Survivors: raise your hand if you’ve ever been told to “forgive and forget,” “move on,” or “let bygones be bygones.” Wow, that’s almost everyone in the room. OK, now raise your hand if church leaders added the Nelson Mandela guilt trip. You know, “Nelson Mandela forgave his jailers, so why can’t you drop that grudge?”
In other words, we should forgive like Nelson Mandela.
What would this look like? A lot of writers are asking this question. A few of them are getting it right, most notably Marie Fortune in her recent blog post, “Forgiveness Revisited.” But most people seem confused about what forgiveness means. Early in my journey, I thought “forgive” meant “reconcile” and even “trust again” (big mistake). Later, I thought it meant “stop being angry.” I tried, but I only succeeded in driving my anger inward. Only when I read Frederick Keene’s essay “Structures of Forgiveness in the New Testament” did I understand: forgiveness is not a simple emotional shift. Forgiveness is a concrete transaction, and it can only be offered from a position of power. (I explore that issue here.)
Then why do religious leaders, especially Christian leaders, keep telling survivors to forgive? Could it be they have a vested interest? Could it be that our demand for justice threatens their comfort, their job security, or even the world as they know it?
And what should we think about preachers who harp on forgiveness while ignoring the underlying justice issues?
“Let me say a brief word about the death of Nelson Mandela,” said a preacher I once knew. I am quoting from one of his recent sermons, but I’m paraphrasing enough to conceal his identity. “On the day after he was released from prison, Mandela was asked about the suffering he had endured. His answer? ‘Let bygones be bygones.’ If he had asked for vengeance, he might have triggered a revolution. Mandela chose instead to offer forgiveness. So let me ask this — what grudge or grievance are you clinging to this morning? What prevents you from forgiving as Mandela did, and freeing yourself and the other? Let bygones be bygones.”
What misguided beliefs can we find in my former pastor’s message? Does he believe that it is nobler to forgive than to insist on justice? That when survivors demand justice, we are simply “holding a grudge?” That victims of injustice can “free” ourselves and our oppressors by “letting bygones be bygones?”
Of course I am stretching a point. I know that’s not what he believes. It’s not what any sensible preacher believes, but it seems to be what a lot of preachers want us to believe. But here’s what those sermons don’t tell us. By the time Nelson Mandela offered those words, he had already changed the world. The revolution was nearly over. White leaders, all the way up to the president, had been courting Mandela’s favor for years. Apartheid was already unraveling. White South Africans, massively outnumbered, knew that their days in power would soon end, and they were terrified that the violence they had long inflicted on black citizens would now come back on them. Mandela knew that the only way forward was through peace, and the only way to peace was to calm white fears. So he urged forgiveness — but he never urged passivity. He challenged black South Africans to live peacefully with their white neighbors and to stay in the fight. “We cannot win a war,” he told them, “but we can win an election.”
Survivors of clergy abuse will never win a war against the church; most of us are afraid even to stand up and name our experience. We cannot win a war, but with the power of our voices we can change the church. Indeed, this is already happening. In the United States alone, the Catholic Church has released more than $1 billion of resources to victims of abuse. Pope Francis has launched a commission to address the issue worldwide. Organizations like SNAP, The Hope of Survivors, and the FaithTrust Institute have helped thousands (millions?) of victims find healing, and have trained thousands of faith leaders on prevention and response. A growing number of churches have policies, however inadequate, to prevent abuse. The revolution is far from over, but we are making progress.
And so, today I forgive like Nelson Mandela. I renounce any right to revenge against the priest who abused my trust or the bishop who silenced my voice, and I urge my fellow survivors to do the same. Revenge only brings more pain. It is justice that brings healing. So I will continue to seek justice, for myself and for other survivors. I will continue to use my voice, tell my story, and build up and strengthen my fellow survivors. I will work until the work is done, and here is how I’ll know: when calling committees are given the tools to screen out would-be predators, when seminaries train ministers to deal with their own and their congregants’ sexual feelings, when pastors refrain from counseling beyond their call or training, when victims of clergy sexual abuse receive justice and compassion in response to our complaints, when offenders accept full responsibility even to the point of giving up their ordained ministry, when wounded congregations are told the truth and given a chance to heal, and when all survivors’ voices are honored.
Until that day, I will continue the long walk toward justice.