The Problem of forgiveness

nice-terrLike all my readers, I was horrified at the news coming out of France last Thursday. Coincidentally I had been recently reading a book about the effect of terrible disasters, like the one in Nice, on the bystanders as well as those who are the actual victims of an atrocity. We do not give a great deal of attention to the ambulance-men, the police and all who support them in a situation of some desperate mind-numbing tragedy. A human being when faced with something on the scale of the events which took place in Nice is pushed to the very limits of what he or she can cope with psychologically. All too often a consequence is breakdown or post-traumatic stress disorder. These bystander victims, the professional helpers together with the actual victims and their families, all of whom have to deal with terrible stress, must number several thousand individuals.

One thing we do know is that it was a single individual who perpetrated this monstrous act of driving a lorry into crowds of people with the intention of killing and maiming as many as possible. It is difficult to find an adjective to describe the depth of depravity that was involved in such an act. I do not propose here trying to enter into the mind of someone capable of such behaviour, but I am aware of one enormous problem that arises for Christian theology. The question is: is it ever possible to forgive an act as horrific as this one? The question is made so much more complicated by asking the further question. Who in this situation anyway has the right to forgive such a perpetrator who has damaged and destroyed the lives of so many? Even if one person could forgive this action, would they have any right to speak on behalf of the other thousands affected by this terrible deed?

The Nice incident helps us once again to recognise the fact that forgiveness is never going to be a straightforward matter. The simplistic rule that says that we must always forgive can be seen not to resolve the complexity and evil of this situation. One person choosing to forgive anyway does not do very much to bring any kind of closure for the majority. Thousands of other people are still left struggling with their terrible memories and their grief and this, at the very least, will continue to have a lasting effect on their lives. If all evil could be restricted to something that concerned a single perpetrator and a single victim, then it might be possible to put into practice the simple gospel challenge, forgive as you are forgiven. Most evil acts against others, in fact, involve far more people than in a one-to-one encounter. Also, organisations, as we have seen recently, are capable of committing evil acts against individuals and groups. In their turn individuals can commit evil against others and this may affect large numbers of people. Whenever even a single person is damaged as a result of another person’s malevolent action, then all the people close to the victim may, to some extent, share in the pain and the damage which is done to that individual. For forgiveness to be fully effective, all victims need their pain recognised and individually dealt with.

Two things follow from this reflection. The first is a warning to each of us when we are tempted to do something harmful to another person. The damage that we do, or try to do, will be potentially be like a wave which moves beyond the single event to affect many others. There may be echoes of the original act of malevolence which are felt years or decades later. It is like throwing a pebble into water; the ripples spread out in every direction and we have no control as to what they affect. The story of Trinity Brentwood, to which I have given a lot of space to on this blog, is also an account of evil rippling outwards from past actions to affect negatively countless individuals. One man, Michael Reid, persuaded a group to give him absolute power in his church in the 1980s. As a consequence of that power exercised in a selfish, self-seeking way, hundreds of people were damaged and their lives radically changed. That damage has affected not only them but also their families, both the immediate family and its extended members. This damage continues right up to the present. Things said and done 20 or 30 years ago are still affecting the present. People still suffer; people still experience their lives as being damaged and incomplete.

One of the most obscene statements to come out of Peniel/Trinity is that the victims should forget what has happened and move on. It is an indication that the remaining members of the church still hold to a cheap forgiveness doctrine, ‘forgive and forget’. It is cheap as well as insulting. It simply does not engage with the full horror of what many people went through under the leadership of abusive leaders. Damage is easy to perpetrate but very hard to put right.

One of the things that I picked up from a network of churches in America, is the idea of ‘safe haven churches’. I am still trying to absorb all the material from that lecture and I shall be sharing further insights that I learnt in future posts. The speaker did emphasise one point about these churches, and this is my second point, that it is vitally important to be able to forgive. Obviously the individuals who had escaped abusive churches might have specific things to forgive but it was also emphasised that forgiveness is a fundamental attitude for a Christian that needs to be constantly flowing even when there is nothing obvious to forgive. In saying this the speaker was in no way underestimating the cost of forgiveness but it still remains as fundamental to Christian faith as love. I shall be speaking further about the path to and cost of forgiveness in a future post when I explain further what is taught by the ‘safe haven churches’. Here I can mention two points, first, the importance of acknowledging and dealing with the experience of anger and rage that exist within abused individuals. The second point is coming, albeit slowly, to an imaginative understanding of the inner experience of the perpetrator. It is at this point that one may find the grace to let go of the wrong and the pain and leave them with God.

Nothing I have said really helps me to come to terms with the monstrous horrors perpetrated in Nice. All kinds of emotions are aroused and all the words that can be used seem hollow against the enormity of what happened to so many. Perhaps all we can do is to keep silent in the face of all the pain. Among our prayers must surely be one that asks God not to allow the events of last Thursday to erupt into a search for vengeance and the projection of evil on to whole groups and members of other nationalities and faiths. That would be catastrophic and lead to an entrenched state of inter-communal hostility that could last for decades.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

10 thoughts on “The Problem of forgiveness

  1. Forgiveness is something that has to be accepted by the perpetrator. It is not something a third party can demand as of right. Perhaps leaving someone to God is the best some people can do. Who can blame them?
    The crime reminded me of those people who kill their children when a relationship breaks down. “If I can’t have them, no-one can”. This seems as if it might be an extension of that.

  2. I would like to point out that the Peniel/Trinity statement: “Forgive and forget,”
    does not carry with it a sense of real understanding.
    I can forgive, (and I have more issues than just Church/Fellowship abuse to forgive). It is the forgetting that is almost impossible.

    And further to this there is a very real problem with people who simply don’t have the time to think about forgiveness? There lives are lived under the yoke of oppression in the workplace 24 – 7, for them they simply don’t have the time to even think about it.

    Again we see the blinkered obsession with power politics and the, “Same old same old” tickling of reality for political purposes. The new Prime Minister is going to fight for, ‘Gay Marriage’ a people with one of the most powerful lobby groups, I suggest that during her time in office the, superhuman inhumanities being experienced by the lower working class, and the squalor and Hell inside abusive Care/Nursing homes will not change one iota.

    Sad bad days we live in, will I ever be listened to? “First they say you’re mad, then they say you’re bad, then they say they thought of it before you did!”

    Same shit different day.


  3. No, you’re right, Chris. As someone else said, but it’s a good phrase, you forgive and remember. We’re designed that way. After all, if we didn’t remember that a hot oven had burned us, we would get burned again. But that means we are left with the bad memories, which have to be ministered to, as well as the original harm done us.
    In theory, a government ought to be able to deal with hate crime, awful care homes extremes of poverty. They have loads of people working for them. Dealing with one shouldn’t mean they can’t deal with another. Let’s see. The problem I have found with the Tories I have talked to is that they don’t believe there is poverty, not that they don’t want to deal with it. Someone on another web site came out with the immortal phrase, “If you have a job, you’re not poor” the other day. But there’s no excuse for a government to be in ignorance. They have the wherewithal to do the research. Let’s hope and pray.
    I tried italics again. Fingers crossed.

  4. I believe forgiveness is something that is for my benefit, not the perpetrator’s. I don’t have the power to forgive him of his sins in the sense of removing his consequences, but I can choose to allow God to work forgiveness in me on a personal level concerning what was done to me. Otherwise, it eats a person up inside. I am not saying it is an easy thing to do, in the case of my childhood abuser, it was very difficult. But the freedom and the sheer relief I felt when, after years and years of taking it back to God, I could finally say that I had forgiven him, was enormous. I simply do not have the words to aptly describe it. As long as we are unable to forgive someone, they continue to hold power over us to a certain extent. What was done to me as a child, and then later in Peniel, is unforgivable in a human sense, but God really does work miracles if we let Him. But just like EA said, that doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten it. It just means the memories no longer drive me into a state of panic. They no longer bring more pain than I can bear. Most of the PTSD symptoms have abated and I have finally found some peace.
    I agree with you, Stephen, that many at Peniel are fans of cheap grace. I am not. If you deny something hurt you, then you have nothing to forgive and nothing to move on from. It is only when the pain and the damage is validated by acknowledging, processing, and honoring your pain and your wounds, that you can then move to the next step of forgiving. Personally, I think many people have a hard time forgiving because their pain has never been appropriately validated by either themselves or an outside source. But that’s just my opinion. Sorry for the long post!

    1. I think your description of the rationale for forgiveness is perfect. A local church in Australia called it, ‘taking the person off your hooks and placing them on God’s hooks’! And I think that is a good summing up.

      I’m pleased to hear that most of the PTSD symptoms have abated and you’ve have found some peace.

      1. It seems to me that there are two sorts of forgiveness. The first sort is the offering of forgiveness that makes reconciliation possible. The second is the offering of forgiveness where no reconciliation is possible but someone needs to let go of the hurt and damage to allow themselves to move forward. This will never be easy but will be assisted by another person, perhaps a minister or therapist, allowing them to express all the pain and hurt that was caused by the hurt. The perpetrator cannot always be involved as some perpetrator are dead, either literally or in conscience. So for practical reasons I don’t agree with EA as I believe something good can come out of a situation when only one party desires to do something about the gross evil that has been done. Kathryn is describing her experience about the validation by another of her pain and abuse. I trust that is what this blog also trying to do and I hope it helps Kathryn and any others who may be reading this.

    2. Such a powerful testimony. And I too, am so glad for you. I’d agree actually, that one sided forgiveness has its value. And thank you for the “permission” to talk about what has been done to me. Most people would simply say I shouldn’t. I don’t think I’m picking at scabs, I think I need to lance the boil!
      Sorry, Stephen, I think I’m explaining myself badly. I have said before, I think, that forgiveness is enlightened self interest. And yes, we do need to move on. And yes, sometimes the perpetrator(s) is/are out of reach to everyone but God. You can’t afford to let someone’s death, for example, put you out of reach of recovery. But I, like many I suppose, have had loads of experience of people who, I guess, believe in cheap grace. “Oh, you must learn to forgive. Tra la la.” It’s just an excuse to do nothing. No support for me, no intervention to stop what’s going on. It becomes an abuser’s licence. “It doesn’t matter because they have to forgive you”! I’ve heard comments that translate that way so often. In that context, you can I hope see that I believe that you can have an expectation of a kind of forgiveness that is in fact empty and without value. Because of the theology of it. It has to be accepted. The forgiveness I am being asked to offer is to the bully, not in order to help me. And it will do him or her no good at all.

  5. Thanks E/A

    The fact that they don’t believe in poverty is a monstrous evasion of the truth. I direct all who come on this blog to look at the plight of the working poor and the misery of their workplace. Total disempowerment no union or advocacy. One Care assistant told in a Care home “If you speak out we will engineer an allegation against you!” And they do that! I invite all, seek and find, for God’s sake do that.

  6. I spoke out at a hospital where I worked knowing that I would get hammered. Thankfully, God did some intervening and more senior people got to hear about it and apologised to me. So yes, Stephen, it happens.

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