Thursday, May 28, 2015
The Right to Forgive
I've come across a number of scandals recently where the rhetoric of forgiveness has been used to shelter people who are manipulative or abusive. In most cases, this seems to be driven by a very understandable desire on the part of Christians to put into practice the teaching that mercy will be shown to the merciful. The problem is that in the process victims are often sidelined, silenced or even chastised for being “unforgiving.” This represents an abuse of the virtue of forgiveness, and it's based on a misunderstanding of what forgiveness means
In many of these incidents there's a tendency to mistake exculpation for forgiveness and to minimize the evil that has been done. Sometimes we do have to forgive people for wrongs that they commit by accident or through ignorance. For example, when the Roman soldiers are pounding nails into Christ's hands, He says “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.” This only applies, however, when there is genuine ignorance or lack of culpability. Making excuses for people who do know what they're doing is not forgiveness. True forgiveness demands that we acknowledge the full gravity of the evil done so that restorative justice can be appropriately applied, and so that the sin can be forgiven in full.
Some Christians will also tend to dismiss or discredit anyone who is visibly angry. Anger is not wrath, nor is it sinful. Christ Himself got angry when He overturned the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple. Anger is the natural emotional response to a privation of justice. When a person gets hurt as a result of another person's wrong-doing, it's healthy and appropriate for them to be angry in proportion to the magnitude of the offense. Wrath is inordinate anger which desires vengeance in excess of justice, or which deliberately prolongs and revels in feelings of outrage or victimhood after the natural healing process has had time to take its course. Different people will heal at different rates, and it's a severe lapse of charity to judge someone for failing to “get over it” quickly enough.
I've also encountered several cases where people were told by church authorities to “just forgive” their abusers – where “just forgive” meant “don't talk about it.” This is victim-silencing and has nothing to do with forgiveness. Scripture presents us with a fairly straight-forward rubric: first, you approach the person who has wronged you in private. If they apologize and agree to make amends, then you quietly settle the matter. If, however, they refuse, you start getting other people involved and continue to escalate the situation until there has been adequate redress. In cases where there is a serious risk that failing to speak up will leave others vulnerable to abuse, it is not merely okay to involve outside authorities, it's an obligation in charity.
Ultimately, the right to forgive resides primarily with the victim. When a person is abused, and others in their community say, “Well, we've forgiven your abuser – why don't you?” it's just self-serving nonsense. Forgiveness is not a matter of nursing pleasant feelings towards folks who haven't actually hurt you directly. I can forgive Stalin for whatever small amount of grief and suffering has indirectly worked its way onto my plate as a result of his atrocities, but my forgiveness is so categorically different from Alexander Solzenitsyn's that it would be the worst kind of self-important puffed-up frumpery to make a comparison. The people of the New Testament understood this, and it's why they were so scandalized when Jesus offered forgiveness to strangers. He could only possibly have that right if He was the person who had been wronged, and the only way He could be that person was if He were God. Now, Jesus was God so He could do this. We're not. We can pray that a person will be forgiven, but we can't forgive them on behalf of other people – much less behave like this kind of superficial forgiveness makes us morally superior to those who were actually wronged.
Mercy is an essential virtue, but it must be offered not only to sinners but also to those who are sinned against. The alternative is a caricature of forgiveness which undermines justice, revictimizes the wounded, and allows manipulative people to use the rhetoric of contrition as a means of avoiding the consequences of their actions.