Evangelical teachings on repentance and forgiveness create a tremendous problem when it comes to rape or other forms of abuse. If you commit a sin and repent of it, God forgives you. I remember hearing Psalm 103:12 quoted constantly: “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” Of course, this was always said in a positive way—isn’t it awesome that God forgives us no matter what? But it doesn’t must mean God forgives us. It also means God forgives rapists, child molesters, and so on—fully and completely.
I was taught that bringing up sins that someone had already repented for was wrong. If the transgressor had repented, after all, God had forgiven him, and had had removed those transgressions “as far as the east is from the west.” Those sins were gone, totally and completely, and should not be mentioned again. The slate was clean. Now this may make sense when applied to more petty offenses—it’s never fun to have your mistakes constantly brought up, even when you’ve tried to make good—it also applies to rapists, child molesters, and so on.
My parents also liked to bring up some very powerful verses on forgiving each other. They taught us that we were to forgive those who had done us wrong—no matter how large the offense. If one of my siblings wronged me and then repented and I held off on forgiving them, I became the problem. Refusing to forgive an offense was as bad as the offense itself, if not worse. Within evangelicalism, forgiveness is mandatory—even if the offender is a rapist, child molester, etc.
Ephesians 4:32: Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.
Colossians 3:13: Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.
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.
That last verse, from Matthew, should emphasize just how mandatory forgiveness is in evangelical circles. Failing to forgive can mean losing your salvation. This is why evangelicals talk so much about bitterness. Failure to forgive leads to bitterness, which leads away from Christ—or so the argument goes. Failing to forgive makes you the problem.
I was reminded of all of this when reading a recent article about sexual abuse at Bob Jones University. The article quoted Julia, a Bob Jones University student and rape victim, as follows:
[The offenders] are able to quickly move on. They say they’re sorry, they’re repentant, so they go right back,” she said. “As the victims continue to struggle in the aftermath, we are the ones seen to be in sin. Struggling with fear, confusion, anger, talking about what happened, or any other reaction to trauma is seen as sin. We are expected to repent of those sins and live as though nothing happened.
This is all both foreign and familiar. It feels foreign because I never saw evangelical teachings about repentance and forgiveness applied to rape or sexual abuse because I don’t recall any such incidences occurring in my church or my Christian homeschool community. Oh, there was an affair or two, but always between married adults, and I wasn’t close enough to actually see the aftermath. But it feels familiar because I do know evangelical teachings, and I’ve seen them applied to plenty of lesser things. And this? This is completely consistent.
This is also in line with a piece I quoted from earlier this week. In that piece, blogger Maureen writes about what it was like to learn, suddenly and unexpectedly, that her husband was a child molester—and what it was like to deal with the aftermath:
Through this whole process, I learned that much is required of those victimized, while little is asked of sex offenders. When my husband began to spin his story, it was received with affirmations of how courageous he was. He was even placed on the worship team within a few months of his confessions.
In contrast, I was expected to never be angry, bitter, or wrestle with forgiveness. I needed to heal quickly and quietly. And, of course, I couldn’t ever question his “recovery.” His was a wondrous redemption story, and to question his trustworthiness was to question God’s work in his life.
This is, quite simply, the natural result of evangelical teachings about repentance and forgiveness—or at least, with the evangelical teachings I was taught growing up. (If there are evangelicals who find different ways to understand these passages, I’d be interested in hearing more, because these passages are in sorry need of reinterpretation!)
The offender need only repent. That’s it. If he repents, his slate is wiped clean. The victim must forgive, and that means never being angry, never being bitter, and getting over what happened post haste.
And of course, the problems run even deeper, because there is the victim blaming.
This from the article on Bob Jones University:
In their many sessions, Sarah said Berg fixated on her “sin,” and then blamed her when she failed to “get better.” She said Berg told her that she needed to repent of any pleasure she experienced during her abuse. Since BJU doesn’t recognize psychiatric concepts like post-traumatic stress disorder, she said she was also told that she was choosing her trauma symptoms.
“I remember her looking at me and saying, ‘You know that the nightmares are your own fault, because you’re choosing to replay pornographic thoughts in your mind,’” she said.
Blogger Maureen, too, dealt with victim blaming when her husband was outed and tried for child molesting:
And because of their fear, they needed someone to blame; turns out that someone was me. If they could identify something I did wrong, something that they wouldn’t do, then their families were safe from harm. I was accused of everything from not being submissive enough to being sexually frigid.
The same is true in another story from Bob Jones University:
Raised in a conservative Mennonite home in rural Ohio, Katie Landry was a sheltered kid. She hadn’t even held hands with a boy when, at age 19, she says her supervisor at her summer job raped her. Two years later, and desperate for help, she reported the abuse to the dean of students at her college.
“He goes, ‘Well, there’s always a sin under other sin. There’s a root sin,’” Landry remembers. “And he said, ‘We have to find the sin in your life that caused your rape.’ And I just ran.”
Landry ended up dropping out of college, and didn’t tell anyone else for five years.
Growing up in a culture of modesty, a culture where women were viewed as sexual temptresses who needed to cover up to protect the male mind, I’m not all that surprised by the victim blaming. In fact, I’d be surprised if there weren’t victim blaming. And as I look across the recent scandals to rock the conservative evangelical world, we’ve seen it again, and again, and again. If you are sexually abused, you probably had some role in inviting it, whether by being alone with him or by flirting or what have you—or so goes the argument.
And there, right there, some of the blame shifts from the offender to the victim.
Last year Boz Tjividijian, grandson of Billy Graham and founder of Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (GRACE), wrote that evangelicals have a bigger sexual abuse problem than the Catholic Church. Today, I can well believe it.