I grew up in a world where I sought forgiveness all the time. Swore when I stubbed my toe? Still a sinner, need to ask Jesus for forgiveness. Got angry at my brother for being mean? I had hate in my heart and needed to ask Jesus for forgiveness. Got sad because I didn’t have a boyfriend by the time I graduated college? I was idolizing a romantic relationship above God and needed to ask forgiveness again.
In my experience, evangelicals are really good at the whole asking forgiveness thing. We’ve made it into the quick balm that heals all wounds, and if you’re unwilling to accept someone’s contrition, then you are denying them grace and that’s just as bad as whatever they did to you.
This is the theology I was immersed in, growing up. In a practical way, it worked out so that forgiveness meant forgetting. No matter what had happened to me, forgiveness meant that I invited that person back into my life and pretended nothing was wrong.
Christians aren’t so good with the whole boundaries thing.
We see this emerge time and again in Christian discussions of redemption, in new-fangled millennial terms: we are “denying their humanity” by not giving abusers space to screw up and be human, we are wallowing in our hatred and disallowing forgiveness for ourselves because true grace transforms, etc etc etc.
The lack of response from evangelicals to my post about redemption on Friday was fairly telling, at least to me, especially when the post got 25% of my average monthly views … in one day.* We seem to like talking about the messiness of humanity without actually engaging with what that means for how we deal with and understand abusers. An unfortunate trend has emerged wherein we discuss the humanity of abusers while disallowing their victims space and room to grieve.
I said I wasn’t going to address the whole “millennials leaving the church” debate. And I still don’t want to. I’m sick of the discussion that generalizes the motives of an entire populace and frankly think it’s all pretty vague and nonsensical.
However, I can talk about why I, a millennial born in 1986, have trouble with attending church – any church – nowadays. And it’s this – abuse culture promoted through the very theology of the church. And it’s impossible to know what a church’s stance on something like this is unless you sit the pastor down and ask them the hard questions about redemption and forgiveness for abusers. And that’s a hard conversation to have when you’re not even sure their words will match up with their actions.
But it’s a question I think all pastors need to ask themselves. Chances are, pastors, you have abuse victims in your congregation. They probably sit next to their abusers every Sunday as you preach. What will you do if that victim decides they want to leave their abusive situation? What will you say to them if they approach you asking for help to leave their abuser? What will you do to ensure that your congregation remains a safe space for them?
Will you disallow the abuser space within your church? Will you make sure that the victim’s safety takes priority? Will you honor their feelings and grief and the complicated nature of an abusive relationship without telling them they need to forgive?
Or will you encourage them to see the humanity of their abuser? Will you talk about forgiveness and grace and redemption? Will you say that they need to forgive their abuser and continue to exist in their same space? Will you say that you can’t be graceless in disallowing their abuser communion within that particular body of believers? Have you done this before?
Every pastor, before taking on the mantle of ordination, needs to ask themselves these questions – how will they protect the victims of abuse? How will they set boundaries?
If the answer is to do nothing, or to offer the Eucharist to both the abuser and the abused without setting boundaries on the abuser, I humbly suggest that ordination might not be your thing.