Can we find forgiveness for abuse?

Today, following the Joint Lectionary followed by many of our churches, we heard the parable of the man who was forgiven a huge debt by a king. He then went on to harass a fellow servant for a relatively modest sum of money. The story ends badly with the indebted man being sent off to be tortured in prison till the vast debt was paid back. Clearly this was never going to happen. A recent document has been published by the Faith and Order Commission of the Church of England which discusses another story in the Bible which ends without resolution. The paper, entitled Forgiveness and Reconciliation in the Aftermath of Abuse, consists of some 80 pages and asks how whether forgiveness is ever possible in the context of child abuse. To make the point about how difficult forgiveness can be in such a situation, the reader is reminded of the story of Tamar in 2 Samuel 13. The episode of her rape is clearly the beginning of a period in King David’s reign marked by violence, injustice and a general sense of moral disintegration. The story of Tamar has nothing in the way of a happy ending. Although the reflections on Tamar’s story are only part of the Commission’s report I want to look at this biblical passage because it raises issues which will be of concern to readers of this blog.

Tamar was one of the daughters of David who met the cruel fate of being raped by her half-brother Amnon. It is quite clear from the account of the story in 2 Samuel 13 that Tamar was tricked by her abuser. Amnon pretended to be ill and Tamar was forced to come to him in his bedchamber to bring food. This was the opportunity for the vicious sexual attack. The Faith and Order Commission Report helpfully discusses the episode beyond the actual rape event and shows how all the other characters in the story responded in a less than helpful way. David as the father of both victim and perpetrator might have been expected to demand justice for Tamar in this situation or at least offer some kind of emotional support. Even if the results of the sexual attack could never be undone, some reaction was called for. David would have known that the rape rendered Tamar unclean, unable to marry and without any future within his court. Her shame and disgrace were complete even though she played no part in creating this situation. After covering herself with ash to signify her state of dishonour, Tamar simply disappears from the biblical narrative. All that we hear of David’s reaction is that he was angry but he takes no action.

The reaction of Tamar’s other brother, Absalom, was somewhat different. He nursed a desire for revenge against Amnon for over two years. Eventually Amnon was invited to a feast and Absalom orders one of his slaves to kill him. This naturally set up a strained relationship with David his father. This was one of the causes of the eventual civil war between father and son.

The story of Tamar is still one that should be considered today. We need first of all to note that the story’s outcome as recorded in Scripture is somewhat bleak. As we have seen, there is no happy ending or any kind of moral resolution. Severe abuse happens and everyone skirts around the real problems that need to be resolved. Similar events happen in churches today but often cowardice, denial and even niceness take over. From our perspective of today we recognise that certain things should happen in this kind of situation. Tamar was clearly a victim but she failed to receive either support or any kind of access to justice. Even the anger that David is reported to have expressed seems to be more about his own failure to manage his family than any feeling for Tamar’s predicament. It reminds one of a bishop appearing to care more the reputation of his diocese than any compassion for a suffering victim. A daughter had been cruelly treated but the only concern of the father seems to have been that fact that he was being made to look bad. Absalom’s reaction was equally unhelpful. No support to his sister was offered. He went off to nurse his murderous rage. Such anger was not going to help Tamar or further the cause of justice. Thus both Tamar’s close relatives failed. She was condemned to a living hell of social and psychological shame.

The Commission Report explores how costly it is to resolve a situation of abuse. The Old Testament account of Tamar gives us no suggestion as to how we should move forward in this kind of situation. It is hard to know in the context of the time what should have happened to Amnon for his crime. Perhaps exile might have been appropriate. Anything would have been better than the disastrous fractricide that did take place at the command of Absalom. In a contemporary setting we also know that punishments and reparations really only make sense when the full impact of the original offence has been owned up to by the perpetrators. Our gospel reading this morning speaks about forgiveness as though it is always an option for us to choose. The sexual abuse of children or the act of rape are in fact difficult to forgive because the effects can be so long lasting. When are we right to suggest that a survivor or victim of such abuse should forgive the perpetrator when they are still suffering decades later? Clearly forgiveness is something to aimed at but any suggestion that the process should be in any way hurried is an insult to the needs of victims and survivors.

The Tamar story with its failure to reach any kind of ‘happy’ ending is a salutary lesson for us as we grapple with the horror of abuse wherever it occurs. When abuse happens in the context of a church, there should be a recognition that there are no magic short cuts provided by the fact of Christian discipleship. There is the same need for justice to be served; the need of support for the victims is paramount. Also, the Christian may need to recognise that real evil is being encountered in many of these situations. It needs to be named and confronted squarely. Forgiveness of sin can never be divorced from the hard struggle to tackle the reality of evil and power abuse that exists in the psyche of so many, even Christians. That will always be a tough challenge.

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.

13 thoughts on “Can we find forgiveness for abuse?

  1. Yes, it’s a horrid story, and true to life, where sins can have bad effects going on for years, and into succeeding generations. Forgiveness from the heart is far from easy in some situations, as you say. In my own experience, it was when I realised that I could not forgive someone and gave up trying and trying that the issue suddenly no longer seemed to matter. I haven’t thought about it for years now. How strange is that?

  2. It is the forgetting that is the problem. I can forgive all but one person. This person (A Manager)claimed to be a ‘born again Christian’ but, tyrannized the staff and residents of a home for learning disability, for fourteen years, every minute was hell.
    It was the innocent that suffered physically and mentally! Can someone tell me who forgives for them?

    I expect to feel this way till I end now, if I were to face a firing squad at this very minute I would go down with this in my heart.

    1. Chris, I don’t suppose this is any help at all, but whenever I see the word manager now, I recall Andrew Sachs playing the waiter Manuel in Fawlty Towers saying of his boss, “Him manager – him Fawlty!” Music to the ears of many an employee at times, I suspect. It is so easy for those in authority to do damage.
      Stephen, I take your point about cheap forgiveness. The forgiveness achieved for us at the cross was anything but cheap. Perhaps the thought of us taking up our own cross is relevant here in some way.

  3. I think that behind my post is an assumption that it is utterly wrong and often abusive to suggest that some forgiveness is easy in any way. Cheap forgiveness (the forgive/forget variety) is an attempt to remove dignity and power from a victim rather than hearing what is being said. This is what makes the ongoing drama at Peniel so dreadful. The leaders and supporters there do not want to immerse themselves in the appalling suffering of victims. How easy it would be if victims of past abuse could be persuaded to forget everything done to them? It does not work that way.

  4. Again, (Yes, again yawn!) I make the point that stations in life make a great difference, especially to the question of forgiveness.
    I haven’t had much success on this blog communicating the vast differences in life experience. I have used the words ‘empowered’ and ‘disempowered,’ to understand those words we need a great deal of soul seeking.
    In the world of logic it’s always your assumptions that lead you astray.

    As with most things in British society there are points of emphasis that are limited by ones experience, i.e. the dead letter of the word and the truth in the sting of realities grip.
    I am asking for this to be explored. The difference between, “I lost everything!” and ‘when you think that you have lost everything, you find out that you can always lose a little more’.
    Suffering explored by priestly professionals will always be structured to fail, as also with members of the CQC who have never worked a shift as a carer in a busy understaffed Care Home?

    Stephen’s words on this are vitally important. I only hope to deepen this conversation, I solemnly assure you.

  5. David,

    Yes, humour can help. We must remember however that Manuel and Fawlty didn’t Mentally cripple and destroy people.
    My point is that disempowerment needs to be explored by those willing to incarnate themselves into the nervous system of the sufferer. Anything less than that is pointless.How can the perpetrator receive forgiveness without the self knowledge of his/ her crime?

  6. Chris, I was reflecting that it’s only been possible for me to appreciate the pain some others are going through because I have had my own hard times. That reminded me of statements in Hebrews about Jesus “learning obedience through suffering” and being “able to sympathise with our weaknesses” because of what he had passed through. See Hebrews 5:8 and 4:15 and similar thoughts throughout the book. In the gospels, we are encouraged to take up our cross, which I suggest includes accepting abuse and pain as training in righteousness. Or if you like, what is the best way of training fingers for battle (Psalm 144:1)? Why, by subjecting them to twisting, pain and struggle so that they need to work hard!

    1. David, your statement that ‘In the gospels, we are encouraged to take up our cross, which I suggest includes accepting abuse and pain as training in righteousness’ troubles me. Although I’m sure it’s not what you intend, it offers a rationale for abusers – and one that some of them use. The recently reported cases of John Smyth and Peter Ball are examples from either end of the churchmanship spectrum, but they are certainly not alone.

      There is a big difference between a ‘cross’ which is voluntarily taken up – e.g. in the case of a job which involves sacrifices and/or opposition – and abuse and pain deliberately inflicted by a third party for their own gratification or to satisfy a twisted doctrinal stance. The latter is hardly a good ‘training in righteousness’, but is capable of changing the victim’s personality, destroying their faith, and seriously damaging their sense of self. This is especially true of children, but catastrophic damage can be inflicted on victims of any age. The word ‘survivors’ is used because so many do not survive. Either the abuse kills them directly, or the psychological and emotional damage are so severe that they kill themselves. The suicide rate is high among abuse victims.

      Jesus did not suggest forgiveness in such cases. In Matthew 18 he says, instead, that those who injure little ones, putting stumbling blocks in their way, would be better off thrown into the sea with a millstone round their neck. If the Church wishes to gain some much-needed credibility with victims of abuse, it needs to pay more heed to Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 18.

  7. Chris: I understand where you are coming from: “Wounded and Betrayed Believers Are Useful to God” by Mr. Cooke (and I may NOT agree with him whatever, but this was the most life changing message for me ever). & I do think of the Life of Joseph where you say 15 years, wasn’t Joseph 14 years in Prison (unjustly). I’m reading “Hippo in the Garden” by James Ryle and that is more help in the healing; do understand as NO pastor, priest, parent or ABUSIVE Christian is worth going to hell over and I ought to know; took years to crawl out of that abuse of abuse and 2 Corinthians 1:3-end. God does NOT WASTE ONE IOTA, ONE THING IN OUR LIVES=TRULY. One day the reality of it will hit and then the understanding and forgiveness is absolutely amazing. I think of “Snakes in Suits” book and the review reads (over 40 years of abuse is a long time). I had to read everything on FORGIVENESS that could possibly lay hands on and that did not work and pray, cry out for release but that above message=finally the understanding of it all. Pray for that person, as you might be the only one (and I will also)!

    1. This all begs the question: what is forgiveness? Do we all mean the same thing by that word? I’ve heard it defined as the restoration of a relationship, and heard it said you haven’t forgiven unless the relationship is restored. That is often not only impossible but undesirable.

      The working definition I find most helpful – at least when working with those who have been abused – is that forgiveness is when you stop looking for the debt to be repaid. You stop wanting revenge, or atonement, or however you want to put it. That actually frees you from psychological ties to the perpetrator, and enables you to depend on God to redeem the suffering in some way. At least, that’s what I’ve found, and others have too.

      But it does not rule out the pursuit of justice, which may be necessary to protect other people and restore the victims’ sense of worth, and help free them from false guilt.

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