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Should We Forgive the Repentant Leader of an 'Ex-Gay' Ministry?

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Alan Chambers has announced that he will shutter Exodus International, an "ex-gay" ministry that has been in operation for 37 years. The ministry's goal has been to use reparative therapy on people who have articulated same-sex desires -- to "make" them straight, in other words. Needless to say, this work has caused a tremendous amount of suffering and anguish for people struggling with their sexuality, and for those whose families refused to accept them as gay. I don't know of any statistics regarding how many people attempted or committed suicide after failing to be "rehabilitated," but I imagine there has been not only major psychological damage but lives lost as a result of these efforts.

In his statement, Chambers said:

I am sorry for the pain and hurt that many of you have experienced. I am sorry some of you spent years working through the shame and guilt when your attractions didn't change. I am sorry we promoted sexual orientation change efforts and reparative theories about sexual orientation that stigmatized parents. ... I am sorry that when I celebrated a person coming to Christ and surrendering their sexuality to Him, I callously celebrated the end of relationships that broke your heart. I am sorry I have communicated that you and your families are less than me and mine.

His apology reads as sincere and heartfelt, to be sure. But it raises some bigger questions: What are the possibilities and limits of forgiveness? What does true redemption look like? Do the people hurt by Chambers' actions have an obligation to forgive?

On the surface, the Jewish answer seems clear. Maimonides, one of the tradition's greatest authorities, writes in the Laws of Repentance (2:10):

It is forbidden for a person to be cruel and unappeased. Rather, one should be easily mollified and hard to infuriate. And when asked to forgive, one should forgive wholeheartedly and enthusiastically. Even if the aggressor maltreated him and sinned against him a great deal, one should not bear a grudge and not take revenge.

And yet, it's not necessarily so simple. Elsewhere, in the Laws of Torts (5:9), Maimonides makes it clear that the aggressor must make restitution for harm inflicted before seeking to appease the victim and acquire his or her forgiveness. More damningly, the Talmud (Sotah 47a), asserts, "Whoever sinned and caused others to sin is deprived of the ability of doing penitence."

It's certainly the case that Chambers not only propagated this harm on his own but trained many others to do so, and that other copycat groups emerged as a result of his prominence. Some former associates of Exodus have rebranded themselves as another "ex-gay" ministry under the name The Restored Hope Network. Even if he were able to make personal amends to all those he attempted to "rehabilitate" over the course of his 12 years as Exodus' president, the movement he led is now a many-headed hydra.

In 1943, when Simon Wiesenthal was at the Lemberg Concentration Camp, he was brought to the bedside of a dying, genuinely repentant Nazi, who confessed to the gruesome murder of 300 Jews. He asked Wiesenthal to forgive him, as a Jew. Wiesenthal ran away.

Still haunted years later by the question of what he should have done, he asked some of the leading religious minds of his day for their take on the dilemma, and he published his story, along with their responses, as the book The Sunflower. The answers are divided, but all are moving. The Most Rev. Desmond Tutu writes of the way that real forgiveness for the brutal crimes of apartheid held to "bring healing and reconciliation to a deeply divided, wounded, and traumatized nation." The Dalai Lama tells the story of a Tibetan monk who served 18 years in a Chinese prison but who reports that, amidst years of suffering and torture, the thing he feared most was "losing compassion for the Chinese." Others disagreed: Cynthia Ozik wrote that forgiveness "blurs over suffering and death," and Rabbi Arthur Waskow said that "there is no way to repair the rips and tears in relationship that have left the Jewish people still struggling to be able to trust, connect, make peace...."

Do the people harmed by Chambers' work, directly or indirectly, have an obligation to forgive him? No. Does real forgiveness, freely offered from a place of healing and compassion, have the possibility to be redemptive for Chambers' victims? I think it does. I'm glad that Chambers is doing some of the work to repair his own broken soul, but even if he were able to repent directly to each of the individuals he harmed, the damage he caused can't ever be taken back -- and he has caused others to do harm as well. It's huge that his turnaround and apology will prevent some people from being hurt in the future, and I hope it helps some of those who have suffered on their journey back toward wholeness.