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Wrong approach for forgiveness

by
28 March 2024

Jesus’s words on the cross have been misunderstood, argues Stephen Cherry

Alamy

Return of the Prodigal Son by James Tissot (1862)

Return of the Prodigal Son by James Tissot (1862)

TO SAY that Christianity is a pro-forgiveness religion would seem to be an understatement. Christians worship a God whose mercy towards sinners is a defining characteristic. Jesus often pronounced forgiveness, spoke of the need to forgive your brother or sister, and offered as a model for prayer a form of words that sought forgiveness of sins “as we forgive those who sin against us”. And when dying in excruciating agony on the cross, he was heard to speak words of forgiveness.

Towards the end of the past century, Archbishop Desmond Tutu promoted forgiveness within South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), both as amnesty for perpetrators and as a personal expression of the victims. In the years that followed, he travelled the world with his universal message. Many have followed his lead in promoting forgiveness for its spiritual merits, psychological advantages, and its contribution to conflict resolution and reconciliation.

But, wonderful though forgiveness can be, I have found myself increasingly burdened by the question: Has Christianity got forgiveness right?

I was beginning to wonder about this before the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse in the Church of England and the Church in Wales identified how the understanding and practices of forgiveness contributed to a culture where abuse was not properly addressed. But I was also worried about Tutu and the TRC.

One of the issues to surface with hindsight is the pressure to forgive that was put on those who had experienced the gross violation of their human rights under apartheid. The Commission praised those who forgave, and dismissed or ignored those who refused. And, in its first six months, every victim was asked whether they had forgiven the perpetrator. In her recent book Failures of Forgiveness, Myisha Cherry (no relation) sees this as “a subtle form of coercion” that “created inappropriate pressure to forgive”.

In her book On Repentance and Repair, which introduces Maimonides’s teaching to a contemporary world, Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg has written of the Christian tendency to weaponise forgiveness, pointing out how pressure to forgive can serve the interests of the powerful. She takes her examples from appeals for forgiveness in the immediate aftermath of the American Civil War that didn’t begin to connect with the depth of suffering which had been inflicted on those who had been enslaved.

Ruttenburg also calls out the way in which the path of repentance is deprecated in Protestant theology, and sees this a way of shifting responsibility from the harmer to the harmed.

Ruttenberg also recounts the story of Sarah Stewart Holland, who, as a fervent young Christian, was among those who, the day after a student opened fire on prayer circle at her school, killing three, made posters that proclaimed: “We forgive you because God also forgave us.” She was interviewed on television, Bible in hand, proclaiming how God’s love had fuelled her forgiveness.

A decade later, she realised that that was overreacting to any death she encountered, and sought counselling. Quickly diagnosed with PTSD, she only then began the work of genuinely freeing herself from her trauma.

 

IT IS often stated that Jesus forgave his crucifiers from the cross — or even that he commanded his followers to forgive. But these are oversimplifications of words in St Luke’s Gospel. The word “forgive” was on his lips, but Jesus did not say “People of the crucifixion party, and those who perpetrated the injustice that is laughingly called my ‘trial’, let me use my last breath to forgive you, one and all.” No, he offered a prayer that his Father might forgive them, since they didn’t know what they were doing.

Such words are clearly not vengeful, nor are they angry or bitter. On the contrary, they are eye-wateringly generous and beautifully exemplary. But they are a prayer for forgiveness, not an act of forgiveness.

We can pray for the forgiveness of those whom we don’t ourselves forgive, just as we can pray for our oppressors and abusers without condoning them. When we do, we step into the space between bitter and hateful responses and a warm and forgiving embrace. And it is into this intermediate space, between the extremes of harsh unforgiveness and full forgiveness, that we should invite people when they have been harmed.

This is very different from urging people to forgive. Indeed, it might often mean suggesting that the harmed person hold back from forgiving until the harmer changes in such a way as to become potentially forgivable.

Some will say that this is to transfer forgiveness from the realm of undeserved gift to something that a person who has inflicted harm must earn. I would argue that forgiveness is never earned and is always a gift, because the forgivability gap after harm, while it can be narrowed, can never be closed, or bridged, from the side of the harmer. But let’s be clear: to say that forgiveness is a gift is not to say that everything is forgivable.

The question after harm is not “To forgive or not to forgive?” This is a polarisation that risks heaping anxiety on those already burdened by harm and trauma. Victims and survivors need to appreciate that they have a wide range of possible responses available, and that forms of non-toxic, non-violent, non-vengeful unforgiveness might sometimes be best.

It is not true that there is no future without forgiveness. The truth is that there is no future unless peaceable ways of abiding in unforgiveness can be found.

To go back to Sarah Stewart Holland and her poster: had it read, “May God forgive you,” she might have been in a more realistic psychological space — as well as following a biblical example.

 

CHRISTIANITY has not got forgiveness right. It sees the downside of unforgiving reactions to having been harmed (which are real), but fails to see the downside of forgiving too easily or hastily. It is positive about stories of forgiveness, but reluctant to tell of occasions where, for example, people continue to love and care for those whom they will never forgive.

Many of the most celebrated stories of forgiveness are of a perpetrator who is now incarcerated, or dead. Under such circumstances, it can be transformative to put all thoughts of retribution aside, and good to indicate the overcoming of resentment and the restoration of good will by saying “Yes, I forgive.” These are often stories of so-called “unconditional” forgiveness, which has sprung from the heart of the harmed without any expression of acknowledgement, regret, apology, or repentance by the harmer.

Such forgiveness has its own value, but it is wrong to present it as exemplary to those who are hated or whose abuse is unrecognised and unhealed, and perhaps being perpetrated by someone who lives under the same roof. The best question in such situations is not: “Can you find it in your heart to forgive?” It is: “What do you need to make you safe, to help you recover, to regain your dignity and freedom?”

Victims and survivors will need to make their own peace with the legacy of what they have experienced. For some, it will mean letting go of every last drop of resentment and re-embracing someone whose betrayal was devastating. For others, it might mean getting the help that they need to overcome the debilitating consequences of their mistreatment, and making their enduring resentment non-toxic.

The first priority after serious harm, then, is not forgiveness but the well-being and health of the harmed and the restoration of their freedom. This will never be achieved by presenting forgiveness as the only way to a decent future after harm, or by coercing people, however subtly, to forgive.

Forgiveness can be astonishing, wonderful, and transformative, but only if it flows from freedom. When that freedom is constrained, as it often is by the impact of trauma, then the harmed need to be helped towards the space between forgiveness and retribution, the territory between acceptance and resentment. That is the space in which reality — and God — is to be found, and to which the dying Jesus pointed us.

 

The Revd Dr Stephen Cherry is Dean of Chapel at King’s College, Cambridge, and the author of Unforgivable? Exploring the limits of forgiveness, published by Bloomsbury Continuum at £16.99 (Church Times Bookshop £15.29).

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