Sunday, 7 February 2016

Forgiveness Is Not a Magic Bullet

Former church leader, Mark Driscoll, has recently been making headlines again. It appears he's taken one step closer to his comeback by announcing he'll be opening his brand new church, Trinity, in Phoenix. The strange thing is that there is apparently no mention in his publicity of his previous 'workplace', Mars Hill. (Considering that accounts for almost 2 decades of his working life, it seems a trifle... odd!)

Anyway, this announcement has caused quite a stir in certain circles and has yet again polarised opinions regarding his fitness to lead. There are many people (no doubt many of the bodies MD left under the Mars Hill bus) who are decrying the move. Many feel that Mr Driscoll has not yet dealt with the mess he made the last time he headed up a church.

And yet, there seem to be plenty of believers who are applauding the development, loudly proclaiming that all "true christians" should support him because... forgiveness!

Still from The Matrix

Now, I've been pondering and exploring this concept of forgiveness for a long time, but never more so since an ex-elder and his wife from my ex-church (who have since started their own church) applied to the courts for a protection order against me late last year. The application alleged that I represented such a severe threat to their safety, I should be excluded from any place they might possibly be present, including my own sons' school.

Although it didn't actually make it to court, my family and I were put through hell for two months by two 'christian leaders' who had previously been part of the abusive experience which drove me out of the institutional church.

For me, the story has had a far better outcome than I would have dreamed possible, and I am profoundly grateful for that! However, once again, the response of many christians has been to focus on the requirement for me to forgive.

Each time I've experienced abuse or injustice or wrong-doing at the hands of christians, the response has been the same. I must forgive. Yet nothing is ever said about confronting the wrong-doer, addressing injustice, or preventing the same thing happening to others.

It seems the onus is always on victim to forgive, not on the wrong-doer to repent and make amends. It is the victim who faces the consequences - being judged 'bitter and unforgiving'. Meanwhile the perpetrator walks away - free from accountability; free from consequences; free to offend again. Nothing is acknowledged, nothing dealt with, nothing changes. History just repeats itself, but with a vengeance.

Why is it that christians take this line? Why do we show ourselves so unwilling to address wrong-doing and abuse in our midst? Because the victim is a soft target? Because we don't want to pay the price of getting involved? Rarely is the response to abuse one of seeking justice for the victim. Rarely is there a call for accountability of the perpetrator.

It seems the 'christian' response to intimidation or abuse is to push for the victim to forgive; not for the perpetrator to be brought to account for their actions; not for justice to be done; not for protection against future abuse; not for preventing a repeat of the injustice.

That is why there are so many people deeply concerned about Mr Driscoll resuming his 'ministry'. Why would this man change his behaviour - this man who has never faced those he's harmed, never said 'sorry' to them, never made reparation to them? Why would we expect to see change from a man who chose to turn walk away and start a new church rather than clean up the mess he'd made of the old one? Why would he act any differently this time?

Supposedly the 'christian' response is to simply forgive and give the man another chance to damage lives, without giving a thought to the people who are still hurting from the last time. (They are seen as the problem, not him!) And yet Jesus called out the bullying, abusive behaviour of the religious leaders in his day, calling them poisonous snakes, monuments to death, even sons of hell!

He told them they tied up heavy burdens on people's backs, but wouldn't lift a finger to help them carry those burdens. A bit like telling the victim of abuse they must forgive their abuser, while refusing to address and remediate the abuse itself!

So when people like us keep talking about the injustice we suffered, the abuse we endured, the wrong we faced, do not assume it is because we are "bitter and unforgiving". When we speak about the flaws and failures in the church system do not assume it is because we refuse to "move on". When we shine a light on the darkness of christian culture do not assume it is because we are "wanting revenge".

It is because we don't want the bus to run over even more victims. We don't want bullies and abusers to continue in their ill-health. We can see that the emperor is naked and we can't pretend otherwise!

So please stop shutting us down. Assuming we haven't forgiven. Throwing the religious cliches in our face. We have legitimate grievances. Valid concerns. And ignoring the problems will not make them go away. "Just concentrating of the positive" does not diminish or justify the wrong that has been done. There is still a need for the hard work of reparation, remediation, rehabilitation, restoration, and reconstruction. Forgiveness is not a magic bullet!


  1. It is not an either or, it is both. "ignoring the problems will not make them go away." One of the major problems is not forgiving, the other one is not seeking justice. If a victim cannot start by forgiving the perpetrator, then they are not in a good place to seek justice nor retribution.

    1. Bradley, do you believe that we can demand forgiveness from one another, and that the pursuit of justice predicated on the victim's forgivingness?

      Forgiveness is indeed a healthy thing, but I believe it is a choice and cannot be imposed by others. It can also take time and cannot be dictated by someone else's schedule.

      I am very concerned about how many christians put pressure on abuse victims to forgive (and do it quickly) while refusing to hold the perpetrator to account. Thus they become enablers of the abuse, and further traumatise the victim. And I believe that is incredibly wrong!

  2. It is not an either or, it is both. "ignoring the problems will not make them go away." One of the major problems is not forgiving, the other one is not seeking justice. If a victim cannot start by forgiving the perpetrator, then they are not in a good place to seek justice nor retribution.

  3. First off, you can't forgive someone who hasn't sought forgiveness. You just can't. You can (and should) be WILLING to forgive, but the transaction of forgiveness is a bilateral necessity. It's modeled after our own transaction with Christ: we repent THEN he forgives. To allow someone to understand that they are somehow forgiven prior to their conviction and repentance is incredibly damaging to both them and others. It short-circuits their healing and the restoration of true relationship with the offended. I am super willing to forgive Mark, but not at the cost of his spiritual health/growth, or the continued destruction of others.
    Biblically, you can't find a case where forgiveness is given without any reciprocation, only instruction to be willing to forgive as we have been forgiven (when we confessed our sin and need).

    1. "I am super willing to forgive Mark, but not at the cost of his spiritual health/growth, or the continued destruction of others."

      Thanks Ron. Your comment makes me think of the example Jesus set us in his dealings with abusive religious leaders. I believe his anger was prompted by both deep care for their victims, and real concern for their spiritual health.

    2. @RonWheeler
      No, you've got it wrong. We are not to require repentance before we offer forgiveness. Christ died WHILE WE WERE YET SINNERS.

      Romans 5:6
      " You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. 8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us."

  4. If you cannot forgive those who offended you, how can Jesus forgive you of your offenses to Him?

    Matthew 6:14 - 15
    "For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins."

    The crux of our faith, so to speak. We are not asked to require apologies or recompense before we forgive. We are to simply forgive no matter what the circumstances.

    Or, you do the faith part, and let Jesus do the justice part.

    1. Anonymous, I'm not sure you've understood what I was writing about. Forgiveness is not something we can demand of another person. And even when people do choose to forgive, that doesn't mean there is no need for the offence to be addressed and remedied. It is neither loving, nor Christ-like, to turn a blind eye to abuse and simply allow more lives to be devastated.

    2. Did Jesus require justice from those who crucified him?

    3. Anonymous, Jesus calls for repentance (which leads us to justice) from all who enter into relationship with him. (And in one sense, you and I crucified him.) In that context, the answer to your question is yes. Just think of the response of Zacchaeus.

      But back to my point... no one can demand forgiveness from another. It is a gift freely given or else it is not forgiveness. And even when we offer forgiveness, it is not a magic bullet which restores relationship - nor does it make the pain of abuse magically disappear.

      BTW, Jesus did require justice, and mercy, and compassion, and a change of heart from the religious leaders who were abusing their positions of power and authority and damaging lives.

  5. To answer what I assume was a rhetorical question, we confront the victim for their unforgiveness because the abuser is more than willing to pretend that nothing has happened, and ignore the problem. The victim is the one who is always annoying us by reminding us that something is wrong.

    We would much rather delude ourselves into thinking that everything is just fine, than have to do the work to make things right.

    1. Ouch, that sounds too horribly close to the reality! Thanks so much Dallas.

      BTW, I'm always genuinely interested to hear how other people see things, so any question I ask is open for response :)