“The weak can never forgive…” – I don’t know who said this, but it’s BOLLOCKS!
“You just need to forgive and move on!” How many times have we heard this? How many times have we said it? Forgiveness: one of the most central virtues of human existence. Religion, in all its different shapes and sizes, sings its praises. Psychologists and counsellors focus on its merit. Forgiveness, an internal experience that manifests itself in thinking, feeling, and behaviour of the harmed towards the one(s) who committed the harm. Unlike reconciliation, contact with the one who harmed is not necessary.
For those who have come from a religious background, forgiveness is an expression of God’s love towards humanity. Disciples of Christ have sought to emulate this stance of forgiveness – especially forgiving those considered enemies or those who have ‘trespassed against us.’
Forgiveness has been lauded as the pathway to healing, enlightenment, peace, and self-love. Psychologists have tied it to well-being in life in that the forgiveness of wrongs committed brings meaning and ties to values. The research and writing that are available on the benefits of forgiveness trace back into ancient history. I am not here to argue with these findings or undermine the virtues of forgiveness. Rather, my aim is to raise awareness of the shame and guilt that people experience when the ‘tribe’ demands their forgiveness or shames them into forgiving.
As I reflect back over the years I spent in a religious institution, I can think of countless times we had ‘altar calls’ for those who had ‘unforgiveness’. The front was always packed with people wanting to forgive and to be forgiven for holding ‘unforgiveness’. They didn’t really have much choice, did they? Sermons on this topic were often structured and delivered with great gusto around Jesus’ words of ‘Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sinned against us.’ The implication was clear – unless you forgive, you won’t find forgiveness. I certainly preached along those themes … in my young, idealist, zealot days, when everything was so very black and white.
Social media memes are consistently persuasive on the subject of forgiveness. In a sense, there is a subtle message that forgiveness makes the victim the ‘bigger, better’ person and also ‘your well-being will be stunted if you don’t forgive’. ‘Unforgiveness is the poison we drink, hoping others will die’ is one of those famous, pithy quotes we share. I certainly have. All these well-intended messages of forgiveness, coming at a person from every direction, are not always helpful because the path of forgiveness is not just a simple choice. It is complex and as different as the various stories that surround it.
There are many reasons why a person may not be in a place where forgiveness is their choice or option. To cliche this possible path of forgiveness into a simple decision that is waiting to be made not only minimises a person’s story and the impact of the harm done, it also assumes that a person can forgive by willpower alone. This is not always the case. Perhaps most challenging to the dominant forgiveness narrative is the thought that the socially-acceptable idea of ‘you need to forgive’ is not what everyone wants for their life. To allow someone that choice, without judgement, is confronting when ‘to forgive’ has been idealised in the way that it has in our culture.
When we pressure survivors to forgive their perpetrators, we again punish the victim. I have heard horrendous stories of people being told they will go to hell if they don’t forgive or that they should forgive their abusive spouse because it’s what ‘God requires.’ So, let’s just get this straight: according to this reasoning an all-powerful deity did not stop a person being harmed and now requires their forgiveness of the perpetrator or they, the victim, will suffer more harm? Sounds pretty screwed up to me!
In a recent story, I learnt how a survivor’s refusal to forgive has cost them their relationship with their immediate family. The people who meant to love and care for them were so angry that the person refused to forgive a grievous violation, they took the side of the perpetrator and now have broken off all contact with the victim until they forgive. As a result, vulnerable people are ‘blackmailed’ into forgiveness in order to gain peace and stability.
When a person feels extorted or blackmailed into forgiveness it has very negative effects on their life. There is incongruence with the anger, the resentment, the hostility they feel, and the forgiveness they have been made to profess in order to make others feel more comfortable! Weaponising forgiveness will only ever do harm in the long run.
If you are reading this and feeling forced into forgiving your perpetrator by your family, or community, can I encourage you to consider your own well-being first and foremost? You do not need to forgive in order to move on! Do not be rushed into any step that you don’t feel ready to take. If you feel safe, you may want to consider letting the people that are close to you in your ‘club of life’ know that any well-intended push to forgive is not productive.
Maybe it would also be helpful to replace the word ‘forgive’ as it is problematic for many people? I like the word used by Richard Schwartz – ‘unburdening’. You can begin to unburden yourself from the effects of trauma without criticism and expectations. We can begin to learn what these negative effects are actually protecting. We can appreciate their protection and ask to interact with the story that is being told in this internal space. Richard Rohr says we can begin to dismiss the loyal soldiers that maybe have taken a very heavy-handed approach in keeping us safe. Suddenly anger, resentment, hatred, etc are no longer seen or felt as our ‘enemies’ but something that we perceive in a very different light. We begin to tell a different story from this perspective – an unburdening begins.
You are the expert of your story. It is your story to tell, your journey to negotiate, and you are not being timed.
Finally on my way to yes
I bump into
all the places
where I said no
to my life
all the untended wounds
the red and purple scars
those hieroglyphs of pain
carved into my skin, my bones,
those coded messages
that send me down
the wrong street
again and again
where I find them
the old wounds
the old misdirections
and I lift them
one by one
close to my heart
and I say
– Pesha Gertler (The Healing Times)