Before We Teach Forgiveness . . .
Copyright 2007 by James Newton Poling, Professor of Pastoral Theology, Care, and Counseling, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Evanston, IL 60201.
Until survivors of violence raised the question, I had never thought much about forgiveness. I accepted the common theology of the church that forgiveness was a central tenet of Christian faith. God is a forgiving god who does not hold our sins against us. Jesus revealed this characteristic of God by teaching forgiveness of sins and forgiving his tormentors on the cross. We should be like Jesus by forgiving those who have hurt us. Forgiveness is so central to Christian faith that it goes beyond a good thing and becomes a moral obligation. Didn’t Jesus say in the Sermon on the Mount – “if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses?”
Unfortunately there is almost always some anti-Semitism for Christians in the doctrine of forgiveness because it is used to distinguish the Old and New Testaments. According to this view, in contrast to the Jews who believe in a vindictive god of revenge, Christians believe in a God of forgiveness. We have discovered the tragic consequences of this racist view of our Jewish brothers and sisters. Sadly, Christians too often use a similar logic to dehumanize the faithful of Islam.
Even though forgiveness is presented as a central doctrine of Christian faith, it has not been an easy doctrine to believe and practice. After every horrible crime, there are calls for vengeance. Some crime victims are not content with prison time but demand the death penalty and politicians have been eager to oblige. Sometimes they want revenge on any person the police arrest whether guilty or not. The recent story of the Amish community in Lancaster after the horrible school murder of six young girls was news precisely because they offered forgiveness for the killer and actively sought reconciliation with his family. It was news because it was unusual. We don’t really know whether there was any debate or dis-ease within the Amish community because that would not be a good news story – it is too complicated for our simple-minded media. (Nickel Mines, PA, October 2, 2006.)
I have heard sermons about forgiveness between victims and perpetrators of the holocaust of WWII. Christians are fond of telling such stories because they illustrate the possibility of forgiveness in the most severe violence one can imagine. However, in my study of the holocaust, things are a bit more complicated. The issue of whether perpetrators should be forgiven or tracked down and tried for their crimes will remain lively until the last perpetrator has died. And what does forgiveness mean when most of the population of Germany bears some responsibility for the murder of twelve million persons in concentration camps? What about forgiveness and justice? I just came back from a conference in Poland where I attended five workshops led by German pastoral theologians who were struggling with issues of forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing after the holocaust. Forgiveness is not a simple matter, especially when many Christians who were guilty of crimes have never talked with anyone about what they did. There has been too much loss and suffering and too little confession and repentance to talk about forgiveness as a simple solution to the holocaust.
I have become more concerned about the issue of forgiveness because of the witness of survivors of domestic violence. Typical is the following poem from Catherine Foote in her book, Survivor Prayers.
A scar is a scar. It doesn’t go away.
The broken bone may be set, but in the healing,
Traces of the injury remain.
There it is.
I was abused. I was hurt. And a scar is a scar.
People around me say, “Forgive.”
Those who know nothing about brokenness and healing say to me, “Move on.”
Those who fear the pain say, “Don’t look back.”
I insist on acknowledging this pain.
I insist on recognizing the scar.
I insist on remembering why there is this jagged, thin line.
I insist on being here with me, on holding me, on saying,
“That was wrong.”
Jesus, I know that you remember your pain.
You still carry those scars that Thomas touched with his doubting.
You insist that there was a real cost when you were hurt.
Stand with me in this place of remembering.
Stand with me as I clarify: Real injury means real pain.
Stand with me in this truth: A scar is a scar.
Amen. (Survivor Prayers 1771)
In this poem, Catherine Foote shows her resilience and courage by identifying with the resurrected Jesus and his scars. She uses these images to resist the pressure from Christian friends who try to impose the obligation to forgive on her. She accuses them of “knowing nothing about brokenness and healing” and says that they “fear the pain.” She insists on displaying her scars to remind her of what she has experienced and to give her resilience in her ongoing healing journey. She calls on all of us to bear witness to her suffering for the sake of justice.
From the writing of survivors come several disturbing issues about Christian understandings of forgiveness.
First, forgiveness is too often offered as an alternative to justice. Rather than seek justice, such as an end to violence and a program of repentance and restitution from the perpetrators, survivors are encouraged to forgive and seek reconciliation. Talk of forgiveness leads to the privatization of violence as if it were something just between the victim and the perpetrator. Ignored is the idea that violence is a violation of community norms and laws and thus requires a public and even political response through courts of law and justice. If the survivor forgives the perpetrator, then bystanders can be content to do nothing. Dealing with issues of power and justice requires that bystanders must be involved – to re-live what happened with the survivor and to seek the justice necessary to mend the fabric of community life.
Second, the burden of forgiveness is too often put on the survivor as an additional burden to the difficult work of healing. I have heard stories of pastors telling survivors to forgive their abusers while they were still trapped in an abusive relationship, as if that would make the violence stop. Some pastors even added the idea that the woman who suffers unjustly from her husband’s violence could become a source of salvation for him just as the innocent suffering of Jesus in the crucifixion awakens our faith.
Third, some theories of forgiveness go so far as to say that healing is impossible without forgiveness. I have talked with survivors who have been racked with guilt because they believed that their path to healing was blocked as long as they did not reconcile with their perpetrators. Some try to forgive – often putting themselves at risk of more violence. Even those theories that allow a survivor to stop short of forgiveness often imply that the inability to forgive is a sign of weakness.
So forgiveness, a doctrine that the Christian churches have emphasized so strongly can become an obstacle to safety, survival, and healing and keep a victim trapped in a dangerous situation where her life and health are at risk.
We must also ask whether this doctrine of forgiveness is good for perpetrators. There are many stories of Christian perpetrators who went to their pastor during a family crisis and received forgiveness for their sins. Even when accompanied with promises that the violence would stop, such forgiveness hardly ever works to end the violence and help the perpetrator transform his life. Marie Fortune tells the story of the time when she visited a group of child molesters at the request of the therapist. When she asked them what advice she should give to pastors, they said “Tell the pastors not to forgive us so soon.” (Sexual Violence, 167) What perpetrators need is not more denial, but more truthtelling, accountability and support as they try to commit themselves to a long, difficult road to transformation.
The question is whether there are ways that forgiveness can be retrieved as a doctrine that can help survivors and perpetrators in their healing and transformation. Fortunately work has been done on this issue by feminist theologians. I hope you will look at the book edited by Marie Fortune and Joretta Marshall, Forgiveness and Abuse. I don’t have time to summarize all the good work that has been done on forgiveness and abuse, but I hope to add my own reflections to the discussion.
Part of the problem with forgiveness is that we lump together too many complicated emotional and religious issues under the topic of forgiveness. What do we really mean?
Getting over the little things that happen every day between people?
Restoring justice between nations and ethnic groups after war or genocide?
Reconciliation between a murderer and the families of the victims?
Interrupting the revenge cycle so that violence will not continue?
Is it an internal attitude that moves toward reconciliation,
Is it one of the stages of healing from the trauma of violence?
The word forgiveness can hardly cover all these different situations. And I don’t have time to suggest an overall theory to account for everything that needs to be addressed. Rather, I have a modest proposal that may help move our discussion along. Rather than just one thing, I suggest that there are at least five kinds of forgiveness.
First, there is everyday forgiveness.
Mt 18:21-22 says: Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”
Anyone who lives and works with other people in a family or any other kind of group knows this kind of forgiveness well. In fact, if everyone in our daily lives remembered every intentional and unintentional thing done to them, life would be impossible. Whenever we try to live together in an intense relationship, there are ways that we hurt one another. We have to be quick to repent and quick to forgive if these relationships are going to survive at all. In August, Nancy and I drove from Maryland to California – we spent nine days together in a small car; often we were tired and frustrated because of the heat; sometimes we were unable to find lodging or a restaurant; or some topic that came up that risked an argument. Some days, 77 times was not too many.
Second, there is 2-3 day forgiveness.
Some things cannot be quickly forgiven, even if we try. Sometimes it takes several days and multiple apologies to repair a relationship. There is good Scripture for this also, Luke 17:3 “Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive.” When Jesus or the editors added the word “rebuke,” I think they bought us a little time to think about things before completely making up and gave us time to think more deeply about our unconscious motivations for our behaviors and make deeper changes. It is not always good to be forgiven immediately. Sometimes I need time to pray and meditate and perhaps schedule an extra session with my therapist before I am ready for forgiveness and reconciliation. This kind of forgiveness is also quite common and understandable for most of us, but far short of the violence that we are trying to address in this conference. Both of the first two types of forgiveness are basically interpersonal and resolution depends on the good will of the persons involved. There may be justice issues involved, but they can usually be negotiated within the relationships.
The Third, Take It to the Church Forgiveness
Mt 18:15-17: “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.”
For this third type of forgiveness, I am thinking of couples that require significant pastoral counseling in order to be healthy for both persons involved. I am thinking of parenting problems that require education and counseling to change destructive patterns that involve children. In some cases, couples cannot work out their differences and a divorce as the best way to stop destructive behaviors. Some behaviors may approach patterns that might be called abuse. Every pastor, chaplain, or counselor hears regularly about the more serious problems that people have in their lives – abuse of alcohol and drugs, emotional abuse between couples, serious conflicts with children, in-laws, neighbors, and friends.
Once I counseled a young couple where there was an affair. While the woman was in the hospital having her first child, her husband was in a hotel room with another woman. At first they had decided to stay together and work things out – to forgive and patch up their marriage. But over time, they discovered there was too much mistrust. The woman continued to obsess about her husband’s unfaithfulness and wonder what he was doing whenever he went to work or was out of the house. The man was frustrated to his limit by her doubt and felt there was nothing more he could do to make her happy. Their conflicts were escalating into regular arguments, tension, and inability to talk about anything else. They were stuck in a pattern that was destroying their marriage. I remember this couple well because of the intensity of their conflict. They sought help from the larger community by coming to a church-related pastoral counseling center, thus following the outline in Matthew 18. Unfortunately they did not stay in pastoral counseling long enough to resolve their problems and I don’t know what happened to them. I can imagine several outcomes because I have seen them in other couples I have counseled – perhaps they found a way to resolve the tension and develop a marriage with restored creativity and intimacy; perhaps they decided on divorce as the only way to stop the destructive things they were doing to one another; perhaps they stayed stuck and passed on their underlying resentments to the next generation. In any case, believe that their decision to seek counseling from the church or other community was one of the paths to forgiveness. Whether resolution of their conflict and reconciliation, or resolution of the tension through divorce, forgiveness is possible short of domestic violence. Escalating conflict in a love relationship does not have to lead to violence if persons will seek competent counsel from their communities.
The way I am reading the Scriptures, these three kinds of forgiveness are not always sufficient. There are two other levels that may help us understand the difficulties of forgiveness after the trauma of violence.
Fourth, Forgiveness as Separation
Jesus adds a final step in Matthew 18:17 that changes the focus of forgiveness and may help us in some cases. Jesus says: “if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let that person be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” I call this Forgiveness as separation. My interpretation of Matt 18:17 is that the church needs a process for more difficult cases where alienation and abuse have occurred. Another biblical term also occurs to me, and that is “hardheartedness” from Mark 10:2-5. This term is used in the gospels to talk about divorce which Jesus allowed in some cases. It is also used in Exodus 7:14 and other places to refer to the crimes of the Pharaoh against the people of Israel. The Scriptures seem to be realistic that some perpetrators are hard-hearted and nothing can be done to reach them. In these cases, there is a limit to the personal responsibility we have toward them and the Bible does not introduce forgiveness in these cases.
Perhaps in some situations of violence where a perpetrator is genuinely remorseful and willing to work on the work of repentance, this model could help. One of the child molesters I worked with in psychotherapy was a Mormon. When he was arrested for sexually abusing his daughter, his sins became publicly known in the church where he attended. The church actively responded to him and his family. First, they gave extra support to the children and the spouse and provided them with the counseling, prayer and other resources they needed. After the legal system had finished its conviction and sentencing, they met with the perpetrator and “disfellowshipped” him. I am not familiar with Mormon practices, but my understanding from this case is that he was relieved of all his leadership responsibilities, but he was also required to attend worship and meet regularly with church leaders for spiritual direction. The consequence of the church’s action was that his eternal salvation was in jeopardy. In Mormon theology, disfellowshipping meant that he would not be with the saints in heaven after death, and that he would be eternally separated from his wife and children. Within Mormon theology, marriage is an eternal covenant even after death.
My client was deeply troubled by these consequences, remorseful for his behavior, and willing to do whatever was necessary so he could be re-enrolled as a full member of the church. Of all the perpetrators I worked with over 15 years, he was the most highly motivated and made the most progress toward healing and responsibility.
This case is extremely unusual because the perpetrator was motivated to change and the Christian community was willing to get involved and require some justice after what had happened. The Mormons seemed to have a model for how Matthew 18 might apply in some cases of interpersonal violence. The perpetrator was disfellowshipped, that is, he was treated as “a gentile and tax collector,” as someone who was outside the community. When I moved and discontinued my work with him after three years, there was still no end to the church discipline he faced. I do not know whether he was eventually re-enrolled in the church, and whether the family stayed together. But I believe that the church did a good thing in this case and helped move the perpetrator toward responsibility for himself, and may have created the possibility of forgiveness and reconciliation within the family.
There are many cases where it is dangerous for the survivor to seek out the perpetrator in order to negotiate forgiveness and reconciliation. One of my friends published her story in the local newspaper. When her father saw the article, he called the paper and threatened to sue them for libel. This provided additional evidence to my friend that her father was completely unrepentant about his past behaviors and that being in relationship with him was not appropriate. I supported her decision to keep her distance and focus on her own healing journey. She was not obsessed with him, and she did not want to be in relationship with him. Without justice-work and sign of repentance, separation was the best resolution of her relationship with her father.
Some of the forgiveness literature suggests that a survivor can engage in a process of forgiveness that is internal to her and does not involve re-engagement with the perpetrator. This is the so-called forgiveness as healing argument. In some cases, there is something to this. Some survivors become trapped in an obsession with the perpetrator, seeking some sign of accountability, restitution, and even reconciliation with him. In these cases, sometimes therapists and pastors can advise, when appropriate, that the survivor needs to examine her reasons for being obsessed and see whether it is possible turn her energy toward her own healing process. Some survivors report great relief with the news that they can ignore the perpetrator. We might call this forgiveness as separation. Matthew 18 allows for a survivor to focus on healing after a traumatic event and implies that there is an end to her personal responsibility for relating directly to the perpetrator.
Fifth, Let God Forgive Him
An additional question is whether it is fair to the perpetrator to be ignored and discarded in this way. Some Christians say that God never gives up on anyone, regardless of what they have done, and that Christians should be the same way. If human sins cannot be forgiven by God, then there is no hope for any of us. This point leads us to the final type of forgiveness – Let God forgive him. On the cross, Luke 23:34 reports that Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”
This text is often used against survivors – “If Jesus could forgive the men who were torturing and crucifying him, then surely you can forgive your father for something that happened a long time ago.” I believe this is bad pastoral advice on several levels.
First, it minimizes something that happened in the past as if it was not important and had no serious effects in the present. What we know from PTSD studies is that trauma has life-long consequences that are often severe. Freud taught us that in the unconscious life of human beings there is no such thing as time. What happened 50 years ago can be as vivid as yesterday, and what happened yesterday is mostly forgotten and lost. What is important is the emotional meaning and impact of what happened in the interior life of the survivor.
Second, this pastoral advice to forgive as Jesus did ignores the difference between God and humans. What is possible for God, in this case Jesus as a member of the Trinity, is impossible for humans. What is impossible for humans may be possible with God. The fact that Jesus could forgive his persecutors requires careful and critical thinking before it is applied to the most vulnerable members of our community. And to turn Jesus’ courageous actions in the deepest crisis of his life into a moral law for Christians who are just beginning to challenge the violence against them seems like a total betrayal of the gospel.
Third, some commentators (Violence Against Women and Children 121-134) have suggested that we look at Jesus’ words carefully. Jesus did not say, “I forgive you.” Rather he said, “Father, you forgive them.” In this text we may witness one of the limits of human love. In another place I suggested that the basic conflict for the perpetrator is not with the victim, but with the larger community, that is, it is a question of power and justice. (Male Violence, Ch 11). The victim/survivor of violence is called to survival and healing, to choose life over death. The perpetrator is called to responsibility and accountability with the larger community. The justice issue is whether the perpetrator can ever be trusted with participation and/or leadership in the community. This is not the responsibility of the the victim/ survivor to decide, but the larger community. In another place I have suggested a seven-step method that the larger community can use to decide when a perpetrator is making progress and has become more trustworthy. (Poling’s Seven Steps of Accountability for perpetrators: See appendix.) Not many Christian communities have even started to consider their responsibilities for perpetrators, let alone setting up protocols for support and accountability for perpetrators of violence. (The most fully developed program I have seen has been developed by Mennonite Chaplains in Canada. Committee of Support and Accountability, Mennonite Central Committee, Winnipeg, Canada.)
At the human level, I think the meaning of Jesus’ prayer of forgiveness on the cross is that some situations can only be turned over to God. One of the survivors of the civil war in Liberia was recently quoted in the New York Times. “I lost my mother in that stupid war. I lost my first son, my third son. I will not promise anyone that your word ‘sorry’ will make me forget about that.” (Morris Sesay, on reconciliation efforts after Liberia’s civil war. NYTimes, Sep 18, 2007.) It is not the responsibility of survivors to take care of perpetrators, and even for the larger community, there are some cases where hearts are so hardened that forgiveness and reconciliation is humanly impossible. It is ok for the survivor to pray: “God, forgive them; we don’t know what to do.” Such a prayer potentially interrupts the vengeance cycle of violence, yet it does not burden survivors with preoccupation with the perpetrator. At a practical level, we all know this place. We all have relationships that are broken and unrepaired and it is often painful to think about them. But there comes a time in the forgiveness process where we are liberated from the responsibility to forgive. And there are some things that are humanly impossible to forgive. I disagree with Scott Peck that some people are unforgivable because they are evil (People of the Lie). Instead I think that being human means being finite, and not every situation of evil is within my grasp or the range of my faith and understanding. Sometimes it is ok to do the best I can and let the rest up to God, and that is not just a rationalization. This does not free the church from the responsibility to seek justice in the form of protection of survivors and accountability for perpetrators. But it does mean that seeking forgiveness and reconciliation in some cases is an unrealistic goal.
Survivors of violence deserve our respect and help as caregivers because of the courage and hope they have developed in the midst of violence. It is not just their suffering that deserves our sympathy, but their agency and moral claim on our care and resources. We need to pay close attention to the religious issues survivors bring to us as religious leaders. Their lives reveal the resilience of the love and power of God, and we need their hope in order to nurture our faith and understanding. Religion functions on complex ways in the lives of survivors. Sometimes religion is an obstacle that oppresses people and prevents their survival and healing. Sometimes religion is a resource that make survival possible and creates the possibility of healing and new life. As professionals we need to attend to these functions of religion.
The issue of forgiveness is complicated and I have suggested five kinds of forgiveness that are possible. At one level, forgiveness is an everyday process that enables us to live together even when we hurt one another. Even when forgiveness requires several days to think about it, or we seek counsel and direction from the church or larger community, it makes life bearable and sustains us in the complexity of our human relationships. There are two other kinds of forgiveness for more difficult situations which include most situations of violence. Safety and healing of survivors take priority over forgiveness and survivors should be encouraged to live their lives without worrying about forgiveness. For some survivors, forgiveness comes as “the last stage of healing;”1 for others forgiveness is not appropriate, and there should be no guilt or blame extended for those who choose this path. The truth and reconciliation processes in South Africa and various other countries are not focused mainly on forgiveness and reconciliation, but on truth-telling, justice-making, disrupting the cycle of revenge, and finding ways to live together after apartheid and genocide. In the most extreme cases, Christians can pray that God handle the issue of forgiveness. Even Jesus prayed for God to handle forgiveness on the cross, so his example gives us permission to do the same thing.
Adams, Carol and Marie Fortune, editors, Violence Against Women and Children: A Christian Theological Sourcebook. NY: Continuum, 1995.
Catherine J. Foote, Survivor Prayers; Talking with God about Childhood Sexual Abuse. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1994.
Donnelly, Doris, Learning to Forgive. Nashville: Abingdon, 1979.
Fortune, Marie and Joretta Marshall, editors, Forgiveness and Abuse: Jewish and Christian Reflections. (NY: Haworth Press, 2002).
Annie Imbens and Ineke Jonker, Christianity and Incest. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992
David Livingston, Healing Violent Men. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001.
Poling, James Newton, Male Violence: Pastoral Care Issues. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2002.
Richards, Nancy, Heal and Forgive: Forgiveness in the Face of Abuse. Nevada City, CA: Blue Dolphin Publishing, 2005.
Appendix: Stages of Accountability for Perpetrators of Violence
James N. Poling
End of power and control over victim
Full confession – full disclosure of sin
Repentance – turn away from abusive ways
Sanctification – learning new behaviors and attitudes
Restitution – symbolic payment to victims
Healing from injuries
Restoration to the community