After spending the first half of my life in the church, I've come to the conclusion that evangelical culture is largely dysfunctional in its understanding of "forgiveness." And nowhere is this more clearly seen than in the recent report by Al Jazeera America on Bob Jones University.
BJU is fundamentalist, to be sure, but their demonstrated approach to "forgiveness" is very common -- perhaps even pervasive -- in broader evangelical culture. And when abusive and harmful people are part of the equation, the results are especially egregious. I've experienced abuse from family and church authority. I've been counseled repeatedly by the church to "forgive" and "reconcile." The results have always been disastrous, causing even greater destruction and harm.
A threat that often came from the church -- and still painfully rings in my ears at times -- is that to not "forgive" and "reconcile" with my abuser would mean the lifting of God's blessing from my life. My calling would become invalid. My life would become worldly and meaningless.
At BJU one of the counselors instructed a rape victim in the exact same way:
According to emails, Berg also advised Sarah to call her rapist and ask for forgiveness. Sarah said Berg told her that if she didn't forgive, God wouldn't be able to "use her."
Note the convoluted nature of this "counsel": The victim is to blame for not "forgiving" her abuser, and she therefore must both "forgive" her abuser for raping her (personally, by calling him on the phone!) and ask for his "forgiveness" for not immediately "forgiving" him!
Of course, the result of this act of supposed double "forgiveness" did not result in any more freedom or the rebooting of God's call on this woman's life. Talking to her rapist didn't make Sarah feel better. "Picking up that phone that day and calling him was one of the most gut-wrenchingly hard things that I ever had to do," she told Al Jazeera America. "It didn't bring me closure. Instead, it was like sticking a knife inside me and twisting it harder."
This is classic rape-culture thinking, wherein the victim (usually a woman) is far more blameworthy than her abuser (usually a man). The man is seen as having acted in a natural, albeit sinful, way, while the woman is seen as having clearly harbored internal motives, if not outward immodest dress or behavior, that are all wrong and likely brought on the sexual aggression. In a Christian context, she is also in sin if she fails to quickly "forgive" and "reconcile" after the fact. And any emotional pain she is feeling as a result of the trauma is likewise the result of sin within her. According to the Al Jazeera America report:
BJU practices, preaches and instructs a version of Christian counseling that rejects "secular psychology." In the school's worldview, almost all mental problems -- beyond the medical -- are the result of sin. As explained in the 1996 book, "Becoming an Effective Christian Counselor," "most people in mental hospitals are not sick; they are sinful."
... [T]he authors also make clear that being sexually assaulted is no excuse for the sinful feelings of discontentment, hate, fear, and especially, bitterness -- unresolved anger that "in reality is rebellion and bitterness against God."
More than even rape culture, this is a vast, abusive paradigm around the ideology of "forgiveness," the end of which is only increased trauma and pain for victims, creating the necessity for them to live in unhealthy, repressed and self-destructive denial unless they leave the paradigm entirely (which often involves leaving a church, ministry or college). And it applies to all forms of harmful and abusive behavior that victimizes others, not only rape. It creates a theologized and institutionalized structure for the perpetuation of all manner of harm.
And this kind of "forgiveness" has to end, because it's not real forgiveness at all.
Forgiveness is a function of love and justice; it does not stand in opposition to these things. Forgiveness works in concert with therapeutic processing and healing, not in opposition to those things. Forgiveness validates anger, fear, depression and any other emotions or conditions that the victim may experience on her path to wholeness; it does not oppose these experiences and demand denial.
Actively, authentic forgiveness is the releasing of bitterness. It is a one-way (not two-way)* process of giving the offender over to God and trusting God to do what is right, rather than seeking revenge or devolving into a dark kind of rage. It may even entail the prayerful desire for the offender's well-being, the hope that they get the help they need to deal with their own issues and demons.
However, forgiveness can only function from a position of safety. To place oneself, or demand that others place themselves, in harm's way by reconnecting with an abuser in order to "forgive" and "reconcile" is to deny the justice and love of God, which stands in defense of victims and against the arrogant and abusive. The protection of the victim and the prosecution and discipline of the abuser are a baseline requirement before talk of forgiveness can even have meaning. Really, the "forgiveness" that demands placing victims in greater danger in order to accomplish an artificial transaction is a twisted perversion of the real thing. It is meant not to heal the offended, release the offender and avoid the harmful downward cycle of revenge but to maintain the systems of power that will perpetuate those cycles of abuse and violence and harm, because those systems of power have historically been very profitable for institutional leaders.
But the end of true forgiveness is not greater harm but greater healing. Period. And that's why this false "forgiveness" has to end.
*I think that true reconciliation, which always involves forgiveness but is more than just forgiveness, is a two-way process. This involves the offender or abuser genuinely repenting of wrongs and seeking to make reparations for the damage they created. It still may never result in ongoing relationship, but it is a genuine transaction that may bring closure and healing. And in cases where there is sufficient safety from the perspective of the person wronged (generally in cases that did not involve serious abuse), there may be restored relationship.
This post originally appeared at The Nuance on Patheos.
Follow Zach J. Hoag on Twitter: www.twitter.com/zhoag