Friday, November 12, 2021

About Forgiveness

 This is a post I've had in the back of my mind to write for several years, since well before I moved to Oregon. I think what's been holding me back is that I didn't want to seem preachy. I am not a member of the clergy. These blog posts are not sermons. I don't claim that my faith (tenuous on a good day) is the best one. 

In short, I don't tell other people how to live. Skip to the ending of Southern Cross and you'll know why.

They don't call the people of Massachusetts "Massholes" for nothing. During my eight years in rural Western Massachusetts, I noticed that holding grudges, talking about people behind their backs, and having hatefests and spitefests was a regional pastime on a par with following the Red Sox through playoff season. Maybe it was the poor economy. Maybe it was five months a year of ice and snow. When people ran out of things to talk about, they started bitching about whoever wasn't in the room. If you put a foot wrong with somebody, you probably never got a chance to make things right. In some ways, this open hostility was refreshing compared to the passive aggressive veneer of manners I usually encountered in the South. But over time, it proved deeply toxic.

What was difficult for me was that people didn't value, accept, or understand the gesture of forgiveness. They saw it as weakness. Likewise with anyone who tried to meet the other person halfway or offer a unilateral apology. They were suspicious of motives and agenda. On the whole, it just wasn't done.

Along with nonviolence and a general distrust of material wealth, forgiveness is one of the core practices of Christianity as I understand (practice being distinct from creed and dogma). Here's what Jesus had to say about it. See also turning the other cheek, blessed are the peacemakers, and a good deal of other famous lines and stories. Forgiveness is really not optional for practicing Christians.

But can forgiveness be a bad thing?

Can it lead to unhealthy, dysfunctional, and dangerous situations? How can we forgive and not be total asswipes? Can we forgive others and still strive to resist evil and injustice wherever we find them?

Just another stoopid unsupportable religious paradox, right?

Maybe so. This passage from Paul's letter to the Corinthians is one of the oldest and most theological central to Christianity. It predates the Gospels by a good 30 years.


Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

This is a beautiful sentiment, but it can also be used to trap people in oppressive, even abusive relationships. In particular, it can be used to keep women down. How many people have let someone hit them, or hurt them, or tear them down constantly because they have been told that love is the most important thing? Love becomes a catch-all definition to justify passivity and maintain the status quo.

Around the beginning of 2017 this stopped being an abstract philosophical question for me. I had to make a very difficult interpersonal decision. One of the texts I came back to was First Corinthians 13.  At the time I simply could not reconcile its message with the potential for perpetuating abuse. Paul's doctrine wasn't an isolated artifact from a different culture and place, like Levirate marriage or dietary restrictions. "Love does not insist on its own way" absolutely was a core belief of the faith in which I had been raised. I now found those words dangerous, instead of inspiring. 

I made what I think was the right choice in my personal life. And I took a giant step away from Christianity for several years. Not just from organized religion (it will be a long time before I set foot in a church again) but from my personal practice: the way in which beliefs guided my choices and actions.

If you're waiting for an "Amazing Grace" moment, you will have a long time to wait. I'm still not all the way there.

But I did figure out how you can keep the spirit of Corinthians 13 and still make safe and ethical decisions in a logically consistent manner. It's pretty simple, actually. 

Love does not have a single object. Love is something we feel for many people, in many situations and at many times in our lives. The classic example would be a woman who decides to leave an abusive relationship, even though she loves the abuser, because she fears for the safety of her children.

Take that a step further and remember that Jesus very clearly reminds his followers to love themselves. This is part of the Two Great Commandments that are the Cliff's Notes, Elevator Pitch, and TLDR to the rest of the Gospels. They are not hard to remember. The fact that Christ explicitly make the connection between self and the divine is not much talked about from the pulpit on Sundays. It's so much easier to control a flock with guilt, and extract tithes from people who believe themselves to be sinful and insignificant. But the message is right there, if you take the time to read it.

Going back to the question of forgiveness, this gave me some very clear moral guidance and teaching about when to stay in a relationship and when to leave. Healing is sometimes possible. Other times a clean break is best. If you can't love yourself and tolerate the behavior you are experiencing, then you need to get out. A great rule of thumb is what you would recommend if a good friend were in the same situation. You won't always know right away. Setting boundaries is also a great way to show love for yourself. So is giving yourself time and space. 

But you can still forgive the person you are leaving behind. You can still acknowledge and honor your love for them. People often say that forgiveness is more for the benefit of the person doing the forgiveness. That may be true. Forgiveness is not always immediate, or easy. Anger and trauma cannot be simply willed out of existence. But in my experience, intention makes a difference.

Forgiveness only takes one. Reconciliation takes two.

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