Trigger Warning: for discussion of sexual harassment and abuse.
I’ve been thinking a lot about atonement and forgiveness in the light of #MeToo movement. It was horrifyingly unsurprising to see the magnitude of sexual harassment and sexual violence in our culture through a twitter hash-tag. Unsurprising because, at least in my experience all of my female friends have stories about being harassed or violated. Some of my male friends do as well, and I don’t know how many more might have been but are afraid or ashamed to share their own stories.
Horrific because the fact that sexual violence permeates our culture is not news to most women, LGBTQ people, or people who are marginalized for any reason. Sexual harassment and abuse is an expression of power, rage, and/or control and is never really about sex. The people who wield sexual harassment or abuse already have the power (though they may not admit it to themselves).
#MeToo and the Harvey Weinstein seem to represent a tipping point in our culture. We, all of us, have been made aware of the pervasiveness of sexual harassment, and are finally ready to listen to the survivors and take action.
Some actions will be taken in the courts, some in public, some at work places, and some of the work will be done in the church.
This brings me to confession, atonement, and forgiveness. Sometimes, as Christians, there is a temptation to skip right from confession (or sometimes accusation, if the abuser is caught rather than confessing) to forgiveness. In particular, survivors of abuse who report it are sometimes pressured to ‘forgive’ the abuser– to let it go and move on.
This is not an act of faith or a way to ‘heal’ a community. This is yet another form of abuse the survivor endures at the hands of their community and the people who should be acting to protect them.
I think this emerges because people are fundamentally lazy and the work of atonement, the real work needed to bring healing to the survivors and, hopefully, to find a path back to humanity and grace for the abuser, is difficult.
It means calling people, people we might otherwise love or respect, to account. It means listening to survivors (some of whom are not as charming or loved as the abuser). It means disruption in the short term, if the abuser is a priest or person of power in the congregation. It means fear of loss, that not only might the community be damaged by this but that it might be lost all together.
However, if we skip the all-important work of atonement we only invite further destruction further on down the road.
Secrets kept in a community can eat away at it like acid; over time destroying bonds of trust.
The survivor of abuse who is told to forgive instead of having their claim fully investigated and action taken against the abuser is further damaged by the community.
Frequently they are forced out of their community by this failure of atonement. The community is further damaged both by rumors that spread in such situations and by the survivor taking their story out to the world and sharing how they were abused and then driven out.
In the short term the lazy impulse to skip atonement may seem like the easy way to solve a problem; however, like an untreated stain that sets in the dryer, failing to tackle the sin of abuse right away only makes the problem worse and much harder to fix in the future.
Jesus didn’t call us to take the easy road. He showed us how hard the work of atonement can be when he died a painful death on the cross. He didn’t shortcut the process and skip right to the resurrection. We can’t have the resurrection without the death.
We can’t have forgiveness without confession and atonement. Atonement must take place and like the death on the cross it will be messy and painful.
However, Jesus gave us another gift. He gave us the grace of God to sustain us through difficult times.
There is no shortcut to justice and true forgiveness for the sinner, but there is the promise of grace and the hope of resurrection if the work is undertaken faithfully and with a true desire to atone.
No one can force this work on another and even if an abuser starts the work of atonement the community should act to protect the survivor(s) first.
This may mean taking difficult steps to remove an abuser from a place of power or to evict them from the community. Allowing an abuser to stay in power just because they say they are working on atoning is not atonement, it is enabling them to escape consequences.
We must not use the idea of the importance of forgiveness to shield abusers. We must not give into the temptation of laziness to make our own lives more comfortable in the short term by asking the survivor to be the scapegoat carrying our sins away from us.
We must confront abusers in our midst, call them to account, and remove them from power.
We should confess to survivors that we as a community failed them by allowing an abuser the power to hurt them.
We can atone as a community by taking action to remove the abuser and accepting the messy disruption that such an action will entail.
Given the prevalence of harassment and abuse in our culture, we, above-all, need a plan in place to deal with it.
Kristin Fontaine is an itinerant Episcopalian, crafter, hobbyist, and unstoppable organizer of everything. Advent is her favorite season, but she thinks about the meaning of life and her relationship to God year-round. It all spills out in the essays she writes. She and her husband own Dailey Data Group, a statistical consulting company.