by Eric Bonetti
As Christians, we are often reminded of the importance of forgiveness if we and others are to heal from past injuries. But how does this align with anger, accountability, and blame?
Some time ago, I exchanged comments on Facebook with a person who counseled a battered spouse to “turn the other cheek.” My response – not universally popular – was to suggest forgiveness, but also to take immediate legal action. Follow-on comments ran the gamut, but what was fascinating was that very few commentators recognized that forgiveness and accountability can go hand-in-hand.
As I’ve gotten older, I look back on the various parishes at which I’ve been a member. Sometimes, I think about the challenges they’ve faced. And all too often, I realize that the challenges were self-inflicted. Many times, the issue was a reluctance to speak up, to ask questions, to challenge authority. In other cases, people were willing to speak up, but the parish/family system worked hard to maintain the status quo, even when the status quo resulted in hurt to others.
Our tendency to use forgiveness as a way to avoid accountability first came into focus for me a few years after I graduated from college. A dear friend of mine, Jane (not her real name), had been ordained an Episcopal priest, and was happily serving in a vibrant suburban New England parish. Surrounded by a swirl of young families, church activities, an adoring boyfriend and loads of volunteer work, Jane’s life seemed set on a happy trajectory.
Then, one day, things abruptly changed. Jane was at a social event, when a friend and local bank employee casually remarked, “It is so nice that you are doing so much to help my neighbors. They’ve really been through a lot the last few years.”
Smilingly wanly, Jane turned away in confusion. Serving in a small town, she certainly was aware of the plight of the family in question. Over the past several years, she had been able to steer them to various social services agencies, and had provided modest cash assistance from her discretionary fund from time to time. But the assistance was far from generous, and she regretted her inability to do more.
A few days and several inquiries later, it quickly emerged that the funds had not been going to a family in need, but were instead being taken by a much loved member of the parish with access to the accounting software. Two sets of accounting records were being maintained, with the fraudulent set concealing a variety of improper disbursements. Much of the money had been taken in the form of checks to this local family, whose surname was similar to that of the parishioner. Thus, cashing the checks was an easy matter, and the veil of discretion around what was thought to be a pastoral care issue preempted questions by those in the know.
When Jane reported the matter to her rector, he exploded in anger. Not over the theft, but instead that Jane would dare criticize someone in the parish. No matter that the police soon confirmed fraud was massive in scale – Jane was soon without a job, and quickly became persona non grata in the diocese. It was not until several years later, and a move to the west coast, that Jane again returned to steady employment.
Ironically, members of the parish later remarked that the issue wasn’t that Jane had reported the theft. It was that they purported to have forgiven the culprit, and felt that Jane’s reporting the crime somehow interfered with that forgiveness. And, to this day, members of that parish have never really reconciled with Jane, who suffered tremendous heartache over her efforts to do what was right.
Lessons learned? For me, forgiveness all too often can be an excuse to avoid change. We lose sight of the Jesus who turned the money changers out of the temple; the Jesus who loved the poor and the destitute, but had scant patience for those who misused power.
Instead, we prefer to “forgive” our way out of social justice. Discrimination, racism, sexism, homophobia, bullying, harassment, abuse, misuse, outright theft – we ignore all these things in the name of getting along. “That would never happen here,” we say, as these very things happen right under our noses, and all too often within the church itself.
Yes, forgiveness is vital, for anger and resentment, left unchecked, can quickly become cancers of the soul. Yet forgiveness, left unchecked, becomes apathy, which in turn corrodes the very essence of life itself.
Eric Bonetti is a former nonprofit professional with extensive change management experience. He now works as a realtor.