This is an excerpt from the final report of the Independent Committee of Inquiry, Presbyterian Church (USA), printed in September 2002. The authors are Howard Beardslee, Lois Edmund, James Evinger, Nancy Poling, Geoffrey Stearns, and Carolyn Whitfield. This excerpt is used with permission. The ICI was charged with investigating reports of sexual abuse of MKs attending American Presbyterian Congo Mission between 1945 and 1978. You can read the full report here: Final Report of the Independent Committee of Inquiry.
Why can’t they all just forgive and forget?
As victims begin the long, painful road to healing, many among their friends and family urge them to “forgive and forget.” Why is this so important? For those who served as missionaries to the Congo, it may be related to their desire to hold on to fond memories of their years on the field. It may be because they don’t want to be reminded that a colleague they respected engaged in such destructive behaviour.
There is perhaps another reason. Often we call upon people to forgive and forget because we are uncomfortable with anger, particularly if it is directed at someone we care about. Or if we ourselves feel some responsibility. Anger, however, is an appropriate response to abuse. Some women the ICI interviewed have spent a lifetime coping with eating disorders, alcoholism, low self-esteem, and depression because a person they dearly loved and trusted sexually abused them. He betrayed them, and they are furious. The missionary community did not protect them, and they are furious. Their anger is appropriate. Sexual abuse is a traumatic blow to the God-given human dignity with which every person is born. In awakening to the abuse, anger and rage are a first step toward regaining that dignity and self-esteem. Anger is an important step toward healing.
Of course, a third reason why a Christian community would admonish a victim to forgive is because it is what Jesus taught. Believers, of course, cannot discount the biblical imperative. However, Christian advocates for the abused have been engaged in biblical study related to forgiveness. Many have concluded that while Jesus taught forgiveness, he also taught that we must confront evil and commit ourselves to justice, especially when the poor and vulnerable are concerned. Careful reading reveals, too, that on the cross Jesus did not directly forgive the people who were crucifying him; he left that up to God. “Father, forgive them,” he said.
An Old Testament story can further guide our understanding of forgiveness. At the end of the narrative about Joseph and his brothers, after Jacob’s death, Joseph meets with his brothers, who sold him into slavery. When they beseech him to forgive them, he does not say he will; rather he asks them, “Am I in place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me…I will provide for you and your little ones” (Gen. 50: 19-20). He made no statement of forgiveness or of love; rather he pledged not to let them starve.
Confession, too, is an important part of the Christian tradition. Confession precedes forgiveness. How does one forgive an abuser who never admitted wrong? How does one forgive a person who is no longer living? When there is no admittance of guilt or when a face-to-face encounter is not possible, the victim may have to reach a point of acceptance rather than forgiveness. Acceptance is not resignation. It implies a state of inner peace. Whether the end is forgiveness or acceptance, the journey is painful, tedious, and long.
When victims hear their parents, “aunts,” and “uncles” tell them they should forgive and forget, they may feel re-victimized. The request tells them that their “family” does not understand the trauma they have had to live with. Those who call for forgiving and forgetting are saying that they would feel more comfortable if the wrong done was covered up or if the victim would at least pretend it was forgotten. Hearing people they love tell them to forgive and forget can also add to victims’ feelings of guilt. If they are unable to forgive, then something must be wrong with them.
Those who work in the field of abuse speak of “cheap grace,” that is forgiveness that is offered too quickly and easily. Cheap grace is forgiveness that is extended even when there has been no remorse or compensation for the harm that was done. Cheap grace is phony reconciliation that would require victims to forget what happened to them, even when the scars of abuse are daily reminders.
Marie Fortune, a noted advocate for those who have been abused, speaks of forgiveness as “the last step.” A precondition for forgiveness, she says, is justice for the victim. This inquiry is a step toward justice, but only a step.
Working through the wounds of abuse is for many a lifetime endeavor, which means that arriving at the last step, “forgiveness,” may take years. Through therapy, accompanied by family and friends, victims take the long journey toward wholeness and a renewed relationship with God. At the same time family and friends pursue the causes of justice and restitution.
The pressure exerted on victims to “forgive and forget” is healthful neither for them nor for the church. Forgiveness can not be mandated; one who has suffered cannot simply be told to forgive.
Neither is it a theological rule to be followed; it is a gift. Forgiveness is a gift that comes as a part of the healing journey.Also, please read Forgive and Forget: Preventing Healing and Protecting Abusers.