How Far Should Forgiveness Go?

“Forgiving love is a possibility only for those who know that they are not good, who feel themselves in need of divine mercy, who live in a dimension deeper and higher than that of moral idealism, feel themselves as well as their fellow men convicted of sin by a holy God and know that the differences between the good man and the bad man are insignificant in his sight.”
—Reinhold Niebuhr, An Interpretation of Christian Ethics

I wish I could believe every one of these words from Reinhold Niebuhr. Instinctually, I don’t, wishing instead for Dante’s hell for certain kinds of sinners—like corrupt pastors who egregiously violate their calling and never repent. In my unregenerate opinion, I believe these types of sinners should be relegated to the eighth and ninth circles of Dante’s Inferno.

I’ve read numerous books on forgiveness. Some of them lead me to conclude that the authors have never known the kind of spiritual betrayal some Christians, including myself, have known. If they did, they could never write the pabulum they are selling.

A diverse collection of books—L. Gregory Jones’s Embodying Forgiveness, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, Simon Wiesenthal’s The Sunflower, Miroslav Volf’s Free of Charge, and Desmund Tutu’s No Future Without Forgiveness—offer honest help for my unforgiving heart. These writers grapple with the call to forgive in the face of real evil. They understand that pop psychology and cheap theology are no match for it. The murderous societies under which most of them suffered find their Christian complement in churches that, for example, allow or ignore the sexual abuse of children and punish those who call the abusers to account.

I’m certainly not unique in having a long history with clergy misconduct (“Sorrow But No Regrets,” Christianity Today, July 2007). Perhaps I have the distinction of having walked with a sex-abuse survivor and her family in their quest for justice in a famous mega-church whose leaders vilified them for their decision to prosecute—and of having faced similar treatment for reporting a suspected pedophile in this church (“Day of Reckoning,” CT, March 2007).

Two years after my husband resigned his pastoral position there due to systemic corruption, our firstborn child died by suicide (“In the Valley of the Shadow of Suicide,” CT, April 2009). I hold certain church leaders responsible for a multiplicity of sins, beginning with false advertising and ending with causing many little ones—including my own—to stumble.

Niebuhr’s moral equivalency statement asks me to place my sins on par with those of sexual abusers and their accomplices. I instinctively don’t believe it. Nor do I believe that the difference between the sins of “the good man and the bad man” is insignificant in God’s eyes.

One only needs to read the parable of the Prodigal Son to see that God acknowledges a difference. When the obedient older brother asks his father why he had never slain “even a young goat” (Luke 15:29) on the son’s behalf, the father explains that his younger son was dead, but is now alive, was lost, but is now found. That’s a significant demarcation—one that describes not only the father’s love but also the sinner’s repentance.

In Matthew 18:1-10, Jesus teaches a familiar lesson that contrasts unbridled ambition with undefiled faith. It includes a dire list of consequences for those who harm the undefiled. “[W]hoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me,” he says. “But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” That’s strong language. Jesus continues by admonishing the guilty to mutilate body parts that cause them to sin rather than have their bodies and souls thrown into hell. “See that you do not look down on one of these little ones,” the gentle Savior warns. “For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.”

But wait. Luke the Evangelist adds something in his telling (17:1-6). Jesus ends his lesson with a far different warning: “Take heed to yourselves. If your brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times a day, and seven times a day returns to you, saying ‘I repent,’ you shall forgive him.”

To this, Jesus’ disciples understandably reply, “Increase our faith.” And then the Lord promises that if they have faith as small as a mustard seed, it is more than enough.

Gracious Condemnation

I have seen ministry leaders rebuked not once but seventy times seven, and not one of them openly repented or was reconciled to the communities their actions destroyed. The young woman I mentioned wanted two things: change in a church that stubbornly resisted it, and an apology for the punishment she and her family received in the years following the abuse. She didn’t get either. Instead, attorneys negotiated the price of an apology, and she received a cash settlement in exchange for her silence.

What is a Christian to make of that?

In Life Together, Bonhoeffer writes the following:

The first service one owes to others in community involves listening to them. Just as our love for God begins with listening to God’s Word, the beginning of love for other Christians is learning to listen to them …. Christians who can no longer listen to one another will soon no longer be listening to God either; they will always be talking even in the presence of God. The death of the spiritual life starts here, and in the end there is nothing left but empty spiritual chatter and clerical condescension which chokes on pious words.

In The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness, Wiesenthal, an Austrian Jewish Holocaust survivor, writes that for a time, the world could not believe the Nazi atrocities were really happening because it couldn’t comprehend the systematic extermination of a people. But before long, “priests, philanthropists, and philosophers implored the world to forgive the Nazis.” Bitterly, Wiesenthal concludes, “Most of these altruists had probably never even had their ears boxed, but nevertheless found compassion for the murderers of innocent millions.”

In contrast, Anglican Archbishop Tutu’s 2000 memoir, No Future Without Forgiveness, describes the liberating power of public testimony and confession in paving the way to freedom for post-apartheid South Africans. Tutu commends a decision made before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings to grant amnesty to all who confessed, regardless of whether or not they expressed remorse, because true repentance is too difficult to evaluate in a moment.

So how do we forgive the spiritual leaders who betray us in the absence of confession and observable repentance?

In Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace, Yale theologian Miroslav Volf says, “Condemnation is not the heart of forgiveness. It’s the indispensable presupposition of it.” Forgiveness that does not take seriously the offense against an injured party is fraudulent and cheap. Authentic forgiveness, writes Volf—whose family suffered under communism and whose brother died in a preventable accident—”cuts the tie of equivalence between the offense and the way we treat the offender. I don’t demand that the one who has taken my eye lose his eye or that the one who has killed my child by negligence be killed. In fact, I don’t demand that he lose anything. I forgo all retribution. In forgiving, I absorb the injury—the way I may absorb, say, the financial impact of a bad business transaction.”

Don’t misread Volf: In his view, discipline is consistent with forgiveness. Criminals should go to jail. Clergymen who violate church teaching (or the law) should be defrocked. Our laws rightly prohibit murder, not anger, even though Jesus said the source of both is the human heart. “Forgiveness,” Volf writes, “places us on a boundary between enmity and friendship, between exclusion and embrace. It tears down the wall of hostility that wrongdoing erects, but it doesn’t take us into the territory of friendship.”

“Often,” he concedes, “that’s all we can muster the strength to do, and all that offenders will allow us. Yet at its best, forgiveness hopes for more.”

Hoping Against Hope

It hopes for more, and very often doesn’t get it. After my husband and I left the mega-church, we joined an Anglican church that was being sued by the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles over a property dispute. Six months later, the rector who had led our congregation out of the Episcopal Church was forced to resign over alleged inappropriate conduct toward another staff member. He moved to another state and quickly took up ministry in a sister church. The reformer refused to be reformed.

Meanwhile, the assistant priest—who had written his master’s thesis on restoring fallen clergy—handled the crisis with considerable care. There was no question that the rector would step down, or that the recipient of his unwanted advances would be protected. Public meetings were held where congregants could express feelings of betrayal and ask questions. We were shown a diagram of possible outcomes, and were challenged not to allow ourselves to be crippled by the priest’s failure.

The vestry enlisted outside support from various sources. This included a healing service for the women of the church. A licensed therapist led us through an exercise of releasing our former pastor. I hadn’t been there long enough to have an emotional investment in his betrayal, so I invited the sex-abuse survivor’s mother to the service, and together we applied the exercises to our situation.

Because this new faith community handled the crisis with integrity, it facilitated my spiritual restoration from the previous one. My husband and I were asked to write a letter to our bishops describing the consequences we had witnessed when clergy misconduct goes habitually unchecked. Church leaders—who themselves had been willing to pay a high price for following their consciences—heard and affirmed us. Not only that, every Sunday, we confessed our sins corporately and asked the Lord to forgive us as we forgave those who trespassed against us.

For two years, many of my prayers of confession were related to actions I had taken in regard to the megachurch. No matter how just a cause, when one chooses to act against friends and spiritual leaders, even in communities where Jesus’ command to forgive is used to manipulate, and where accusations of vengefulness are thrown in anyone’s direction who confronts wrongdoing, one struggles with guilt. Yet week after week, I was comforted by the post-Communion prayer “assuring us in these holy mysteries” that through the body and blood of Christ, we all were forgiven.

The Fellowship of Human Guilt

At the time he was involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler, Bonhoeffer wrote: “If it is responsible action, if it is action which is concerned solely and entirely with the other man, if it arises from selfless love for the real man who is our brother, then precisely because this is so, it cannot wish to shun the fellowship of human guilt.” To this, he adds, “Before other men the man of free responsibility is justified by necessity; before himself he is acquitted by his conscience, but before God he hopes only for mercy” (Ethics).

The righteousness of Bonhoeffer’s actions is still debated by theologians, if not by descendents of some Holocaust victims. So are the actions of sex-abuse survivors who sue their former churches for negligence. In my mind, there is no question about the righteousness of either cause in the face of complicit silence from the people of God.

And yet, I cannot seriously wish hell upon corrupt spiritual leaders while clinging to my faith in the mercy of God for my son and for myself. Suicide casts on those left in its wake unanswerable questions and a pall of guilt for sins both real and imagined. Thus the distance has closed in my mind between myself and all the clergymen I would so easily condemn. I yield ground in my resistance to cheap grace, because my unforgiving heart is broken, and because the sinner I am most concerned about is my son.

The prologue to Niebuhr’s statement about forgiveness is this: “There is no deeper pathos in the spiritual life of man than the cruelty of righteous people. If any one idea dominates the teachings of Jesus, it is his opposition to the self-righteousness of the righteous. The parable spoken unto ‘certain which trusted in themselves that they are righteous, and despised others’ made the most morally disciplined group of the day, his Pharisees, the object of his criticism …. They were proud in the sight of God and they were merciless and unforgiving to their fellow-men. Their pride is the basis of their lack of mercy. The unmerciful servant, in Jesus’ parable, is unforgiving to his fellow-servant in spite of the mercy which he had received from his master.”

Who am I to say I won’t forgive, when I know forgiveness does not mean to condone their actions or to absolve them—since God alone can absolve? I am no better than the apostles who rightly understood the challenge that was before them. With them, I can only reply, “Increase my faith, dear Lord.”

Mercifully, there are Christian men and women who are gifted to guide stubborn disciples like me. In his magnificent Embodying Forgiveness, Gregory Jones, former dean of Duke Divinity School, offers a definition of forgiveness that is adequate to a world full of evil and ambiguity:

Forgiveness is not so much a word spoken, an action performed, or a feeling felt as it is an embodied way of life in an ever-deepening friendship with the triune God and with others. As such, a Christian account of forgiveness ought not to simply or even primarily be focused on an absolution of guilt; rather, it ought to be focused on the reconciliation of brokenness, the restoration of communion—with God, with one another, and with the whole Creation. Indeed, because of the pervasiveness of sin and evil, Christian forgiveness must be at once an expression of commitment to a way of life, the cruciform life of holiness in which we seek to “unlearn” sin and learn the ways of God, and a means of seeking reconciliation in the midst of particular sins, specific instances of brokenness.

Each of us lives in the midst of particular sins and specific instances of brokenness. And each of us must choose how we will respond. Living a life of holiness and learning the ways of God sometimes mean letting go of our need for justice and instead embracing a world that groans in anticipation of the day when it, and we, will be redeemed.

It means accepting with humility that God alone is good.

This article was originally published in the October 2010 issue of Christianity Today.

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4 Comments on “How Far Should Forgiveness Go?

  1. Thank you for this well written expression of the struggles surrounding the issues of forgiveness.
    This quote by Volf:

    “Condemnation is not the heart of forgiveness. It’s the indispensable presupposition of it.”
    spoke volumes to my heart.

    As did your writing regarding survivors of church sexual abuse.: “In my mind, there is no question about the righteousness of either cause in the face of complicit silence from the people of God.

    I will be looking into more of Jones’ Embodying Forgiveness’ as well.

    Sometimes sharing in the grief and anger of others is healing balm and holy water to those of us battling the similar demons, thinking we are alone in the struggle. Thank you for the cups of cool water you have brought to my soul.

  2. Pingback: Weekly Meanderings | Jesus Creed

  3. Thank you. Too many throw around forgiveness as the quick fix. When you have suffered greatly at the hands of another, as have I and many others) forgiveness is never a quick fix. It is the painstakingly arduous journey to wholeness and healing, but it is never done lightly or quickly. Those whose first words after hearing of a tragedy are that “the Christian thing to do is forgive” do not, as you have said, understand. The dark night of the soul can last what seems an eternity, and when you are facing the pain of all that has been, that takes all the strength you have. Then you must grieve, and then you can begin the process of forgiveness. If more understood this, Christianity would seem like such a weak belief and Christians wouldn’t seem to be clueless.

  4. Thank you both for the kind thoughts. I republished this article because I thought it was relevant to the discussion about how we should feel about Osama bin Laden’s death. I’m not quite sure why Christians are so uncomfortable with passionate expressions of emotions like anger, ecstatic joy, etc. Perhaps it’s a function of our unique ability to shame one another about everything imaginable.

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