Nelson Johnson on Forgiveness


“My hope for Greensboro is that this horrific experience, this tragedy in the taking of five lives, can be transformed by the power of the Spirit, into a case where there is more generosity, and more justice, and more respect for the essence and the dignity of humankind.”  –Rev. Nelson Johnson

Reverend Nelson Johnson is the Executive Director of the Beloved Community Center  in Greensboro, North Carolina, and Pastor of Faith Community Church . With his wife Joyce, he was instrumental in encouraging the establishment of the first Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the United States.

Nearly 34 year ago, on November 3, 1979, Nelson was wounded when members of the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party attacked an anti-Klan march in the Morningside Homes in Greensboro, North Carolina.  The attackers shot to death five marchers and wounded ten others while news cameras recorded the event.  The leaders of the march were labor and community organizers who had been working to unionize  textile workers and improve their conditions.  They had also been confronting Klan activity publicly and calling for the Klan’s demise.

The attackers fled the scene. Nelson Johnson, who had been stabbed, was arrested for inciting to riot.  It was discovered that the Klan had the itinerary of the march, obtained through a police informant who was among the attackers.  Police who were to be escorts for the march were removed prior to the attack.

Subsequently, six of the attackers (out of several dozen) were brought to trial.  Twice they were acquitted by all-white juries, in spite of the video evidence. In 1985, a civil suit brought by survivors of the attack  found two Klansmen, three Nazis, two Greensboro police officers, and a police informant responsible  for wrongful death and for injuries to two victims.  In the aftermath of the shooting, the media narrative went from a portrayal of the Klan and Nazis attacking a legal parade to frequent and  erroneous references to a “shootout.”  Nelson and the other organizers were demonized and labeled.  Even before the event, the Mayor had referred to Johnson as “the most dangerous man in Greensboro.” In the years following the event, the collective trauma of the community remained unaddressed. Nelson experienced enormous isolation.

But something else began to happen as well.  In their book Ambassadors of Reconciliation Volume II (Orbis, 2009), Elaine Enns and Ched Myers quote Johnson as he recalls the impact of a conversation he had with a pastor who visited him in jail:  “His account of the prodigal son impacted me powerfully.  I identified with it and began reading the gospels.  I saw dimensions of Jesus I hadn’t noticed before, how he confronted people and challenged systems of oppression. Because church talk about crucifixion is overly theologized, I had never realized that the cross was a consequence of Jesus’ political resistance.  I wanted to know what sustained Jesus in his ministry, and how his sense of reality transcended the status quo.  He had a certain unshakeable confidence that while the things of our world may come and go, there is a greater force at work, and even death cannot bring it to an end.  I was comforted and felt called into this way of being.” (Enns and Myers, p. 140)

Nelson went to seminary and then into community ministry.  It was during this time that his calling led him to take bold steps on the paths of truth, reconciliation, and forgiveness. In this video, he tells the story of initiating a visit with the Grand Dragon of the Klan, Virgil Griffin, and the frankness of their conversation. Later, American Nazi member Ronald Wayne Wood reached out to Johnson in an effort to be reconciled  to the family of Jim Waller, whom Wood had killed.  Johnson arranged the meeting with Signe and Alex Waller.  Johnson’s pastoral care was a powerful agent of healing not only for Wood but for Johnson himself.

I am particularly struck by the way Nelson Johnson speaks about forgiveness: “I think forgiveness is often confused in the way it is theologically talked about. So I understand it as having accepted that I am loved by God and I am very far from perfect–that I carry all these things in me–and that the same God that loves me loves the person that I think is an enemy, who also carries the same things. Only in accepting my own flawedness and brokenness could I begin to see and accept that in others and only in having been accepted  by the love and the grace of God could I open myself to accepting others.”  Nelson’s experience of being forgiven by God empowers his capacity to practice forgiveness and to seek reconciliation in assertive, and decidedly non-sentimental, ways.

The Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established in 2004. It was a grassroots, community effort, that sought: (1) Healing and reconciliation of the community through the discovery and dissemination of the truth of what happened and its consequences  (2) to clarify the confusion and reconcile the fragmentation caused by the events and their aftermath, in part by educating the public about its findings (3) to acknowledge and recognize peoples feelings, including feelings of loss, guilt, shame, anger, and fear  (4) to help facilitate changes in social consciousness and in the institutions that were consciously or unconsciously complicit in the events, thus aiding in the prevention of similar events in the future.

Representatives from other truth commissions around the world encouraged the people of Greensboro. Peter Storey, who was deeply involved in the South Africa’s TRC process, has written: “Greensboro’s Truth and Reconciliation Process was a crucial step into something new for America: it recognized  that so long as the darkest events of our communal past lie buried and unacknowledged, they act like toxic waste, seeping continually to the surface to poison the present.”  The seven commissioners presented their final report in 2006.

Particularly powerful is  Nelson’s testimony to the commission.