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Weird Christian thinking

by
12 March 2021

In the latest extract from his new book based on the Lord’s Prayer, Stephen Cherry considers the understanding of forgiveness

jmeyersforeman/Alamy

The Hill of Forgiveness: cast iron pilgrim silhouette statues at Alto Perdon Ridge on the Camino to Santiago de Compostela, Spain

The Hill of Forgiveness: cast iron pilgrim silhouette statues at Alto Perdon Ridge on the Camino to Santiago de Compostela, Spain

THE phrase “weird Christian thinking” is not mine. I have taken it from a book about forgiveness after traumatic events written by Sue Atkinson, in which she writes passionately about both her own personal experiences and those of others.

The personal story that she relates in the book is that, while still in shock after having been attacked, while “still trembling and having nightmares”, she was advised by a clergyman that if she did not forgive the person who had attacked her she would “go to hell”.

Sadly, Atkinson’s experience is not an eccentric one-off. Indeed, she offers several similar stories. The story of Richard, for instance, who was subject to sexual abuse from both parents, as well as violence, incarceration, and neglect. When Richard joined a church, he was offered some counselling, as a result of which he went home and tried to discuss his abuse with his parents. They were unsympathetic and insisted that they had done nothing wrong. This made matters worse for him.

At this point, his “counselling” suddenly takes another turn. Max, the counsellor, insists that the only way ahead is for Richard to forgive his parents. Richard says that this is what he was trying to do. Max says he must try harder, because, “Jesus won’t forgive you unless you forgive your parents.” Richard replies that it might help if they said sorry. Max doesn’t accept the point at all, and responds: “Well, they didn’t say sorry, and if you don’t want to go to hell, you must forgive them.”

Atkinson reports that Richard went back to his room, cried for days, and decided to abandon Christianity. It’s hard to disagree with her conclusion that people subject to pastoral care or counselling based on this “weird thinking” are “abused all over again”.

 

WHILE I think that Atkinson is right to call this “weird”, it is not especially unusual, and it is often found in those branches of the Church where there is a desire for a distinctive, clear, and radical understanding of the gospel message. These can be admirable ambitions. But it doesn’t always work out well.

The novel Women Talking, by the Canadian author Miriam Toews, is an account of an imagined conversation that takes place among eight women of the Mennonite community in Molotschna, Bolivia. The context for that conversation is a set of true events that took place between 2005 and 2009.

Most of the men of the community had conspired to drug the women and girls — all of whom were illiterate, because of the educational policy of the community — with animal anaesthetics. They then raped them. The men told the women that their assailants were ghosts and demons, but in the end one of the women found a way to outwit them and discover and expose the truth. The men were arrested, tried, found guilty, and imprisoned.

The conversation that the novel records is set in a hayloft, where women from three different generations gather, two days before the men are due to be released from prison. As they talk it all through, they identify three options for themselves: “do nothing”, “stay and fight”, or “leave”. “Forgive” isn’t listed as an option, but is contained under the heading “do nothing”.

As the narrator puts it: “And when the perpetrators return, the women of Molotschna will be given the opportunity to forgive these men, thus guaranteeing everyone’s place in heaven. If the women don’t forgive the men … the women will have to leave the colony for the outside world, of which they know nothing.” Clearly, the understanding is that there is an obligation to forgive, and that it is the equivalent of doing nothing — the default option.

 

A VERY different story, though one that hinges on the same understanding of an overriding imperative to forgive, concerns the Amish people of the Nickel Mines community in Pennsylvania. On 2 October 2006, a gunman ran into the local school and captured the children. He later shot ten of them, before killing himself. Five of the girls died; the others were seriously injured.

Almost immediately afterwards, members of the Amish community went out of their way to comfort and support, not only those who survived the shooting and the bereaved, but also, and particularly, the close family of the gunman — who, while not a member of their community, had lived near by and was well known.

The atrocity attracted media attention, but so did the forgiving response of the Amish people. A book, Amish Grace, was written about the event and what followed, and a movie was also produced. In several interviews, people from the community explained their actions in terms of the passages from Matthew’s Gospel that I have already mentioned. “We have to forgive him in order for God to forgive us.”

 

IT IS clear from this brief exposition of weird Christian thinking that it can lead to various different consequences. In the case of the “pastoral” counselling of those who have been abused or traumatised, the consequence is re-traumatising threats. In the case of the Mennonite community, it led to a demand for acceptance and passivity from the women. In the case of the Amish of Nickel Mines, on the other hand, it led to positive, pro-social, and healing engagement.

This mixture of outcomes can, however, be explained, because — although the actions of the Amish towards the family of the gunman are acts of exemplary kindness, and must have involved a profound mixture of generosity and courage — they are not, actually or really, acts of forgiveness.

The family members of the gunman had not rounded up, terrorised, or killed those children. They were, as close associates of those who perpetrate horrendous atrocities often are, themselves hurt and damaged by it.

As for the perpetrator himself: he was dead and, in human terms, forgiving the dead — while it cannot be taken for granted — is not at all the same as forgiving those who are alive, and who have not yet shown any sign of repenting of what they have done to you (like Richard’s parents), and who also remain a threat to you (as the men do to the women in the Mennonite community of Molotschna).

But, if the Lord’s Prayer’s petition concerning forgiveness doesn’t mean, “You must forgive instantly, thoroughly, and irrevocably, irrespective of what you have suffered,” then what does it mean? Inevitably, to answer this will involve considering some words in more depth.

 

The Revd Dr Stephen Cherry is the Dean of King’s College, Cambridge.

Extracted from Thy Will Be Done: The 2021 Lent Book © Stephen Cherry 2021 (Bloomsbury Continuum, £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £7.99); 978-1-4729-7825-7).

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