This post is a muddle of Christian and Jewish ideas about forgiveness because my life is a muddle of Judaism and Christianity and the experiences I'm particularly drawing upon involve Christians I know.
We are now in the month of Elul, the month when the Shechinah is said to be most accessible, the season of introspection, repentance and renewal which began in the darkness of the fast of Tisha B'Av and crescendos in the Days of Awe and the transcendent fast of Yom Kippur. My thoughts naturally turn to repentance and forgiveness, but as I mull over the events of the last year I can't help but think about the ways that the principle of forgiveness can be misused in ways which are incredibly harmful.
In my pootling around the internet I found a report on domestic violence presented to Methodist conference in 2002
. I think that many people might be surprised by what aspects of Christian theology cause problems for victims of domestic violence. The report, as one might expect, found that Methodists tend to stay in abusive marriages longer because marriage is regarded as a lifelong commitment. A more unexpected and more troubling problem comes from a different theological source:"Christian forgiveness was mostly seen to mean continuing to welcome an abuser as a member of the Church while an ex partner was excluded from Church attendance by fear."
This was very much the experience of my friend Ellie, and part of the reason for why she no longer feels comfortable worshipping Methodist churches (although her situation was complicated by the fact that her abusive ex-husband is the son of a senior Methodist minister, the Revd Peter Pillinger who is the District Chair for the Plymouth and Exeter District). Some members of her congregation would admit that the thought it was wrong that her husband beat her, but they refused to 'take sides'. They thought that it was wrong of her to get the police involved and, oddly enough, the forgiveness which poured out for her abuser was not forthcoming for her 'sin' of securing her protection.
I think that the difficulty is that humans have a tendency to distort religion to suit their own prejudices, whether that be an Orthodox Jew assaulting a woman for performing rituals which are halachically permitted or a liberal priest justifying sexually harassing a congregant on the grounds that G@d is very nice and only nasty bigots disapprove of his sexual behaviour. Generally people don't want to have to confront the reality of domestic violence within their community and so some Christians use doctrines of forgiveness to avoid confronting domestic violence, in ways which hurt victims within their communities. It's difficult to address but let's begin with talking about what forgiveness is and isn't.Forgiveness is not saying that what the person did was OK.
Forgiveness is the opposite of that. There is no need to forgive actions which were not sins. Forgiveness requires confronting an action head on, in all it's horror, acknowledging that justice would require that this action resulted in punishment, and still forgiving.Forgiveness is not saying that what a person did was justifiable or excusable.
Forgiveness should be available at all levels of culpability and so unless someone was completely not culpable, and therefore not in need of forgiveness because they were not to blame for what happened, excuses are not relavent.Forgiveness does not mean putting the interests of the perpetrator above the needs of the victim.
Loving people equally, despite their sins, does not mean treating them all the same. People have different needs and sometimes those needs conflict and when they do you need to come to a solution which causes the least harm. Generally it is more harmful for a victim to be excluded from her community because they refuse to rebuke her abuser or take her suffering seriously, than for an abuser to be excluded for the safety of his victim.Allowing an abuser to continue to abuse is not loving to the victim or the perpetrator.
Care must be taken to not make a situation worse and to respect the autonomy of the victim, but as a general principle, if it takes exclusion from his community, restraining orders, convictions or prison time for an abuser to stop abusing his victim, then that is better for the abuser as well as the victim. The abuser will one day have to confront his sins, in this world or the next. Better for him to have been stopped before his sins grew further.Repentance is not just words.
Many abusers love to say sorry. They'll beat the shit out of their wife and then show up the next day with flowers and tears begging to be forgiven and promising they'll never do it again. How could a Christian wife refuse just because that's what he did the last x many times before when "love keeps no record of wrongs" (1 Corinthians 13:5) and she should forgive her brother "seventy-seven times" (Matthew 18:22)? Repentance is not just saying that you're sorry, it also resolving to not to sin again. Someone who is genuinely repentant should be willing to give their victim some space, seek treatment for any issues contributing to their abusiveness and allow their victim to be open about what she has experienced. Someone in a position of power should be willing to renounce it for the sake of their flock.
I think this long post was better summarised by Isaiah 1:16-20:Wash yourself clean;
Put your evil doings away from my sight.
Cease to do evil;
Learn to do good.
Devote yourself to justice;
Aid the wronged.
Uphold the rights of the orphan;
Defend the cause of the widow.
Come let us reach an understanding,
says the L@rd.
"Be your sins like crimson,
They can turn snow-white;
Be they red as dyed wool,
They can become like fleece."
If, then, you agree and give heed,
You will eat the good things of the earth;
But if you refuse and disobey,
You will be devoured by the sword.
For it was the L@rd who spoke.