With the public apology of Alan Chambers for the pain and trauma caused to LGBTQ people through his leadership in Exodus International and the subsequent decision to close operations at Exodus, LGBTQ people are faced with an important question: Is forgiveness possible?
It's a strange turn of events, if you consider the role reversal involved. For decades, "ministries" affiliated with Exodus have been proclaiming the availability of God's forgiveness for the "sinfulness" of LGBTQ "lifestyles" if only we would repent and amend our ways. Now, those who once so stridently called for our repentance are now the repentant, confessing their wrongdoing to the LGBTQ people whose lives they have diminished. But what are LGBTQ people to do with this apology?
We can doubt the sincerity of Chambers' apology and speculate about the potential for retooling and rebranding the "ministries" that continue to exist in the wake of the Exodus demise. And we certainly won't be so foolish as to think that the end of Exodus is the end of the insidious practice of "reparative" or "conversion" therapies. The shock and defiance expressed in the press release of the Restored Hope Network (the other major propagator of all things "ex-gay"), lamenting the close of Exodus as they would the "unnecessary death of a dear friend" and chalking it up to the theological shortcomings of Exodus leaders, insists that ex-gay "ministries" will live on.
But can we take Chambers' apology and the closing of Exodus as an opportunity for a response beyond skepticism or even celebration? If so, is forgiveness a constructive possibility?
Who Can Forgive?
For some, forgiveness will always remain impossible, a reality that should be recognized upfront. For those who have spent thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours in therapy trying to repair the damage done to them by "reparative" therapy; for those whose relationships were severed because their loved ones were stolen from them by the false promises of ex-gay ministries; for those whose friends and loved ones took their own lives after years of enduring the psychological and spiritual torment of efforts to shame and change their sexual and relational lives; for all of these and more, forgiveness may remain a necessary impossibility. For some, it's understandably too much to ask.
But who can forgive? Must one have come into direct contact with an Exodus-endorsed "ministry" in order to be in a position to forgive? Or might any LGBTQ person whose life has been touched by the anti-LGBTQ rhetoric propagated by these groups be a legitimate candidate to offer forgiveness? While those who have endured the brunt of ex-gay ministries seem the most likely candidates to enact a process forgiveness, it is important to recognize that the damage done extends far beyond the confines of the ex-gay ministries themselves. All LGBTQ people live in a religious and social sphere shaped by rhetoric that has located us in a targeted position in relation to our heterosexual and cisgender neighbors, causing LGBTQ people to appear as "appropriate" targets for exclusion, prejudicial treatment and violence.
So every LGBTQ person must wrestle with the question: Is forgiveness possible?
While Chambers' sorrow and remorse are clear in his apology (for his activities, but not his beliefs), the notion of "forgiveness" goes unmentioned. As LGBTQ people everywhere celebrate by reveling in the rubble of the once-towering figure on the treacherous ex-gay landscape, forgiveness seems a subject far from our minds, too.
It is no wonder, though, that forgiveness isn't mentioned much in this circumstance. Our notion of forgiveness has been diluted by our cultural tendency toward the individualization and psychologizing of notions that might otherwise be considered collective and political. Forgiveness too often seems overly pious or a cheap form of therapy, good only to soothe the souls of those who have been wronged in ways that cannot be rectified.
But can forgiveness be more than this? Might we overcome our anemic versions of forgiveness-as-forgetting, forgiveness-as-therapy and forgiveness-as-saccharine-sweet-piety with a serious conversation about the potential of forgiveness as a tool for justice?
In order to realize the potential of forgiveness as a tool for justice, some of our common cultural and religious notions of forgiveness must be questioned and challenged by more robust understandings. Here are a few suggestions for what forgiveness as a tool for justice might mean for LGBTQ people in relation to Chambers and Exodus:
- Forgiveness-toward-justice says, "We, too, recognize that you did wrong -- very wrong." In our day-to-day interactions, we hear numerous apologies from our family, friends and co-workers. Often, these are for small slights or mistakes that are barely noticeable and to which we often respond with, "Oh, no problem. Forget about it." But forgiveness is not forgetting (despite what cultural wisdom suggests). To Chambers, we will never say, "Oh, no problem. Forget about it." Enacting forgiveness requires that we openly recognize that a serious wrong has taken place, that there are real victims whose well-being has been put in jeopardy. Forgiveness-toward-justice is most certainly not forgetting!
- Forgiveness-toward-justice says, "Your wrongdoing has caused irreparable damage and thus cannot be simply ignored." If it were a simple slight, we would hardly need to expend the energy to discuss the meaning of forgiveness. We could just move on with our lives with a "no harm, no foul" attitude. But for Exodus, we are dealing with a complex wrongdoing that not only affects individual lives but weaves a web of marginalization and violence throughout our society, the threads of which no LGBTQ person can ignore or escape. Forgiveness -- more than shrugging it off, forgetting it or acknowledging the apology without any further action -- stands with the apologetic perpetrator in open and vocal recognition of the fact that the wrongdoing in question must be taken very seriously.
- Forgiveness-toward-justice says, "We will not hold your wrongdoing against you forever." This is the hardest part. But it also seems the crux of forgiveness. While forgiveness isn't forgetting and refuses to hide the scars caused by a perpetrator's wrongdoing, it also cannot forever insist upon casting the perpetrator in light of the perpetrator's past. Forgiveness allows room for the perpetrator to actually change. Forgiveness is enacted with the hope that the perpetrator will change. Forgiveness-toward-justice -- neither sentimental nor pious -- also recognizes that change is difficult and requires the support and accountability of those who cannot forget the complex wrongdoing leveled against them but who commit to creating space for the perpetrator to live life differently, moving into a more just future.
- Forgiveness-toward-justice says, "We will work with you to cultivate a better future for all of us." To my mind, the most important line in Chambers' apology is this one: "I pledge that future endeavors will be focused on peace and common good." If, through a process of forgiveness, LGBTQ people can openly and publicly acknowledge with Chambers, "Yes, you did wrong, and the wrong was a complex wrongdoing that has caused irreparable damage that your words can never mend," and can make the difficult commitment not to hold his wrongdoing against him into perpetuity, then comes the hard work. Forgiveness as a tool for justice will position many of us in closer proximity to those with whom we once worked at cross-purposes, now (hope against all hope) hopefully on a parallel trajectory toward "peace and common good." While we cannot forget the past and are committed to holding perpetrators accountable never to return to past wrongdoing, a process of forgiveness invites a working together toward a more hopeful, more just future.
How Do We Forgive?
But if forgiveness is not simply personal, sentimental or therapeutic -- if it is to operate as a tool for justice -= there must be some way for LGBTQ people to enact this forgiveness openly. We have teachers we can look to in our efforts (Tutu and the Amish, for example). But each circumstance necessitating forgiveness is different, and considerations of forgiveness invite LGBTQ persons into a process of thoughtful imagination over how to publicly convey a commitment to forgiveness toward the realization of a more just world. We are no strangers to public demonstration for recognition, rights, justice and the prideful celebration of our lives. Perhaps we can begin adding creative demonstrates of forgiveness-toward-justice to our repertory.
After we've grappled with the possibilities of forgiveness for Chambers and Exodus, we will be left to deal with the mutated forms of anti-LGBTQ disdain that continue to ripple in the wake of a sinking Exodus (both in the U.S. and worldwide). Beyond Exodus, there remain numerous churches responsible for a history of terror and injustice against queer people -- a history for which repentance may never come.
Those who have so cruelly called for our repentance, those who thought that forgiveness was theirs to broker, are now the ones in need of a queer forgiveness. Perhaps through a queer forgiveness, religious communities intent on maintaining a heterosexist status quo will accept an invitation from an unlikely source into a more just future that they alone could not imagine.