Why Can’t You Just Forgive??

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For the first six months of this year, I ate, slept and breathed the drama that we were engaged in with my church and in my family. I don’t recall a single conversation I had with my husband at the time that didn’t involve the situation, and I thought about it all the time. Was I being fair? Were my motives pure? Was I certain that my memory was reliable? Was it even worth the turmoil it had caused to confront this trauma from my past? (I actually haven’t thought a lot about this lately until I stumbled across this blog post yesterday.)

When you are dealing with a church community, you end up in this strange dichotomy where you are surrounded by people that truly believe in a moral system that they adhere to – they genuinely care about getting it right. However, everything is wrapped in a dogma that doesn’t always have individuals’ best interests at heart, and collective priorities are often given precedence over those of people, families and even more firm moral codes. It’s bizarre, disorienting and eye-opening all at once.

Nothing more clearly illustrates this conundrum than the narrative around forgiveness. As someone who still has a Christian worldview, I think the teachings of Jesus Christ were not only admirable but downright radical when read in their cultural context. Jesus did things like care about children, give women an unprecedented voice in community and promote the interests of the less fortunate. So, please don’t misunderstand me for a complete and utter lost soul.  However, the church (Mormon, Christian, Catholic…this seems pretty universal in extremely organized dogmatic structures.) has really missed the boat on this idea.

I would have mucho money if I was paid for every time I was (gently, usually, and often not directly) lectured about forgiveness. Can’t you just forgive? We should all forgive! What about forgiveness? I think what becomes clear when you’re on the receiving end of a situation that asks for serious forgiveness is that forgiveness as a process is my business. It’s personal. It’s a journey that belongs to me and to every other person who has experienced trauma at the hands of another person who should have known better. It is wholly inappropriate for anyone outside this situation to offer unsolicited advice or to lecture. The hard truth is that you don’t know anything about it. For most people, this is a philosophical discussion, but ignorance is a luxury that not everyone has. Regardless of what the circumstances are, it behooves every person to move on and live productive and healthy lives. Frankly, I think I do a pretty good job at that.

Still, I’ve had to come to terms with forgiveness and what it does and doesn’t mean. I’ve heard sermons my whole life about forgiving. What I’ve come to see is that this dialogue  often has much more to do with the comfort of the speaker than with my own well-being. Though the words aren’t said, what I really hear is, “Forgiveness is important! You should forgive. It’s for your own good – can’t you see?? (Besides, this is making me VERY uncomfortable!)” See, forgiveness often becomes a way for other people to feel washed clean of a situation without actually having to do anything real or productive or helpful at all. When someone tells me to forgive, I’m pretty astute about discerning if it’s about my mental/spiritual health or if it’s about them. Rarely is it about me. (As an easy rule, if you have to remind someone that something is for their own good, it’s probably not.)

When we were in the middle of our fight, we found this article on dealing with sexual abuse in the church, and it became one of our best tools for advocacy and education. We sent it to dozens of people to help illustrate where we were coming from and what we felt would be appropriate. (If you’ve read my prior blogs, you’ll remember that we eventually succeeded in having my perpetrator removed from his church position.) Clearly, there is a need for this type of education because most people don’t understand this: how I feel about what happened to me on a personal level and what I feel should be done about it are two very separate issues. My emotions (hurt, unfairness, anger/revenge…) do not play into my decision making process. There is often a clear, right thing to do, and it should be done with neither guile nor bias if integrity is at all important.

I haven’t been to church since August. I would imagine people have all kinds of opinions about what this means and what’s going on in my life. (If you ask, I’ll just tell you. The Cliff’s Notes version is that I’m doing well.) Usually, high-demand religions create a dialogue around leaving or disconnecting. You’re offended. You’ve sinned or want to commit sins. You couldn’t hack it. YOU’RE the problem, somehow. It’s my fault. I can’t forgive. This doesn’t even come close to adequately describing why I’ve made this decision.

I posted this on my Facebook feed on August 12, just a few weeks before my last sacrament meeting:

I’ve forgiven a lot of people for a lot of pretty horrible things, and I continue to do so. It’s a process. However, it’s frankly none on anyone else’s business what the status of that process is. People can make a conscious choice to disengage with toxic environments and people. The idea that stepping back equates to a lack of forgiveness is complete and utter hogwash. It’s nothing more than an attempt to deflect the consequences of others’ deplorable actions onto the innocent, while gaslighting them into feeling that it’s somehow their fault. Just my thoughts for the Sabbath.

This is usually what I hear about forgiveness. It’s usually people protecting people who have done bad things that say these things. I get that it’s wicked hard to look ugly in the face when it lives on someone you love or, even worse, yourself. But, to speak of forgiveness as some sort of spiritual Jedi wave that disappears the facts is deeply insulting to people who have walked through the shadow of this valley. If you can’t offer genuine support, please leave me alone to get on with my life in whatever way is most healthy for me. But, please stop talking about things you don’t understand. If you can’t meet hurting people with compassion and support, your religion is hollow, and you need to sit down. (Most people truly are well-intentioned, but it’s a band-aid at best. To be clear, the person that prompted this Facebook post recognized that I was reacting to their statements and went out of their way to apologize. I greatly respect that.)

My husband is a big fan of several Christian apologists, including Professor John Lennox. I’ve been deeply impressed with his approach to Christianity and have listened to several of his very thought-provoking lectures. My husband sent me this one a month or so ago, and outside of Dr. Laura who takes a somewhat more secular approach, this is the best breakdown of forgiveness that I have ever heard. On the most simple level, forgiveness is multi-faceted. There is the part that you take care of for your own personal well-being; this consists of letting go, moving your focus to other things, finding wholeness in other parts of your life. The other half of forgiveness requires recognition, remorse and restitution from the other party – the repentance must be sincere for it to be efficacious. Professor Lennox does a much better job of outlining this. (If you start at about 48 minutes, the segment is less than ten minutes long and well worth the listen.)

As for me, I’m not making decisions out of anger, malice or bitterness. I am, however, finally giving myself permission to make decisions that are the most healthy for my situation, regardless of how unconventional that looks. I’m very much at peace with where I’m at.

 

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