Perverting and inverting forgiveness

“Jesus used the concept of forgiveness to change society,” Sarah Moon writes. “So why, today, do we use it to keep oppressive hierarchies in place?”

Moon’s post is insightful and, I think, important. Read the whole thing. Here’s a bit more:

Forgiveness is no longer a radical tool that gives new life to those who have been cast out of society. It is now a tool of the oppressors. A tool that rips away the little autonomy and power that the powerless have managed to gather for themselves. A tool that uses even the most horrible sins of those in power to remind the powerless of who’s in charge.

Forgiveness, as used by most Christians today, makes me feel lost and hopeless. It makes me want to give up. It means that my hurt doesn’t matter and my desire for change can be twisted and construed as oppression itself.

Forgiveness, like humility, is a word that those of us who believe Christianity is liberating need to reclaim. Forgiveness means that the powerless have access to God, even when the powerful try to bar us from God. Forgiveness means that God gives the powerful a second chance to humble themselves, give up their power, and join in solidarity with the oppressed.

Grace of Are Women Human? builds on that post, applying it to her ongoing argument with Jared Wilson and Doug Wilson, two of the more outspoken male-supremacists of the Gospel Coalition. Again, read the whole thing, but here’s an excerpt:

A frequent refrain when egalitarians or progressive Christians call out oppressive theology is that we should all show “grace” to each other even when we disagree. We shouldn’t judge people’s “hearts” or “intentions.” Let’s sit together and listen and cultivate community because we’re all part of the Body of Christ, etc. etc. We should acknowledge when people ask for forgiveness or change even a little bit, because God’s working in them and we should honor that.

… The problem with evangelical assumptions, including liberal ones, about living out “Christian virtues” and in “Christian community” is it implicitly assumes everyone is (or should be) approaching the table with equal stakes in the conversation and should give each other an equal hearing. This is the case even when liberal or egalitarian evangelicals are working to hold pastors accountable for abusive theology or actions. There’s an awareness that harm is being done mostly in one direction, and that the playing field is inherently uneven as a result. But the politics of Christian virtue often leads to evangelicals doing and saying things that undermine their own efforts to make church a safer space.

Giving everyone an “equal” hearing and “equal” benefit of the doubt actually reinforces inequality in a discussion about systematic abuse of power. Insisting that we give the intentions of abusive pastors significant weight in a discussion about considerable and concrete harm they’re doing makes the abstract feelings of people abusing their power equal to the tangible pain of they people they’ve abused.

Praising other Christians for showing the barest modicum of comprehension or decency on issues this serious isn’t gracious, or loving. When showing “grace” means soft-pedaling justified criticism in the name of fellowship, that people have to stop to acknowledge every little act of “dialogue” or “change” no matter how small or superficial, “grace” ultimately means accommodating the status quo and catering to power.

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  • Mather_z

    Then there’s forgiveness as the passive-aggressive assertion of power – Fred’s mentioned it here before (I think), but if I forgive you, I’m establishing that you’ve done something to me that I CAN forgive you for – or not, but since I’m such a nice guy I’ll forgive you. Which leads to exchanges like:

    A: I know you called me a bigot, but that’s OK. I forgive you.
    B: Thanks. Wait, what? I called you a bigot because you don’t think same-sex couples should have the same rights as-
    A: It’s OK, water under the bridge. I forgive you. Forget about it.
    B: But it IS bigoted to oppose civil rights for-
    A: Relax, OK?  It’s really all right. I forgive you. Let’s just pretend the whole thing never happened.
    B: But it’s really important to-
    A: You don’t even need to apologize. I forgive you, let’s leave it at that, and just drop the whole thing.
    B: But we can’t drop it! So many people in our society badly need-
    A: I FORGIVE YOU.  How many times do I have to say it?
    B: Aaaaaaugh!

  • Baeraad

    Yes. This. Forgiveness between relative peers is a fine thing. But anyone who tells the oppressed to forgive their oppressors, while the oppression is still ongoing… well, anyone like that is either secretly on the side of the oppressors, or is such a moral coward that they would rather ignore an injustice than risk tarnishing their oh-so-beautiful mind with ugly feelings like anger. Or both.

  • Nequam

    Is the title supposed to get “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” stuck in my head?

  • So much THIS. The idea that the people with the least amount of social and economic power are to sit quietly and just “be patient and polite” while The Powers That Be get around to changing things in their own sweet time – that’s just revolting. (In both senses of the word)

  • fcx

    ‘What this Jesus fellow blatantly fails to realise is that it’s the meek who are the problem.’ — Reg, of the People’s Front of Judaea

  • vsm

    tw: child sexual abuse.

    This issue has been discussed a lot in Finland lately, following revelations of sexual abuse of children within the Laestadian movement. Their theology emphasizes forgiveness and grace, which is nice enough, until you get into situations where children have been pressured into “forgiving” their abuser. Since the sin was forgiven, the leadership thought there was no need to involve the police or even make sure the child wouldn’t have to associate with the abuser anymore. Not quite what Jesus had in mind, I’d imagine.

  • thatotherjean

    Wrongdoing—especially wrongdoing  involving an imbalance of power, like abuse by clergy—should require consequences greater than saying “sorry.”  Forgiveness is all well and good, but not if the person being forgiven hasn’t seen the error of his/her ways, changed, and made restitution to the person/people abused. 

  • vsm-Good God all that amounts to is further victimization of the child! It is like saying “You are not worth enough for us to take your pain seriously.” And of course that is exactly the message that gays must get all the time. The poor also.  

  • I think it very difficult to forgive someone while they are still abusing you. For instance if someone steps on my foot, realizes it and says “I’m sorry” then that is easy to forgive. Then there is the person who doesn’t know that he is stepping on my foot but when I point it out he removes it. It is annoying that he didn’t see that he was standing on my foot but it is still easy to forgive. Then there is the person who stands on my foot and when it is pointed out to him he thinks I am unreasonable for objecting and I says I am overreacting. Plus of course he believes that he has “a right” to stand on my foot. Maybe he thinks that I am infringing on his right to have his foot there so if I want to save my poor foot from pain I should move somewhere else so as not to bother him. Of course he seems to miss the fact that there is plenty of room for both of us and all that is needed is a little compromise. But of course if I say that to him he will scream that I am attacking his belief system that says that only his foot belongs there.  And if I get upset then I obviously am irrational and can’t be taken seriously.

  • I’m fond of pointing out that I don’t really care at all what is in people’s hearts.  Your motivations don’t concern me.  If you are oppressive, I don’t care if it comes from ignorant privilege or malice; what I care about are actual real world consequences.  The unexamined life doesn’t get a pass; if you press the button on the Death Star & blow up a planet, I don’t care if you were motivated by hate or if you really thought Alderaan was where Osama bin Laden was hiding.  What I care about is what you actually did.

  • Mostly OT – though forgiveness was, of course, something I needed as a result of the actions that ultimately led me to this point – but I wanted to mention that as of today I have been sober for twelve years.

    I mention this (like I do every year on the anniversary of my sobriety) not because I’m looking for praise, but on the off-chance that there’s anyone out there who might benefit from knowing that they’re not alone in their struggles – with addiction or with anything else  – and that while it’s not always easy, it is possible to reach these kind of milestones and, more importantly, that it’s worth it.

    I’ll be honest; sometimes it really doesn’t feel that way, and I’m sad to say that today, of all days, is one of those days on which I need to be reminded that it’s worth it, but I do I know that it is (even if I forget sometimes), and I want you to know that as well.

    And clearly I’m hardly any sort of role model, but at the very least, you can take some inspiration in the form of, “Well, if Jon can do it, then surely I can do it, too.”

    Beyond that, I just want to say thanks to Fred for his general awesomeness, and for creating the opportunities I’ve had over the years to interact with a community of truly awesome people.


    I’ll be honest; sometimes it really doesn’t feel that way

    I emphasize this because it was the thing I most needed to hear during my own recovery (trauma, not substance abuse, but they share many things in common). That the days when I just don’t want to bother are also part of the process; they’re normal.

    I know you aren’t looking for praise, but I hope you don’t mind if I praise you anyway. You’re doing a good thing for good reasons, and I’m happy for it.

  •  Then there’s forgiveness as the passive-aggressive assertion of power –
    Fred’s mentioned it here before (I think), but if I forgive you, I’m
    establishing that you’ve done something to me that I CAN forgive you for
    – or not, but since I’m such a nice guy I’ll forgive you. Which leads
    to exchanges like:

    I had a variation on that one time.  A guy was trying to evangelize on my blog and I was not taking it too well, mostly because he wouldn’t take, “Leave me the fuck alone, you giant, self-righteous pile of stupid,” for an answer.  He kept calling me “friend.”  Finally I was like, “Dude, we aren’t friends.  We’ve never been friends.  We will never be friends.  Stop calling me your friend.”

    He replied with [paraphrased], “Fine, we’re not friends.  I guess that means that we’re enemies.  Well the Bible says to love your enemies, so I guess I still have to love you.”  Then he suggested that we sit down and have a beer and talk about it (he was my friend’s older brother, and a pastor, and an absolute, apex asshole).

  • JustoneK

    Friends and enemies are the only choices thar?  Sad.

  • Lori


    “Fine, we’re not friends.  I guess that means that we’re enemies.  Well
    the Bible says to love your enemies, so I guess I still have to love

    I hate this one and wish they would stop teaching it at asshat school.

    Not friends =/= Enemies

    You “loving” me does not in any way obligate me to interact with you and your insistence that we need to interact is not loving.

    You are neither clever nor original. Shut up and go away.

    And I ask for the umpteenth time, what is wrong with these people?

  • My own two cents about forgiveness.

    – Holding on to resentment I have the opportunity to forgive poisons me.

    – Pretending to forgive something I do not in fact forgive poisons me.

    – Many things are beyond my ability to forgive at any given moment.

    – Being forgiven for a bad act does not in any way mitigate my responsibility to make amends for that act.
    – Being forgiven for a bad act does not in any way mitigate my responsibility to do better in the future.
    – Forgiving someone for a bad act does not in any way mitigate my responsibility to support their victims, if victims exist.
    – Often, discussing forgiveness is incompatible with supporting victims.
    – Encouraging others to forgive injuries in order to alleviate my discomfort is bad. Doing so for ongoing injuries is unspeakable.
    – Nobody is obligated to forgive anyone for anything. This includes me, on both sides.
    – If I start to feel guilty for not forgiving someone, or start to feel like I have to forgive them in order to avoid being bad, or start to feel that someone else is a lesser person because they do not forgive, something has gone horribly wrong in my head and I should shut the system down and do a traceroute. This happens a lot.

  •  You are neither clever nor original. Shut up and go away.

    And I ask for the umpteenth time, what is wrong with these people?

    Hilariously enough, that’s an apt question without even getting into the meat of the discussion.  The whole thing just started with me putting up a post that included saying, “Hey, California just made gay marriage legal.  Good on them!”

    He came in with a question on the origins of morality.  I knew exactly what he was doing, so I went off with an answer about the Enlightenment, evolving jurisprudence, and the Social Contract and how US law isn’t freaking based on morality at all, let alone Christian morality…

    And, ah, hell, here’s some links:

    The first time he showed up.

    The conversation continues!

    Two weeks later he shows up again.  Admittedly, I knew he was lurking and I poked the bear out of boredom.

    Everything about that exchange was head-deskingly predictable.  Also, the formatting of the posts themselves have been broken, so they’re pretty wall-o-text now and I don’t know where the breaks were to fix them.  Sorry.

  • Kiya Nicoll

    A fellow I know has been known to comment “‘I’m sorry’ is a down payment on making it better.”  And people can make their down payment and still wind up in default.

    A lot of people, on these issues, do.

  • I’m starting to wonder if there’s any value towards concepts like forgiveness, grace and humility – they all can (and have been) be twisted towards evil so easily.

    Actually, I’ve got it. They’re great things to ask of yourself, and horrible things to ask of others. Maybe the fundies are right and moral education is failing in America – just not in the ways they think.


    They’re great things to ask of yourself, and horrible things to ask of others.

    To my mind, they are bad things to ask of myself as well. They’re just great things to do when I’m able to.

    That is, either I am able to forgive, or I’m not.
    I think it’s valuable to be open to that, and to forgive when I’m able to.
    But asking myself to forgive when I don’t is a mistake, in the same sense that asking myself to love someone I just don’t love is a mistake.

    And, yeah, asking others to do so is a mistake for the same reasons.

  • hidden_urchin

    That the days when I just don’t want to bother are also part of the process; they’re normal.

    Thank you both here for bringing this up.  I was thinking about how much effort it takes to actively change my behavior and thought patterns and how sometimes I just get so tired.  I’ve been really discouraged lately that I’ve backslid a lot with my progress in managing my symptoms of anxiety and depression, it doesn’t help that everyone tells me “I thought you fixed this already,” and it is really encouraging to be reminded that the whole thing is a process and not a sick/cured dichotomy.

  • Enoch Root

    Jesus’ teaching that you should forgive is an esoteric one. You don’t have to show your forgiveness, or even mouth the words, though of course you can. You have to forgive the person, and then if you’ve forgiven them, you’ve already moved on beyond the slight and it’s a non-issue.

    No one can quote Jesus and demand that you forgive them. No one can invoke the authority of Jesus as a reason why you must forgive them automatically.

    One of the failings of Christianity is to tell you that you must forgive, without telling you how. This is why so many authoritarians love Christ. They are not only willing to tell you how to forgive them, but also demand that you do so.

  • LL

    I’ve never been big on the concepts of “forgiveness” or “grace” as defined by most self-described Christians. For the reasons enumerated above in Fred’s links. I understand that forgiveness and grace are good things, but many people have turned them into bad things, using them as an excuse to get away with repellent actions/policies. Like the recent “rape doesn’t impregnate women” thing. “Sorry” doesn’t count when you actually meant the thing you said. 

    So most of the time, when someone yaps about forgiveness or grace, I automatically assume they’ve done something awful and aren’t really sorry for it, they just got caught or underestimated how many people would find it repellent and want to try and delete it from everyone’s memory banks. And/or appear more Jesusy, when it suits their purposes. But not when it really counts, like, you know, when thinking about rape victims with real compassion and recoiling in horror from even the thought that rape victims who become pregnant from that crime weren’t really raped. An actual decent person would have never said something like that in the first place. 

  • AnonymousSam

    You (intentionally? unintentionally?) post what went through my mind. How often have I heard the person who wants to maintain the oppressive status quo be the one who feels slighted by the refusal to permit that status quo to remain? (Answer: Too many bloody times.)

    The next person who utters the phrase “You’re the ones being intolerant!” because they don’t like being told that they’re assholes for hoping people die miserable and alone in a little corner of subhuman persecution is getting my boot right up their bloody arse.

    And “magnanimously” “forgiving” someone who considers you an asshole because you think they should die miserable and alone in a little corner of subhuman persecution is the kind of thing which ought to have spheres of Hell dedicated to it.

  • LL


  • Mary Kaye

    I think it was Elizabeth Moon who said that one of the hardest things in dealing with her depression was that she’d get better, and then she’d get worse again.  And it was really tempting to go “Oh no, all that work is for nothing, I’ll never be well!”  She said that she found solace in regarding depression as being like the common cold–not in severity, mind you, but because you should focus on getting over the cold you have now, knowing that you can, and not obsess over the fact that you are bound to get it again sooner or later.

    This has helped me too, both with my own mental illness and with my son’s.  (We had to call the police yesterday and have him briefly hospitalized.  Not a good day.)  Yes, it’s horrible that this will happen again, but it’s helpful to know that this is not because we made some horrendous mistake, and it’s not because things are hopeless–it’s just the nature of the illness.

  • AnonymousSam

    Even better, keep pushing them to move their foot and maybe you’ll get a notpology along with a complete lack of compliance.

     “You’re hurting my foot!”
    “I’m sorry you feel that way.”

  • Jenny Islander

    Plus authoritarians tend to use the definition of forgiveness which implies that we should all be good buddies now, let the crocodile sit next to you, can’t you see he’s crying, do you really want to keep on hurting his feelings?  But forgiveness, as used in the NT, is a metaphor.  It originally referred to debts.  Forgiveness means crumpling up the mental piece of paper that says, “So-and-so owes me this” and throwing it away, because you know it can’t ever be paid.  That is all it means.  You can forgive somebody and still crowbar them out of your life.

  • LL

    Actually, I shouldn’t rag on Christians exclusively about the whole perversion of forgiveness/grace thing. Everybody does it. Christian, Jew, Muslim, atheist, non-atheist but not really religious, either, etc. All kinds of people do it all the time. It’s not just a Christian or religious thing. It’s just that religion yaps a lot about forgiveness and grace, but is often so piss-poor at actually demonstrating them. It’s the difference between what people preach and how they actually behave that makes it seem worse when they do it. Most of the non-religious don’t go on and on about forgiveness and grace. But many Christians can’t have a conversation about much of anything without dragging poor old forgiveness and grace into it, whether they’re relevant or appropriate or not. I guess they think get a point in their favor on the heavenly tote board every time they’re the first to mention them. It shows how like Jesus they are, their super-human willingness to forgive something awful that someone has done to somebody who isn’t them.

  • October

    There’s a difference in definition going on. When I talk about forgiveness I mean, Let’s create a more meaningful, equal, and constructive relationship. The other definition says I should be ‘nice’ and ‘polite’.  Sometimes I get caught in the progressive wishful thinking process (PWTP) where niceness/politeness is just a way to deny that the other person really wishes I’d cease to exist (and might be willing to make that come true with an assault rifle).

  • Tricksterson

    What about if Darth Vader was standing over you with his hand in the Force Choke position?

  •  I’m glad it helps.

    Re: “I thought you fixed this already”… yeah.

    I wish I had some brilliant suggestion for how to deal with these folks.
    I don’t. I’m not great at dealing with them, myself.
    They’re everywhere.
    Hell, sometimes I’m one of them, and I know better.
    (I mostly avoid saying this to other people. I’m not great about not saying it to myself.)

    I have a huge advantage in that my difficulty isn’t “invisible”.
    When I say “Yeah, summers are hard for me… that’s when I had my stroke” most people kind of acknowledge that oh, yeah, that’s a real thing, and it totally changes how they treat me.
    We’re much less supportive of (e.g.) clinical depression.

    For my own part, I try to remember that a lot of these things are cyclical; progress isn’t monotonic. We’re better, and then we’re not, and then we are again, and then we’re not, and that’s just the way it is.
    Anniversaries of traumatic events can be hard, for example.
    Biochemical depression can be influenced by diurnal patterns, by seasonal shifts, by pollen, etc. etc. etc.

    And sometimes the process itself just isn’t linear.
    Earlier thoughts on that here.

    It is surprisingly helpful, sometimes, just to notice the patterns.
    And sometimes not.

  • This exactly. They’re wonderful in oneself but can easily be oppressive when they are expected – certainly when they’re demanded – of others.

  • Thanks for sharing the post, Fred!

  • Coercion happens in the real world, not the internal world.

  • The_L1985

    Re: noticing the patterns, I used to have really bad days–roughly a month apart. Once I realized that, it made sense that my depression was at least partially hormonal. Sure enough, treatment for other hormonal issues caused my depression to become a lot less severe on average. (It’s still there, of course, but it’s bearable now.)

  • Hth

    Someone please correct me if  I’m wrong, but my understanding is that the Greek word used in the New Testament that’s translated “forgiveness” really means something more like “releasing.”  So the goal isn’t to hit the reset button and make everyone happy-happy like it never happened, but just to…let it go.  And I do think that’s a great goal to aspire toward, because staying angry is exhausting and depressing and makes you feel controlled by the thing that pushes your buttons.  When you’re at the point where you can honestly say, “You know what?  Forget this, I’m done with it,” it’s really such an experience of freedom, and Jesus appears to have been all about experiences of freedom.

    Obviously, what that means is that most people just can’t “forgive” while still being under the control of an abuser — walking away from it mentally and emotionally is hard to separate from the freedom to walk away from it physically.  (I say most people because I’ve been involved in prison ministry, and I have to say that I’ve seen a few people who have an extraordinary ability to endure amazingly oppressive conditions and maintain true inward freedom.  I don’t know that I could do that, but I do know it can be done.)

  • I don’t buy this idea that anger is always destructive. Sometimes you can’t see that something wrong has happened to you (i.e., that you’ve been/are being abused) until you really get angry. Sometimes anger is the only motivation people have left to stay alive. And you have to work through anger to get to a place where you can feel something else. And frankly, there are things going on that should make us really angry. I think anger is just an emotion like any other – it’s part of the range of normal human expression, and not inherently bad. Not being angry or allowing oneself to get angry in a lot of cases is a sign of repression.

  • Turcano

     But if they stopped teaching that at asshat school, it might lose its accreditation.

  • LoneWolf343

    When I was a boy, my father bullied me into “forgiving” him once. Yeah, I only said it, but it’s one of the things that I keep in my memory as an evaluation of his character.

  • Kiba

    Sometimes anger is the only motivation people have left to stay alive.

    This. When my depression was really, really bad anger was the only thing that stopped me from killing myself.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Wrongdoing—especially wrongdoing involving an imbalance of power, like abuse by clergy—should require consequences greater than saying “sorry.”

    Here’s where, done well, the Catholic sacrament of reconciliation can be really good. All the priests I’ve had have made it clear that, contrary to apparently popular opinion, approaching reconciliation with the attitude of getting stuff wiped off your slate so you’re home free with no consequences is a radical misunderstanding of the sacrament. But the good priests have also included in the sacrament a discussion–or at least an instruction to reflection–on how it might be appropriate for me to make restitution for what we’ve talked about. Hence, reconciliation not “confession”.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Actually, I’ve got it. They’re great things to ask of yourself, and horrible things to ask of others.

    There are a whole lot of things in that category, I think. Self-sacrifice in its various forms may be a heroic, loving thing for someone to freely choose. Telling someone else off for not sacrificing themselves–not OK. Demanding that someone else sacrifice themselves–extremely bad.

    Supererogatory acts are not addressed well in everyday moral teaching, in my experience. They’re too hard to readily categorise into balck or white.

  • Michele Cox

     This. This is *lovely.*  May I quote you?  (And is there a different name I should credit?  I’m just thinking of “in e-mail” but someone else might then quote that, and so on, so I like to check before I start that possible-trail-of-inadequately-attributed-quotation out.)

  • I’ve reposted it on my personal blog for easier reference, and also because I really ought to do more owning of the comments I make here. Feel free to cite that; it’s a public blog for the most part.

    And, thank you.

  • Mary

    If anyone is interested I wrote a blog about bipolar illness and forgiving oneself even if others won’t.
    The Fallacy of Being a Good Person

  • genehubbard2

    lord forgives take it to the bank but all need to talk with the lord daily  our free TALK WITH THE LORD program inspires this  catch they need your help with furst question our blog helps  g  hubbard  po box 2232  ponte vedra fl 32004

  • Consumer Unit 5012

    I tend to prefer the Church of the SubGenius’s exhortation:  “Forgive them first, then kill them.”

    (Not literally, obviously.  Not until the Saucers arrive.)

  • Consumer Unit 5012

     Is this guy a spambot?  I looked at his blog, and I still can’t tell.

  • Jesus’ teaching that you should forgive is an esoteric one

    Yes, this!