After years of fruitless attempts to forgive my former pastor, I’ve finally figured out why I can’t do it. According to the Bible, it is impossible.
“What?” you ask. “Didn’t Jesus tell us to forgive seventy times seven? Doesn’t the Lord’s Prayer ask us to forgive? And doesn’t that prayer imply that if we don’t, God won’t forgive us?”
Yes, all that is true. But I finally understand what forgiveness meant in Jesus’ day. In Structures of Forgiveness in the New Testament, Frederick Keene explains it all. According to Keene, the New Testament authors used three Greek words to mean “forgive.” Here are what those words meant to them:
1. Aphiemi: To leave behind (“They left their nets and followed him,” Mark 1:18 and Matthew 4:20); to cancel a debt (“The master of that slave released him and forgave him the debt,” Matthew 18:32); to release from bondage (“He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives,” Luke 4:18); or to pardon sins (“Her sins, which were many, have been forgiven,” Luke 7:47).
2. Charizomai: To be generous. Paul uses this word to convey God’s boundless generosity (“He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us,” Romans 8:32). Luke uses it in the sense of forgiving debts (“He canceled the debts for both of them,” Luke 7:42).
3. Apoluo: To dismiss or divorce; to release a spouse from the obligations of marriage. This word appears only twice in the New Testament, both times in Luke 6:37c.
Please notice! The NT authors never used “forgiveness” to mean “swallowing your anger” or “pretending it didn’t happen.” Forgiveness was not an emotion but a transaction. Masters could cancel their servants’ debts. Jailers could release their prisoners. Husbands could free their unhappy wives to go back home. Jesus could pardon a woman’s sins. In other words, forgiveness meant letting someone off the hook.
So, whom can we let off the hook? Only our equals or those over whom we have power: an employee who needs the day off, a friend who owes us money, a spouse asking for a divorce. Who can let us off the hook? Only our equals or superiors: a boss when we need the day off, a friend to whom we owe money, a spouse who agrees to a divorce. We cannot forgive someone who has power over us. Looking up the chain of command, forgiveness simply has no meaning. We cannot let a more powerful person off the hook because we never had them on the hook to begin with. Dying on the cross, even Jesus had no power to forgive his executioners. “Father, forgive them,” he said to the One who did.
In a clergy/congregant relationship, the pastor always holds the power, with one small exception. Between the first chargeable instance of clergy sexual abuse and the victim’s promise of silence, the victim has the power of disclosure. When my pastor made his sexual interest clear, I had to decide what to do about it. For nine excruciating days, he knew I had the power to turn him in. In his terror, he promised to repent and I promised not to tell. I didn’t undergo an emotional change (as in “what you did was OK”); I simply agreed to a transaction. In exchange for his “repentance,” I would protect him from the church’s justice. But eventually I saw that there were other parties to this transaction. Other women were at risk, most of them even more vulnerable than I was. I knew that I owed more to my sisters than I did to my boundary-crossing pastor. Once I recognized my debt, I had no choice but to break my promise. When I did, I rendered my “forgiveness” null and void.
And yet I have still felt the pressure to forgive. Why? While Jewish theology puts the burden of forgiveness on the offender (from the Talmud: “A transgression a man has been guilty of toward his neighbor, Yom Kipur cannot atone for, until he has appeased his neighbor”), Christians still broadly misunderstand forgiveness as a “make everything OK” panacea. To understand why, let’s look at who is involved when one person offends against another. The victim and perpetrator, obviously — but also, an invisible third party. Clergy sexual abuse (like child abuse, elder abuse, spousal/partner abuse, and virtually every kind of abuse) occurs within community. The community itself is the third party to abuse. Whether congregants witness clergy sexual abuse or not, they are de facto bystanders.
In Trauma and Recovery, Judith Herman describes the bystander’s dilemma. When one person causes trauma in the life of another, Herman writes, “all the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing… The victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of pain. The victim demands action, engagement, and remembering.” Hmmm. If you were a bystander, which would you choose? To make it worse, bystanders don’t have access to the facts, only to the perpetrator’s version of the facts. Victims are almost always silenced, discredited, or exiled, often all three. As a result, most bystanders shun the victim, attack her, or assign her the burden to forgive. This only adds to her trauma.
And who reaps the benefit when the victim “forgives”? The perpetrator escapes justice, the bystanders go back to their lives — and the victim is left holding the bag. It can be a heavy bag indeed. The burden is made heavier by the oft-repeated suggestion that “forgiveness” will bring about “healing.” Marie Fortune calls this a cruel hoax for victims, and I agree. When I too quickly “forgave” my pastor, I opened myself to two more years of his harmful behavior. When I said “enough!” and demanded justice, my healing finally began.
I cannot forgive my pastor, but that doesn’t mean I am trapped in a prison of my own making as some would suggest. Far from it! I liberated myself when I walked out of the prison of his lies. I liberate myself today by telling my story in a way that I hope will awaken the church. Because I chose justice, I can choose to confront him in person or to estrange him completely. I can choose to build a life of advocacy around my experience or to walk completely away from the issue. I can choose to tell my story or withhold my story, and I have full freedom to make that choice anew with every circumstance. All these choices are mine, but only because I chose justice. It’s up to him to forgive me for that, or not — it makes no difference to me.
Because I AM FREE.
You can read my reflection “Forgiving Like Nelson Madela” here.