience. Beyond admiring the resilience and grace it takes to respond with such humanity in the face of such inhumanity, we must avoid the normalization of what may well be unique to members of a church community devoted to living a life in Christ whose central message was one of forgiveness. Nor should their act of forgiveness be taken as affirmation that we live in a color blind post racial society, and see this solely as the work of one pathetically deranged individual. This view supports the continuing denial of the far ranging virulent effects of racism in American society, and ignores what is known about the link between white racism and mental health outcomes for blacks. As we continue to reflect and learn in the aftermath of the Charleston tragedy it is far more prudent to ask what is the toll of such expressed fortitude on the human psyche. Although laudable, such a response may also be very costly.


The authors Dr. Alma J. Carten and Dr. Linda Lausell Bryant are both full time faculty at the New York University Silver School of Social Work. Dr. Carten has conducted research and published on African Americans and Mental Health, and culturally competent practice with people of color. Dr. Lausell Bryant has developed and managed youth violence prevention programs, served as principal investigator of a federally funded violence prevention demonstration project and published on spirituality as an overlooked dimension of youth development.