Daily Episcopalian will publish every other day this week.
By Ann Fontaine
What purpose can “not forgiving” serve?
Forgiveness is a highly recommended spiritual practice. The benefits of forgiveness are supposedly less stress and better health. Forgiveness is recommended by the church as a way to wholeness.
I wonder, however, if this is always a good idea. In cases of sexual and physical abuse, I believe offering quick forgiveness can continue the wounding rather than offering healing. It encourages people to “be nice” rather than find the wholeness of accepting the depth of one’s rage. When might it be good not to forgive?
I was reading the Daily Office the other day and this line stood out for me:
Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins. Hebrews 9:22
The passage made wonder about the process of forgiveness. This verse says to me that forgiveness does not always help the process of healing or result in restoration and reconciliation. It says something has to happen before sins are forgiven and relationship returned.
1. A man was sexually abused as a child by his priest, with the tacit consent of his mother. Once he was grown enough to resist and speak out they had him committed to an institution for incorrigible teens. He could never get the church to act against the abuser. He was shuffled off from one office to another. The canons of the church designed to prevent this were not in place. By the time they were – the bishop said the statute of limitations had run out. Forgiveness for him would have been the last straw – one that took away his dignity and the rage that kept him alive to battle a cold uncaring institution and help to change things bit by bit.
2. A priest was often observed crossing boundaries with women – touching them in ways that made them uncomfortable. Some said, “Oh he is just friendly and does not mean anything by it.” For many who were the victims of his touching, it evoked memories of rape and powerlessness. One day he was hit by a car and broke both arms. Some victims felt their wounds had been assuaged and they were able to forgive.
In each of these cases there was an offense or offenses. People dealt with the issues of forgiveness in the ways each felt was best for them.
The church’s demand to forgive can make victims feel guilty and blame themselves for what happened to them. Persons unable to offer forgiveness feel shut out and re-victimized.
I believe we should be offering wholeness that comes from acknowledging the wounding and sitting with that woundedness for as long as it takes for the victim to come to the right place. Instead of demanding instant forgiveness of a perpetrator by a victim, offer to listen and find ways to make amends for what has happened. Help the victim become a survivor by discovering what he or she desires for his or her own life.
Listening shows the person that he or she has a right to be heard. I believe no movement to wholeness can occur until the story is told from the point of view of the victim and the victim receives assurance that it was terrible and should not have happened no matter what else was going on. Acceptance of the event and the knowledge that no amount of revisiting it will change the terrible nature of what happened is the first step to choosing the future one desires. It may or may not involve forgiveness but gives power back to the one who has suffered.
A reflection on the reading from the book of Hebrews
withholding forgiveness from those who have offended may be a time of waiting to see the blood
What sort of blood is needed?
As our daughter, a wise woman, says:
The most important thing I've learned about forgiveness is that it can't be forced. It must flow naturally from where the victim is in their healing process and frequently marks the point at which one has decided not to let the event be a distorting effect on one's life. Justice is a part of forgiveness. If someone did something wrong that was under their control and they show no remorse, then it is very difficult to forgive. If remorse is shown (not just said)-- or one feels that 'fate' has provided justice (as in the broken armed abuser story)-- then it is easier to let go of the protective anger and move on. Anger can a protective shield-- perhaps it is like a cold-frame for seedlings -- protecting a vulnerable person until they are strong enough to live on their own, but confining if left in place too long.
Withholding forgiveness may be a way to retain one’s power in a situation of powerlessness. I believe it can be a first step to regaining a sense of self that has been destroyed by abuse and exploitation.
The Rev. Ann Fontaine, Diocese of Wyoming, keeps what the tide brings in. She is the author of Streams of Mercy: a meditative commentary on the Bible.