Abuse and What Forgiveness Isn’t

Content note: sexual abuse, power, privilege, abuse in the news, abuse narratives

Most of the blog posts I’ve read that defend a Christian accused of a sexual crime against another person (or persons) get the concept of forgiveness really, really wrong.

In Abuse and the Use of Power, I wrote briefly about the difficulty I experience writing about religion. I currently attend a Christian peace church that turns the mainstream idea of church hierarchy on its head, but I have attended and witnessed churches and church relationships that cause a great deal of hurt to individuals and groups. I am conscious of the contributions the church has made to historical and modern constructions of racism, misogyny and sexism, privilege, power, and the language and action of oppression. I have also seen the church participate in reconciliation and liberation.

It’s safe to say I have a complex relationship with the church. It’s full of wrestling and nuance, which is something that often gets lost as soon as tempers flare and parties start shouting past each other.

Granted, there are some things about which I feel no nuance. Deconstructing power. Sexual abuse. Standing on the side of the marginalized.

And in that vein, I have read some very troubling things over the last week. I am not going to link them, because page hits. Also because I ended up in a very angry rabbit hole last night following the push behind a specific blog post. It was ugly and confounding, and I decided not to go the route of a detailed illustration of the parallels between featuring a blog post on forgiving abusers while simultaneously featuring specific language that has been called out as being sexist and damaging… the more I dug into it the more I realized my emotional health couldn’t handle it. Especially not before bed.

Forgiveness.

Through the lens of power, here are my responses to points of conversation as I have read it to date, and what I assert has been missing from nearly every conversation involving a high-profile sexual assault:

“We should forgive him!” That is not within our power; forgiveness is not ours to give. Unless we are the target or victim or God Himself, it is not our responsibility to forgive.

“He confessed and apologized, so the victims need to forgive him.” There are many variations of “The perpetrator did X, so the victims should do Y,” and they are problematic. First, an apology is not an equation. It does not guarantee forgiveness. In my 12-Step group, when we reach Step 9 and make amends we do so with the full understanding that forgiveness may not be proffered in return. When my students get an apology, they say “Thank you;” I have taught them not to say “It’s okay.” Because usually it is not okay. Second, forgiveness cannot be demanded, required, or coerced as part of a conditional agreement or system. “He confessed and apologized, so the victims need to forgive him” is an expression of the exact same abuse of power and authority that manifested as the sexual assault. The hierarchy of perpetrator over victim remains in place, and the authority remains in hands of the assaulter.

“Move on.” A lot–and I mean a lot— of blogs and articles and opinion pieces have mentioned and paid lip service to the victims. The amount of ink they get compared to the perpetrator is a dismal ratio, and maybe that’s to ensure they’re privacy. Then again, maybe not. In this specific case, we’re told the victims got counseling. We don’t know what kind. We’re told they moved on. Or, we’re told they should move on. Empty cries to “move on” ignore very real issues that happen in churches and families around us. One woman wrote about her similar molestation, and that she was counseled (by a lay member of the church, a non-professional) that forgiveness was required, and that moving on was the only thing that would glorify God. And a five-year-old child cannot complete counseling. For one, counseling is an ongoing process. Furthermore, if a child cannot fully process what happened to her body, she cannot understand the implications of forgiving that sin against her. It’s distinctly possible that if/when she chooses to forgive her assailant, she will need to re-forgive him every time the memory of abuse reemerges as a power in her life. A victim/survivor of sexual abuse is the only person who can decide when she can move on, forgive, let go of some of the hurt. As far as us moving on? If we do not have real conversations about child sexual abuse, the systems that facilitate its commission, and the barriers to intervention, it will keep happening. We need to have conversations about how to best separate victims from their abusers, how to help victims recover and heal, and how to rehabilitate abusers so they do not abuse again.

Forgiveness is not neat and tidy. But it is also not a transaction, or an automatic response to “I’m sorry.” If it is forced, required, or coerced, it becomes an extension of the original abuse. “Moving on” is an illusion that ignores real issues and maintains the power structures that facilitate abuses of authority.

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