I started this project to make space for people of all stripes that are AGAINST unhealthy stuff in the religio-political sphere and FOR a healthier world for us all. The thing is, we don’t all (naturally) agree on all topics. As a result, the AS FB page can become contentious at times, even among long-established followers. This never seems to happen quite as strongly as when the topic of forgiveness comes up. It happened again this week when I posted a meme about forgiveness. And so I wanted to spend some time in this week’s blog post continuing to unwrap all the complicated reasons forgiveness can be so contentious, and also why a lot of our societally and religiously socialized rhetoric about forgiveness can so easily lead to spiritual abuse as well as systemic harms to already marginalized and vulnerable groups. I’ll also discuss how we can make these conversations at least somewhat easier.
In today’s post I want to particularly unwrap two words that often come up in the forgiveness conversation—bitterness and vengeance. Hopefully by the end of this you’ll be able to glimpse why I’m standing so assertively for this particular subject—as I believe it is one of the things at the heart of this Assertive Spirituality project.
This is going to be a long one—but I hope and believe you’ll find the time worthwhile. Thanks for doing your best to hang in there.
My Background and Standpoint
As always, I’m coming at this as someone who grew up as a pastor’s kid in a right-leaning moderate Evangelical church in the Midwest US and went on to become a communication scholar studying stress, trauma, and conflict communication.
Getting A New View on Those Holocaust Resistance Stories Used as Exemplars
As a pastor’s kid, I grew up with stories like Corrie Ten Boom’s highlighted for me as the ultimate form of spirituality. If you don’t know her story, this Dutch woman like many others genuinely paid a super high price for real guts and assertiveness during World War II. After being caught by the Nazis for hiding Jews in her living space in the Netherlands, she was sent to a concentration camp herself and experienced many of those horrors.
The fascinating thing to me in retrospect, though, is that the part of her story that was championed to me most was that she famously chose to forgive the guards who hurt her most at the concentration camp where she was housed.
Especially when I actually visited her dwelling in the Netherlands as a young adult, I found it a little odd to find some millenialist theology—stuff my peops would have considered very sketchy—championed at this location.
Looking Back at This Exemplar in Light of Unhealthy Sexual Abuse Responses by Churches
Now, especially after just having spent a chunk of winter break having listened to a lot of the Ugly Truth about the Girl Next Door podcast, which was created by a suburban church-related sex trafficking survivor and her therapist telling their perspectives on that story and also advocating for better treatment of such situations, my brain is unwrapping this particular choice from all sorts of new directions.
Okay, So I GET How Central the Doctrine of Forgiveness Is—Which Explains the Defensiveness That Easily Arises
So yeah, before I dive too far in, I absolutely get why Christians of all stripes get their hackles up when I challenge the abuses of forgiveness (I’ve previously talked about this on this blog here). After all, the idea that God forgives and that we ought to too is deeply deeply embedded in the consciousness of Christian spirituality of all stripes. (It’s so embedded in us, I would argue, that it’s a big part of our culture at large as well.)
And yes, it actually is recorded as having been commanded by Jesus in several of the gospels.
It’s also a concept that’s filtered out into the and trauma recovery area, especially, it seems, through the concepts of Alcoholics Anonymous and other related groups. I might get to that in another blog post later—we’ll see.
Deeply Central—and Unfortunately SO MUCH ABUSED Toward Vulnerable Groups
Unfortunately, it is also a concept that has been used for a lot of power and control to silence people both in and out of the church, including and especially sexual abuse survivors, as noted by Linda Kay Klein in her book Pure and other experts in church abuse, including those at the Ugly Truth about the Girl Next Door podcast.
Note that this is only ONE example—it’s also invoked toward vulnerable and marginalized groups at large to get them to be quiet about atrocities that are still causing really unhealthy negative effects on entire groups of people. In the US, colonialism and white supremacy, including the practice of slavery, come to mind when I think about this. (I talked a little about this via MLK, Jr. here and here without talking specifically about forgiveness.)
Let’s Talk about Sin-Leveling and Forgiveness
As I’ve discussed before when discussing the spiritual abuse term sin-leveling (see my blog posts about that here and here among other places) this term is too often used by abusers and their enablers to give victims of all kinds of abuse something to feel guilty about, to silence them from assertive action calling both abusers/perpetrators/exploiters and unhealthy/abusive systems to account.
There’s Preventable Harm at Stake In Conversations about This Term Here, Friends!
And I would argue that unfortunately a lot of good people, not realizing the depth of the hurtful rhetoric and how deep it goes, might go on to further harm people who are naturally very deeply triggered by these kinds of spiritual abuses of the term.
Thankfully I would argue that, as with the contention over religious perspectives post I did a few weeks back (here), a small amount of wording when we discuss this concept can easily make better space for a large swatch of spiritual abuse survivors of all kinds of stripes to feel safer when we have this kind of discussion.
Hang with me and we’ll get there, I promise.
Again, I Have No Problems with People Finding Value in Individual Forgiveness Practices
So yes, let’s be clear: I have absolutely no problem with people having positive experiences of having forgiven abusers. If Corrie Ten Boom found a healing benefit in forgiving her captors, good for her.
I also have no problem with people making distinctions between their personal definitions of forgiveness as being for them and not about reconciliation at all. Or precluding them from calling abusers to account. I have no issues with that as a great personal definition that you find helps you.
Where I See the Problem—Imposition of Forgiveness on Survivors and Marginalized People
What I do have a problem with is people of all stripes imposing on others the fact that they must use the word or processes associated with forgiveness, whether or not it is perceived to contain reconciliation, in order to heal from trauma.
As I’ve noted, when people say that forgiveness is the only way, or that people are entitled to forgiveness from other humans, this comes back to the lighter but still visible shades of the power and control abuses of the term I see above.
My Other Problem with the Rhetoric—The Assumption of Bitterness and Vengeance
I also have a problem with presuming that a lack of forgiveness, whatever the definition you might apply to it, necessarily either leads to bitterness or vengeance on behalf of survivors of traumatic events.
Starting with the Emotions, Then Working Our Way Backwards
Let’s start with the second-listed problem and work our way back to the first, shall we?
Okay, so I see the word bitterness come up A LOT in discussions about forgiveness, including related to trauma, including in discussions where people assume that forgiveness is for the person forgiving rather than for the other person.
The phrase “vengeance is mine says the Lord” also comes up a lot. One commenter in this week’s comments section to the forgiveness section went so far as to imply that without forgiveness, we’d basically have a wild west society where a bunch of vigilantes would be running around killing everyone.
Let me just pause here and say whoa that’s QUITE THE LEAP.
So Negative Emotion Can ONLY Be Released Through Forgiveness??? REALLY???
The assumption here is that if you’ve been either hurt or traumatized by another person, first, any emotion you have can ONLY be released through a process that is called by the term forgiveness, whatever an individual’s particular definition of that term.
This is such a fascinating concept when you put it into context of healing from types of grief or trauma that aren’t necessarily caused by people specifically. It’s fascinating, for instance, to think about how anger is seen to be one of the accepted stages of grief, and the final stage isn’t seen as forgiveness but acceptance.
Similarly, a person recovering from the trauma of a no-fault accident or tragedy isn’t so much expected to forgive. And yet trauma therapists have full confidence that people healing from such accidents have full ability to heal from that trauma—they call it trauma integration.
Assertive Advocacy as a Mode of Trauma Recovery
Ironically, as I mentioned before, trauma integration from abuse trauma often involves being able to recover healthy fight responses and work them safely out of your system, including through making meaning of your experience through things like assertive advocacy of healthier ways of doing things.
The disturbing part about the response to these efforts is that unhealthy systems, especially churches, will too often come back to say that the abused person is being unhealthy and specifically unforgiving by asking for systemic change.
As highlighted in the biblical counseling episode of The Ugly Truth about the Girl Next Door, a whole raft of biblical counselors are still today actually being trained to victim-blame survivors by saying it is their problem if they can’t immediately forgive and forget.
The Second Wound
Unfortunately, all of these negative responses create re-traumatization of abuse survivors that have often already experienced disciplining and silencing by their abusers. This phenomenon is so common it’s called “the second wound” in trauma studies.
Too often, in and out of church contexts, sin-leveling via calling victims and survivors “unforgiving” is too often one of the biggest causes of the second wound. That and other common terms we’ve been talking about around fascistic politics and societies—for instance calling survivors “divisive” for asking for change in how abuse allegations are handled to make the process more victim-centric.
It’s really struck me this week how much on a macro scale this rhetoric overlaps with the kind of rhetoric used to suppress protests from other marginalized groups, and that there are frequent second wounds in those situations as well. Take white supremacy and colonialism for instance.
When the Abusers are Driving the Systemic Rhetoric
It also really struck me when the Ugly Truth about the Girl Next Door podcasters noted that one of the key members of the main biblical counseling organizations is one of the named offenders with allegations against them in the case that’s central to that podcast.
The truth is this: when the abusers and complicit folks are running the systems that are putting forth the unhealthy rhetoric, abuse and exploitation of all types will continue.
No Place for, Well, Assertive Spirituality in Too Much Forgiveness Rhetoric
The problem with too much forgiveness rhetoric is this: the rhetoric of forgiveness tied to bitterness and vengeance by the abused assumes ultimately a projected fear that survivors and marginalized groups won’t be able to handle emotions, especially frustration and anger, in a healthy way.
This view ultimately assumes that there’s no place for, well, assertive spirituality unless it comes through some ultimate idea that we must forgive those who have hurt us, or otherwise become monsters.
Again, My Problem Is When Forgiveness Is REQUIRED of Survivors
And as I noted above, while I don’t have a problem with people choosing to find value in various definitions of forgiveness, especially when they are also willing to pair that with holding people assertively accountable and lessening the damage of unhealthy individuals and systems on our societies, I am extremely cautious about both therapies and spiritual or cultural systems that try to try to require victims of all sorts of atrocities to forgive simply because the perpetrators won’t be bothered to repent.
Especially Spiritual Abuse Survivors of All Stripes Affected by This Term
I especially have a problem with systems and definitions of forgiveness that won’t make space for spiritual abuse survivors who have had the concept of forgiveness weaponized against them a space to heal in whatever way they need to without using that term.
Dismissiveness of Other Forms of Healing=Also a Problem
As a scholar of the incredibly ambiguous thing called communication, I also have a problem with people telling me dismissively that if you propose such a thing that it’s “like telling someone a horse is a cow,” as I was in the comment section this week. As mentioned above, after all, there are lots of ways to heal from grief and trauma that don’t involve any kind of forgiveness, whether given or taken.
The Relatively Easy Fix to Make These Discussions Less Contentious
Here it is: the relatively easy fix I promised for these contentious discussions around the topic of forgiveness. Sure, have a definition of forgiveness that you like and have found valuable for you. Just when you enter a conversation with someone else who may have a different experience and definition, simply start your discussion framing your definition and experience as just that. “I believe that forgiveness….” Or “forgiveness has been helpful for me when I think about it in the following way…”
Please Do Think about This More Deeply as Well, Though…It’s Important
That said, I really do also encourage you to look carefully at your presumptions about what’s required for people to heal on an emotional level.
Because the presumptions around the fact that people who don’t choose to enact forgiveness in their healing journey somehow have no other outlet for their negative emotions, and necessarily are harboring bitterness and vengeance in their hearts, is simply not true.
Some members of these populations may feel these things at some times, but that doesn’t imply that they are acting on those emotions or dealing with them in inappropriate ways. Some may, but most really really do not.
And some of those that do get thrown in jail for hurting their abusers were clearly acting out of self-defense.
A Glimpse of Why I’m So Passionate about This
Full disclosure: while I have a scholarly take on this issue, this is also a personal one for me. I once had to put a person in my family on limited contact for our mutual benefit, without conceiving any fault in the situation at the time, but just seeing that the relationship wasn’t helping either of us, especially me.
I had another member of my family shortly thereafter plead with me if I couldn’t just forgive that person.
My response was that I honestly wasn’t aware of anything to forgive. I felt really blindsided by it.
Let’s Move Away from One-Size-Fits-All Calls for Forgiveness, Please!
That experience, together with my study of these situations where churches and cultures alike try to use the concept of forgiveness to put the onus on those who have been sinned against to make other people feel like the problem has been easily resolved without doing the hard work of sitting with the discomfort raised with assertive and healthy responses to a problem, has really made me a strong advocate for everyone to loosen up all sorts of one-size-fits-all applications of the term forgiveness.
Again, I’m fine with individuals choosing to forgive as parts of their healing processes. And there are appropriate situations (usually in the healthier types of relationships) for the concept of forgiveness to be much more frequent, for those who choose to use that term. Similarly, those who find it useful, like Corrie Ten Boom, to forgive egregious faults on their own behalf as part of their healing process are welcome to do so.
No Longer Seeing Corrie Ten Boom As the Apex of Forgiveness to Strive For, Though
But I no longer find Corrie Ten Boom’s example a unilaterally ideal one to reach for. Well, maybe in terms of resistance, but not in terms of forgiveness of atrocities.
Having seen the damage that expecting people to act just like her in terms of forgiving misdeeds has done both on individual and societal levels while pushing down the ideas of actually making things individually and systemically better to prevent future survivors, I really really just can’t say she’s the apex of all spiritual response to those kinds of situations.
ESPECIALLY when thinking about how unhealthy systems often expect us to “blanket-forgive” atrocities to make ourselves feel better about them without actually asking the victims or trying to make things better for them.
The Danger of Spiritual Exceptionalism When It Comes to Forgiveness of Abuse and Atrocities Alike
Corrie Ten Boom, you see, may have chosen to forgive her captor-abusers, but holding her up as a shining example of forgiveness puts us in danger of looking down on any other Holocaust survivor, any other survivor of the intergenerational traumas involved in colonialism and white supremacy, any survivor of Apartheid or slavery, any survivor of sexual or other abuse for working out their stress and trauma responses in other ways than through a process people think they must call “forgiveness”—or else.
The Continuing Challenge I See with “Intermediate” Definitions of Forgiveness
While “intermediate” types of forgiveness definitions that separate out forgiveness from reconciliation, those that separate forgiveness from calling people to account, etc. etc. etc. are helpful in separating ourselves to a degree from these negative outcomes, they don’t do all the work that I see as necessary.
See, as noted above, even with the “forgiveness is for the victim/survivor, not for the offender” types of definitions, in situations where the term has been abused, there’s no going back for many of the victims/survivors of spiritual abuse to make that phrase untriggering. There just isn’t.
And since abusers count on people’s shame around forgiveness or lack thereof to avoid accountability for misdeeds, calling on people generally to forgive everyone in a one size fits all sort of way, however limited your definition, is going to dig into and add to the trauma for that specific group of people.
It’s Really Not Necessary to Call Everyone Equally to Forgive
And the truth is that language is flexible and we have lots and lots of concepts, as mentioned above, for releasing emotions that can be unhealthy over time without using the term forgiveness.
For God’s sake, exercise is one proven way to release negative emotions without harming oneself and others. There is simply no evidence-based reason that we have to call all releases of negative emotions “forgiveness.” We don’t try to do this when it comes to tragedies and griefs that are no one’s fault, so why do we do this when it comes to situations that are?
I do have some tentative answers to that question, but I don’t want to make this too long, so I’ll leave there for now.
A Little Verbal Space for Multiple Perspectives, Please!
Just please please please friends, when we have conversations about forgiveness, can we make some small verbal space for others to assertively hold conceptions of healing that both do and don’t involve forgiveness by those hurt by others?
And can we please not assume that survivors, many of which have been socialized into fawn responses in very real and long-lasting ways, are necessarily going to run around wreaking havoc on themselves and others if they don’t fulfill your conception of forgiveness?
Thanks so much, friends. The more all of us can become aware of and share this information with others, and keep speaking up toward a healthier world for us all, the better things will be.
A Final Charge
Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! Let’s continue to do what we can where we are with what we’ve got to speak up against the toxic crap, whether in ourselves and others, toward a healthier world for us all. We can do this thing.
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