My friend “Deborah” was raised by mixed-faith parents: Jewish father, Christian mother. As an agnostic adult, Deborah remained fascinated by her parents’ faith traditions. She occasionally attended my former church, and she had great admiration for my pastor. She met with him at least once in his office. When I reported my pastor, Deborah was shaken. She asked me, “But aren’t Christians supposed to forgive?” I don’t remember how I responded in that traumatized state, but apparently it was enough to end the friendship.
I did try to forgive my pastor, many times. His abuse consisted of a long period of grooming and two serious betrayals of trust. A mere two weeks after the first event, he “repented” and I “forgave” him. I struggled for more than a year to forgive the second event, and ultimately I could not. I now realize I never really forgave at all. I whitewashed the offense because I so desperately needed to think well of him, and to be at peace with him.
What is forgiveness, anyway? I have really struggled with this issue. Christianity promotes radical forgiveness. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells Peter to forgive a sinning brother “not seven times, but seventy times seven.” Christian culture pushes forgiveness so hard that even my agnostic-Jewish-Christian friend pressed me to forgive. But who benefits when a victim forgives her abuser? Does forgiveness free the abuser from sin? Does forgiveness free the victim from pain? Or does forgiveness free the community from the hard work of justice and healing? I suspect it is mostly the latter. That’s why in the context of clergy sexual abuse, I consider “forgiveness” the real F-word.
Even so, I continue to struggle to forgive my offending pastor. Marie Fortune and Joretta Marshall’s “Forgiveness and Abuse: Jewish and Christian Reflections” (Routledge, 2004) has been helpful in this effort. Whenever I feel shame about my Christian unforgiveness, I take courage from the fact that the Jewish tradition (the root of Christianity, after all) demands that the offender first make full reparation. What’s more, the Jewish tradition recognizes that for some sins, reparation is impossible. My former pastor can never restore my reputation from the false words he spoke about me afterward.
And yet, I continue to try to forgive. I continue to try to understand forgiveness. That’s why I was glad to learn of the FaithTrust Institute’s free webinar next Tuesday. The Rev. Dr. Marie Fortune will lead a discussion titled “Violence and Trauma: What Does Forgiveness Really Mean?” I’ve joined several FTI webinars, and I highly recommend them. It’s easy to sign up. The technology is simple even for digital immigrants like me. Best of all, it’s completely anonymous. I’ll be there, and I’ll share the insights here. I hope you’ll consider joining this important event.