March 11, 2018 by lucieromarin
While looking into the possibility of legal action against my former director, I discovered that his file about me had been destroyed without my knowledge or permission. I had written most of what was in it. I mentioned this to a friend, saying, “I could have used that file in court.” She tried to comfort me by telling me that forgiveness was safer than legal action anyway. She did mean well. She really thought my soul might be in danger if I sought compensation for being hurt – and she was not without a point. Legal processes might make me bitter and vindictive. But must they?
To tell people that seeking redress for an injury is dangerous, to tell them that they must let the injurer go to protect themselves from further punishment or abuse, is to confirm their worthlessness and the criminal’s value. A priest hurts you. His new colleagues in his subsequent workplace cover up for him. You lose your soul if you tell anyone about it or seek compensation for it…? What are you worth in the eyes of a God who thinks like that?
I found myself choking on forgiveness as it was served up to me on plates of fear, self-doubt, pious legend, or the pure re-writing of history. “You won’t need to testify if you forgive,” someone said. The dichotomy assumed that speaking was the opposite of forgiving. You could be vengeful (and speak) or you could forgive (and keep silent). Justice doesn’t come into it, or, if it does, it will be an indefinable something magicked out of the air by God at some point as your reward for not asking to be heard. But, unlike vengeance or forgiveness, justice was not something you could actually do.
Writers both sacred and secular assured me that by ceasing to care/talk/remember/feel the effects of the other’s actions, or that by uttering beautiful declarations such as, “I release myself from your power over me,” or, “I let you go,” I could make everything okay. If you can’t change the situation, change how you think about the situation, right?
Look, it obviously works for some people and in some contexts, but for me, it was no help. How many different perspectives are there on “He did wrong and no one will call it?” How about I slap you upside the head and you just let it go? How about we hold the perpetrator to the same standard as we hold his casualties, bring him to justice and ask him to change his thoughts about the situation and to let it go?
At best, this kind of forgiveness was like a hallucinogenic mushroom; take one bite, and everything feels okay! For me, it was lie. His actions were wrong. His supporters’ actions were wrong. I could not pretend that the problems he’d caused had been resolved, when they had not. I concluded that the only reason anyone needed me to forgive was so that I wouldn’t mess up their lives by reminding them about everything that was still going wrong. But you can hardly say to a survivor, “Please forgive this man so as to reduce our workload and to save us from uncomfortable self-reflection,” can you?
I began to wonder if I was caught in some kind of transcendent steel trap, in which my inability to fear God’s wrath upon me for a lawsuit and my inability to pretend that everything was normal when it was quite frankly bizarre were one half of a set of metal teeth – the other half of which was my desire not to become a bitter, vindictive, monomaniacal psycho, which was apparently the sole future of one who would not keep silent.
This changed for me upon reading Rachael Denhollander’s interview here. Please read it in full. The gymnast testified against her abuser, won his imprisonment, and also forgave him. She speaks openly of the role of faith in her survival and healing, but equally openly about the exploitation of her faith by the less-supportive members of her church. The section that struck me was this:
“Given your concerns that Christians can use God’s call to forgive as a weapon against survivors, did you feel at all apprehensive telling Nassar that you forgive him?
I did to an extent, because forgiveness can really be misapplied. Taken within the context of my statement, with the call for justice and with what I have done to couple forgiveness and justice, it should not be misunderstood. But I have found it very interesting, to be honest, that every single Christian publication or speaker that has mentioned my statement has only ever focused on the aspect of forgiveness. Very few, if any of them, have recognized what else came with that statement, which was a swift and intentional pursuit of God’s justice. Both of those are biblical concepts. Both of those represent Christ. We do not do well when we focus on only one of them.”
I began to think that my choice was not as it had been proposed to me. I began to think that forgiveness and justice together are the opposite of vengeance. To forgive a man means not to cover up for him or to refuse to uphold the law. It means that you do seek justice but commit the results of your efforts to God’s hands. It means that there are limits to the methods by which you seek that justice. There are things you won’t do.
I saw better, then, the difference between vengeance, and forgiveness-with-justice. And I saw what was wrong with vengeance.
Vengeance decides, not simply that a man must be punished, but that he must be punished by me, and in a specific way. He has to get beaten up by my thugs, mowed down by my truck, or left bankrupted and homeless by my lawyer. There’s no trust at all in God’s ability to bring the man to justice, much less the to the ultimate good of repentance. (It’s the mirror image of that ‘forgiveness’ that, lacking any confidence in God’s ability to use the spoken truth to make us free, refuses to act, protects the guilty, and keeps the silence that enables the perpetrator to continue on his path.)
Vengeance has no boundaries. Vengeance is so determined to have the perpetrator know, feel and understand the pain he’s caused, that it will hurt anyone and anything related to him to try to bring that about. If you can’t mow him down with a large stolen vehicle, then burn down his family home, no matter who else might be within its walls – and if he’s outside hopelessly watching it burn, so much the better.
Forgiveness stays the hand of justice so that it doesn’t become vengeance. Forgiveness sets the boundaries. Forgiveness reminds justice that justice is the virtue by which we seek the good that is due to the other. It is due to a man to be held accountable. It is not due to him to be made to suffer at any cost. Forgiveness does not mean, “I will enable you with silence.” It doesn’t even mean, “I won’t testify against you in court.” It does mean, “I won’t deliberately hurt people who aren’t you and who cannot be blamed for what you’ve done, just so I can try to get you to feel that hurt you’ve done to me. I will do what is within my rights and will leave the results of my efforts in God’s hands.”
This has helped. Of course the injuries endure, but my experiment these days, is, when I feel the effects of those injuries, to say inwardly, “I release you from my need for vengeance. I commit you to biblical justice. I pray that that justice is seen and felt in this life, and that it leads you to repentance while you still can merit from it. I release you from limitless pursuit. There are things I won’t do. I don’t have to, because the God who sees and knows all can do them.”
I have no idea what biblical justice is. I don’t really care. The point is that it is not vengeance or the false forgiveness that enables more harm.
Have I forgiven him? I don’t know. I hope never to see him again in this life unless I’m visiting him in prison, but I do want to see him in Heaven. I have resisted complicity in a cover-up, but I haven’t called the Sydney Morning Herald with my minor-grooming gay-demon exorcist story. I did consult a lawyer, but I chose not to sue his Superiors. It probably wouldn’t be impossible for the astute researcher (assuming someone cared) to figure out his identity by reading my entire blog from beginning to end, but I don’t emblazon these posts with his name, or, more importantly the names, ages, or photographs of his children. Should he ever be hit by a truck, I won’t be contributing to his appeal for funds. But it will be God who orders the truck, not me. Make of that what you will.