I often think of this verse when I hear the “forgive and forget” refrain that church leaders so often dish out to clergy abuse survivors.
It comes in different shapes and forms. “Move-on.” “Let it go.” Or “leave it in God’s hands.” How many times have we all heard these lines?
Whatever the words they use, the message is the same. It’s wrapped up in a faulty forgiveness theology that essentially says "put on blinders and pretend it never happened."
This is dealing falsely. The wounds are not healed. There is no peace.
When church leaders do this, what they want is a false, premature sort of forgiveness. They want to cover over the wound... lightly... before there has been any healing. And then they walk away and say "all is well" - "peace" - but in truth, "there is no peace."
We are the ones who KNOW that.
It’s a pretend sort of peace. It isn’t real. It isn’t authentic.
Saddest of all is that this sort of premature forgiveness throws away the possibility for real understanding and authentic human connection. And that’s the possibility that holds the hope for genuine forgiveness and for genuine reconciliation.
Their notion of premature forgiveness is self-serving. It’s a version of forgiveness that frees them from guilt and fosters a sense of impunity. Impunity for the perpetrators. And impunity for the cover-ups.
It’s also a sort of forgiveness theology that causes many clergy abuse victims to suffer even more. What it tells victims is this: It’s not enough that you were betrayed by a trusted minister, and it’s not enough that you endured abuse to your sacred body, and it’s not enough that you were again betrayed by other church leaders who sought to keep it secret. You must also carry the burden of preserving the good reputation of the very people who did the wrong and of the institution that kept it quiet. It's a terrible burden.
This turns forgiveness into nothing more than the shovel that digs the hole that buries the whole thing. And then it just becomes a rotting, stinking mess of decay that worms crawl through. This cheapens the very notion of forgiveness and turns it into nothing more than a tool for self-serving secrecy.
Obviously, I am very critical of church and denominational leaders who foist this sort of faulty forgiveness. But I also think this is something that WE, the survivors, must guard against for ourselves.
I remember how very much I wanted to immediately forgive my old piano teacher - the music minister who knew about the other minister’s abuse of me as a kid. He knew about it. He told me not to talk about it. He didn’t tell my parents or the police. And he allowed the perpetrator to move on to another church.
But I felt so certain that he would be older and wiser and better educated now, and that he would be glad to hear from me, and would want to help me and would feel badly that he hadn’t done more when I was a kid. I was certain of it. Absolutely certain.
So anxious was I to extend forgiveness that I held it there with the door wide open before I even had a clue what was going on. I wanted desperately to simply shake his hand, look him in the eyes, and say "All is well."
I told my Catholic friends, "Oh no...it’s not going to be like it was with you. This is a man who has raised a daughter of his own by now. He’ll understand. He’s a good man. You’ll see. He’ll help me."
I was wrong. He didn’t give a hoot about any forgiveness from me. He only wanted me to go back to being quiet about it. Quiet about the perpetrator and quiet about the fact that he covered it up.
It took me a long time to see that. When I finally did, what I also saw was that I myself had been too desperately wanting of reconciliation .... when there wasn’t any reconciling going on. It was all one-sided. I had been too anxious for peace...when there was no peace.
If we forgive prematurely, before justice is done, before others are protected, before truth is made transparent, then we too become part of the process of simply looking for the easy way out.
Seeking to readily forgive is what feels comfortable to us. We grew up with forgiveness as a basic tenet of our faith. It’s a concept we’re comfortable with.
By contrast, confrontation is NOT something that most of us are comfortable with. Most of us were raised to be "nice." We don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. We don’t want to speak poorly of anyone. We grew up with moms who told us, "If you can’t say something nice, then don’t say anything at all."
For most of us, it is emotionally very, very difficult to even think about confronting our perpetrators or about confronting other church leaders who turned a blind eye. When we think about doing THAT, we push the boundaries of our own comfort zone. It feels uneasy. It doesn’t feel "nice." And so we shrink back from it.
And forgiveness provides us with a ready rationalization to avoid those confrontations. To avoid getting outside our comfort zone. To avoid doing what needs to be done.
Of course, we’re often so hurting and so wounded that it doesn’t matter whether it’s a real forgiveness or a false forgiveness. We can convince ourselves it’s real. And we just want to forgive and move on.
Church leaders tell us to "move on." And that’s exactly what we WANT to do. We want that more than anyone.
But of course, lots of clergy abuse survivors have tried to forgive, have wanted to forgive, have believed they did forgive, and HAVE forgiven.... only to find that years later, the ugliness of it reared its head again and they wanted something more. They wanted truth-telling. They wanted truth-hearing. They wanted accountability.
A premature forgiveness is just that. It’s premature.
These are deep wounds and they cannot be healed... "lightly." Without truth-telling and accountability, there is no peace. And it only prolongs the anguish if we say "peace" when, in truth, there is no peace.