Forgiveness is not amnesia

The editors of Christianity Today have finally heeded the outcries of readers who were offended, enraged, and triggered by their article from a convicted sex offender. They published a rather sincere apology for their grave lapse of judgment, giving me hope that the Church is on its way to having a better understanding of sexual abuse: what it is, how it works.

I hate to say it, but I was expecting an apology more along the lines of “I’m sorry you got your feelings hurt”: something insincere and not truly from the heart. I expected this not because the Church has some kind of agenda to make life more hellish for sexual abuse victims, but because Christians in particular just can’t wrap their heads around this issue. I want to know why this is.

Perhaps part of why the Church mishandles (and continues to mishandle) sexual abuse is because the forgiveness piece of our faith is so highly valued. We Christians figure if Jesus can forgive the people who nailed him to a cross, rape victims can forgive their abusers. My personal journey of forgiveness has taught me that forgiveness isn’t the same as letting abusers off the hook, though: it’s a decision that frees myself from being enslaved by bitterness, which gives my abuser a hell of a lot more power than he deserves.

But why are perpetrators of abuse told to repent and submit to consequences in every available avenue except the law? This is where the Church continues screwing up. It’s not enough to come clean to an accountability partner. It’s not enough to resign from your position of leadership.

Maybe churches with abusers in their midst figure the negative publicity will hurt attendance, sponsorship, or the cause of Christ as a whole. I know I want to believe more than anything that the conviction of the holy spirit is enough to rectify damaging behavior, but sadly, this makes Christians rather naïve. Sexual abuse is a crime that thrives on secrecy: from the victim and everyone who knows the abuse is happening. This gives power to the abuser, making him (or her) believe he/she is invincible. The recidivism rate of sexual abusers increases when “turn the other cheek” becomes synonymous with hiding from the consequences of the law.

My distrust of churches as safe havens grows every time I hear forgiveness lauded as the only solution to “getting over” abuse. Not only is this completely underestimating the severity of trauma, but forgiveness doesn’t cause amnesia. Forgiveness doesn’t wipe the memory clean of PTSD and all the physical symptoms that go with it. Even years later, there’s not a day that goes by when I don’t still struggle with it.

This is what abuse survivors need from their churches: stop telling us that the joy of Christ conquers all wounds. We know that. Just tell us, instead, that you are listening and you want to understand.

For me, that is a good enough place to start.


4 thoughts on “Forgiveness is not amnesia

  1. “[T]he forgiveness piece of our faith is so highly valued. We Christians figure if Jesus can forgive the people who nailed him to a cross, rape victims can forgive their abusers.”

    I think this really summarizes a large part of the problem.

    I have not been sexually abused, but I have been through physical and emotional abuse. I remember how freeing it was the first time a Christian told me that my abuser was wrong. Up until that point, when I would share with Christians about it, they would ask what I could have done differently, what was wrong in my heart that I couldn’t let it go,… Honestly, I felt shut down every time I would talk about it. I couldn’t forgive my abuser, because I couldn’t even acknowledge this person had done anything wrong. When what I had buried for so long was affirmed by another Christian, I was finally able to release my abuser and what had been done. Not forgetting, like you said, but freeing up my heart.

    Forgiveness is good and healthy, but it doesn’t mean excusing the sin. God certainly doesn’t just excuse sin. In talking about God’s grace and mercy and forgiveness (all important things, by the way), we sometimes forget God’s justice. The Psalms talk about God being angry with the wicked every day. Zephaniah says that God brings His justice to light every day, but the unjust know no shame. And in Galatians, Paul is clear: what a person plants he or she will reap. We may be forgiven, but there is no such thing as consequence-free living for anyone.

    I don’t know why so many Christians refuse to bring sexual abusers to justice through the law. When Paul talks about government in Romans 13, he refers to it as a terror to evil works, an avenging minister on practitioners of evil. Sexual abuse is clearly evil and the laws established concerning sexual abuse in our country are clearly good, and yet, many churches think it’s better to exclude the law. Of course, sexual abusers can be forgiven, but forgiveness does not exempt them from the just consequences of their actions.

    Hard stuff to wrestle through!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Let’s add into this equation that the church culture (in general) is already uncomfortable talking openly about sex. I think that may have a lot to do with why people want the forgiveness/repentance route to just fix everything so it never has to be mentioned again.

    Also, I think the naivete of using forgiveness as an amnesia drug is exacerbated in these cases because abusers can be so manipulative. If a group such as a church has a certain “language” that they use to talk about things like repentance and forgiveness, abusers will figure out how to utilize that language to convince everyone to look past what they’ve done.

    Now, obviously, there are offenders who do come to a full understanding of/repentance for what they’ve done, but those people tend to demonstrate that by focusing more on the impact their actions had on victims–and by cooperating with and accepting permanent barriers in their lives–whereas people who just game the system will use a lot of flowery forgiveness language that sounds *familiar* to churchgoers but doesn’t translate into victim support or safe practices moving forward.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I am immediately skeptical of offenders when they try to apologize (a fault within myself, I realize) because I’m just so used to people not fully understanding what abuse is. You raise a good point, though, about how the church fears talking about sex and that this directly influences how we discuss abuse. The “language” used really needs to be updated or discarded altogether.


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