Tuesday, March 30, 2010

To Forgive or Not Forgive: That Is the Christian Question

Forgiveness is a heavy topic but one that is often at the heart of women’s issues (and one that comes up repeatedly in my work as a rape crisis counselor) and therefore one I feel compelled to discuss in an open and uncensored way. Consider this a warning that I may broach subjects that are uncomfortable but I think it is essential for women to understand how they define forgiveness and under what circumstances they can and will forgive. If you continue reading I hope you will do so with an open heart and an open mind, understanding that this is an uncomfortable topic for me as well as it makes up the basis for my “crisis of faith” as I call it (which has been a lifelong thing…are they supposed to be this long?)

Also note that in this particular discussion I will be referencing Christian theology as Christianity is the religion I associate with. However other theological perspectives (Catholicism, Mormonism, Islam) may be applicable as well.

Sometimes women’s rights and Christianity collide head-on and the outcome isn’t pretty. We have all heard a story at one point or another of pastors who covered up cases of child abuse, convinced wives to go back to their abusive husbands, or expelled an openly gay or transgender woman from their church. In these environments women are taught to forgive and forget, often to their own physical/mental/emotional detriment.

I feel that overall I am a very forgiving person. Basically if someone does something bad (“bad” is a relative term but I am thinking of the obvious lie, cheat, or steal situations) , realizes they did something bad (feels remorse) and then takes action to reconcile with those who have been wronged (demonstrates that remorse) I will forgive them. However this does not mean I will excuse their actions, continue to associate with them, or ignore the moral obligation I have to make sure they do not hurt someone else.

That being said, I often get into discussions with devout Christians about forgiveness of others and why it is necessary for spiritual growth. In order to solidify my theological perspective on this topic I have been struggling to answer some difficult questions:

Forgiveness supposedly does not excuse or condone the behavior…what exactly does it do then?
My understanding is that Christians should forgive anyone anything (with the exception of the “unforgivable sin”…if you understand what this is PLEASE spread the word because no one I have spoken to has a clue) an infinite number of times, regardless of whether they are remorseful or repentant. This differs from Jewish doctrine which dictates that remorse and repentance must be present before forgiveness can be granted.

How many times can we forgive someone without enabling repeat offenses?
Christians should forgive an infinite number of times. How in the world does that not enable repeat offenses? In other words, how many times will Christians allow others to hurt innocent people before stepping in and demanding something? (Justice? Repentance? Some miniscule expression of remorse?)

Does forgiveness really bring healing to those who have been wronged?
Forgiveness is meant to bring healing to whose who have been wronged. How? People can let their bad feelings about something done to them go without forgiving the actual person. In actuality doesn’t forgiveness invalidate the fact that they HAVE been wronged? Women often spend their entire lives convincing themselves that yes, they DO deserve to be treated well. I don’t think it is conducive to healing if they are forced to forgive someone who has taken that value away from them. Shouldn’t they be able to hold on to something that validates the hurt that was done to them, especially if that person has shown no remorse for their actions?

If God is infinitely forgiving, why is it also our responsibility to forgive?
If an individual hurts us intentionally and shows no remorse, why is it not acceptable for us to refuse forgiveness and leave that task to God?

Is it possible to forgive if you can’t forget?
Does forgiving allow others to forget, leaving the wronged party to bare the burden of remembering alone? Is it a cop-out for others, a way for people to not take responsibility and deal with the actual existence of misdeeds in the world? Are some people just too lazy for justice?

I recently read a Jewish viewpoint on forgiveness that said, “Whoever is merciful to the cruel will end by being indifferent to the innocent.” I could not agree more. I absolutely shudder to think of what kind of person I would be now if I had “forgiven” those who have wronged me. I’d probably be in a verbally and physically abusive relationship, plagued with feelings of guilt and self-loathing. Forgiveness creates apathy.

If you forgive everyone everything, nothing seems wrong anymore.

Perhaps we should consider whether there are those who benefit from non-forgiveness just as there are those who benefit from forgiveness. Perhaps for some people it is the denial of forgiveness that fuels their obligation to protect the innocent, the “widows and orphans” as it were. Because how can we demonstrate love for widows and orphans if we are constantly invalidating their pain with the suggestion that they forgive those who have severely wronged them?

For example…years back a woman was raped, beaten and left for dead in Central Park NY by a gang of young men. While in prison a cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church visited them to tell them, “God loves you.”

Aha. All you have to do to get a personal visit from a cardinal is rape and beat someone. I certainly hope that the woman who was attacked knew that God loved her too, as the cardinal didn’t find it necessary to visit her and tell her that. I bet that woman would have liked to hear that since God’s love probably seemed notably absent.

I am glad God loves these men…that way I don’t have to.

I could never show genuine compassion for these men because I think it is impossible to forgive someone who wrongs you severely, with intention, (and often enjoyment) and shows no remorse (and/or are proud of what they have done). Forgiveness can not be given if it is not asked for. In the few cases where I have refused to forgive someone, these have been the circumstances. Yet I am still challenged. I hear things like, “have grace” or “show mercy” or “people make mistakes.” Yes, people make mistakes.

But I wonder…what would inspire me to fight for what is right if I did not also understand that which is unforgivable?

1 comment:

  1. I would love to discuss this more with you. Drop me a line anytime. : )