Forgiveness as a Weapon
This weekend, an NFL player shot his girlfriend – in front of his mother – then drove to his team’s practice field and shot himself in front of members of his team and a coach. Every feminist I know seemed to blurt out at once: “Domestic violence.”
One of these friends, on Twitter, was subsequently told that she should be quiet about it in deference to the family and stop using a personal tragedy to “further her cause.”
On Sunday Night, Bob Costas talked about gun violence and its connection to domestic violence and the murders of women on air during halftime in a game. Many media outlets criticized him for speaking too soon, for getting too political, for politicizing a tragedy.
What this criticism means, at a basic level, is that wondering at systemic causes and problems implicates us in the tragedy and that is uncomfortable. If we can prevent linking this tragedy to the larger narrative of systematic violence against women, for example, we don’t ever have to think about how our casual misogyny or our own views within our social circles need to change. If we can say this is a tragic, isolated, strange incident, we don’t have to do any of the hard thinking that might lead us to change.
This same sort of thinking pervades the church, especially in matters of forgiveness and grace.
We don’t want to think about the ways in which our theology might open doors for abuse. We don’t want to think that, despite the presence of forgiveness, we may still have to place limits on known abusers and hurtful people. We don’t want to examine the ways in which our general church culture needs to – must – change in order to be truly loving, truly graceful, and truly a refuge for the abused.
We give a lot of lip service to this idea of the church as a refuge, but in the interest of preserving our comfort and our own theological boxes, we have weaponized forgiveness.
If a divorced woman is uncomfortable with seeing her abusive husband in the same church service as herself, we lecture her that she is bitter and needs to learn to forgive.
If a sexual abuse survivor struggles with PTSD and has issues relating to men, we tell her that her issue is her own inability to forgive.
When woman seek to create safe spaces for themselves and former abusers are shoved into our faces and given voice as our representatives, we’re reminded that God’s grace extends to him, too, and we should learn to set our own boundaries.
But it’s really hard to set your own boundaries to protect yourself when an entire community and theology of forgiveness demands that your boundaries do not matter.
Forgiveness, for many in the American evangelical church, means allowing people infinite second chances, no matter how badly they screw up. The downside of this, however, it is that it makes it impossible for the hurt person to set boundaries, to become ready to forgive.
When I was a little kid and my brothers did something hurtful to me or I did something hurtful to them, my family had a script. The offending party had to apologize and at least sound like they meant it. And the offended party would reply, “It’s okay. I forgive you.” And everything would be fine until the next fight or black eye or broken Barbie doll.
“I’m sorry I did x.”
“It’s okay. I forgive you.”
Automatic, robotic, almost void of meaning. “I forgive you” became, for me, a rote saying, a rite of passage, a way to get the uncomfortable conversation to end and gloss over things without ever actually discussing the hurt. And as I grew up, I saw this imitated in church life on a much larger scale. It is almost as if abuse survivors are a child, cowed by parental authority, cajoled into pushing away their actual feelings out of the way in the interest of smoothing things over with their abuser.
You’ve probably had the experience of trying to frame pictures. It’s one of my favorite hobbies and I have an eclectic tableau of pictures across my wall above my bookshelves. I have several pictures mounted on a plain background of construction paper in cheap plastic and glass frames. When I first started these framing projects, I didn’t take very particular care with cleaning the glass beforehand. Dust and dirt and grime got trapped in those frames, sometimes sticking to the poster I was trying to preserve. Years later, after all that grossness finally got to me, I would take the picture off the wall and pull it out to clean the frame and try and fix the botched job I’d done years prior.
But it was, of course, harder, because, after years of those flecks of dirt and dust being trapped in the frame, they’d dirtied the picture. In many cases, the picture was now permanently stained. It looked fine from a distance, but up close, with a little poking and prodding, I’d discover that I’d destroyed a section of the picture in my hurry and desire to make things look nice and good on the surface. Because I hadn’t taken the care to really get into the grime and clean it up – because that’s harder work! – I damaged something beautiful.
Blatantly transparent sermon illustration aside, when we force people to forgive, when we weaponize forgiveness by saying that those who can’t forgive are bitter or stuck in the past, we lose a valuable, precious opportunity to examine ourselves, our theology, and our community. Not only that, but we cause irrevocable damage to those who are already hurt and need time to heal.
When we go further into pressuring those who are abused into accepting their abusers into the community, into embracing them again in the interest of smoothing things over, we don’t just damage the picture. We set the whole damn thing on fire.
In this way, we weaponize forgiveness, we weaponize grace. We prioritize the powerful. Examination of how boundaries should be set around them might mean we have to set boundaries around ourselves and respect the boundaries of others, and if there’s one thing the evangelical church is terrible at, it’s respecting other people’s boundaries. So we wash it away.
We beg, instead, for the benefit of the doubt, for infinite second chances, to tell people we barely know what God has to say to them. We ask for hugs from people we don’t know when “passing the peace,” unaware that this minute act can turn an abuse survivor’s life from a carefully negotiated peace into a war zone of anxiety and panic attacks. When someone is still hurting from something, we wonder why they haven't forgiven, instead of thinking about what they need to heal. When an abuser wants back into our safe spaces, we proclaim grace and forgiveness and God's love, without stopping to think of how including the abuser excludes the abused.
Forgiveness requires hard conversations, setting boundaries, allowing time and space for healing. But it's so much easier to name it as a virtue and then call those who can't or won't forgive "bitter" and "unwelcome." But if we want to believe in forgiveness for ourselves, we need to believe that forgiveness is hard for others. We are not God and we do not decide if and when someone is forgiven. The most we can do, the best we can do, is to create safe spaces where hurt can be examined, discussed, relieved, and changed. It is only then, within that well-bound space of healing and grace, that true forgiveness has the opportunity to occur. But we cannot force it; we cannot ask it to be done. All we can do is create an environment for it, and hope it happens. This requires examination of ourselves, deep introspection, and willingness to change ourselves.
Instead of reminding the abused that their abuser is forgiven, too, we need to remind ourselves that our unchecked privileges and ideas - sin, if you will - often help to create a world in which abuse runs unchecked. That, my friends, is the great tragedy here, and one which must be discussed.