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Do We Have to Forgive Chris Brown?

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My Facebook feed has been buzzing with posts about Chris Brown.

Since I'm a feminist with a lot of feminist friends, many people I know posted Sasha
Pasulka's powerful piece "I'm Not Okay with Chris Brown Performing at the Grammys and I'm Not Sure Why You Are" and Louis Peitzman's decisive follow-up, "No, We Don't Have to Forgive Chris Brown."

It turns out that most of my friends are decidedly not OK with Chris Brown's performance at the Grammys. Like me, they were heartsick to read the disturbing list of tweets by girls begging to be beaten by Brown. To many of my friends, the issue is clear: Brown has brutally beaten a woman, a sister. He does not deserve to be celebrated and honored.

But since I'm also a Christian with a lot of Christian friends, I've been reading a very different kind of Facebook response.

Disturbingly, it seems that many people are using Christian language in ways that undermine a feminist critique of Brown's comeback. One man wonders whether criticizing Brown means that "we don't believe in a redemption story -- at all." A man I have a lot of respect for, a minister, asks whether it is "appropriate" to "excoriate" Brown, and reminds us that we all have "thorns in our flesh." And another man compares criticism of Brown to "throwing stones," referring to the story of the woman caught in adultery. In this story from the Gospel of John, a woman is surrounded by men who are planning to kill her by throwing rocks at her, literally bruising her to death. Jesus famously intervenes, saying "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone."

Something is very, very wrong when a story about Jesus protecting a woman from male violence is being used to protect a violent man from feminist criticism.

For me and many other Christian feminists -- many of whom thankfully jumped in the Facebook debate today to offer their perspectives -- it's clear that Christianity means speaking out for victims of violence. It means giving people the spiritual strength to break free of cycles of abuse and reclaim their worth. And it means protecting all who are terrorized by misogynist rage. Like Jesus, we live in a culture that too often accepts and promotes violence against women, and like Jesus, we are called to resist it.

Still, as a Christian I can't just glibly dismiss people who use the language of forgiveness and redemption to defend Chris Brown. Christianity is about justice for the oppressed, but it's also about redemption for sinners. Every week in church I pray the Lord's Prayer: "Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us." And God knows I'm definitely a sinner in need of forgiveness! But does that mean I have to forgive Chris Brown?

To answer that question, it's important to understand what forgiveness is -- and what it's not.

The Chris Brown story illustrates real problems with the way Americans understand forgiveness and redemption. Too often, American-style forgiveness is a kind of forgetting. It's a way to trivialize or silence criticism -- a kind of damage control or PR move. American-style forgiveness means that we can't hold Newt Gingrich accountable for his hypocrisy as a simultaneous serial adulterer and family-values warrior. And American-style redemption is conflated with financial or popular success: It's hard to separate our attitude toward Michael Vick as a person from our attitude toward him as a football player.

But Christian forgiveness is not an athletic or political or musical comeback, and Christian redemption is not a get-out-of-jail-free card (or even a five-year probation period with six months of community service). Forgiveness and redemption are part of a demanding spiritual process. They require us to face our failures with honesty and grief; to confess our sins to God and everyone we've hurt; to acknowledge our desperate need for grace; to make amends and restitution as best we can; and to accept the fact that even though we may be spiritually reborn, the ongoing effects of our sins have not been magically erased. We may be right with God or the law, but we still need to slowly earn back the trust of the people we've hurt. And we need to accept that some of the damage we have done may be irrevocable.

The truth is that it's not up to us to forgive Chris Brown, or to judge him. His sins are between him and Rihanna and God. But it is up to us to hold him accountable for the harm he has done, and for the harm he continues to do as a symbol of our cultural callousness about violence against women.