The one person a bullied person hates more than the bully is the friend who stood by letting it happen. No reconciliation is possible. I have a difficult time forgiving people who knew better and allowed it to happen. It is a strong resentment. This is the question that comes to mind for people who have had worse evils committed against them. Can I counsel forgiveness? In almost thirty years of ministry, I cannot bring myself to tell people, “let it go.” It is morally wrong. I know how that becomes repressed anger that eats into a person’s heart.
David said something very troubling toward the end of his life that demonstrates repressed anger. “Now as for this Shimei, Gera’s son – a Benjaminite from Bahurim – who is with you, he cursed me viciously when I went to Mahanaim. When he came down to meet me at the Jordan, I swore to him by the LORD, ‘Surely I won’t execute you with the sword.’ But you don’t need to excuse him. You are wise and know what to do to him. Give him a violent death.” (1 Kings 2:8)
The story about Shimei is troubling. He was of the house of King Saul who loudly declared David a murderer. He prepared to dance on David’s grave, so to speak. David did not allow his men to harm him. When David was restored to the throne, Shimei begged for forgiveness. David promised no executions on a day that should be a celebration.
David never forgave Shimei. Often, we make the mistake of assuming he did. Shimei was just the sort of man who would do the same thing to Solomon. David advises him to not let it happen. The King repressed his anger against Shimei. Executing the man would only lessen the day of celebration of David’s return. Execution loomed over the head of Shimei.
Jesus Said to Forgive
Should I forgive a person who harms me? Yes. It is in my power to do so. Can I forgive a person who harms another? No. It is not in my power to do so. Jesus told St. Peter to forgive “seventy times seven times.” We rightly apply that to ourselves. What is often forgotten is the issue of power. I have the power to forgive some offenses. A murder victim does not have the power to forgive their murderer. It is possible to be harmed in a way where the victim is robbed of power.
St. Augustine argues that love is active. People do not act in love when they witness another person being abused and do nothing about it. Here again, power is the issue. Love empowers action. When people are fearful, feelings of being powerless overcome them. My friends were afraid a bully would turn on them. Their fear made them powerless. It is the same when family members refuse to support the victim of child abuse by another family member. The fear of loss overcomes the family. Will we lose whatever the abuser contributes? What will the neighbors think? Fear is inaction or worse negative action.
Negative Action Pretending Reconciliation
Bystanders excuse their inaction by claiming the victim somehow deserves the abuse. “All a woman has to do is claim rape and your life is ruined,” is a claim men who wish to look the other way make. There are other such claims. “They deserve it because…”is said to excuse inaction and cowardice.
The worse form of negative action is to amputate the victim’s spirit. Arguing that the other person should “let it go” while acting as though nothing happened is as bad as the abuser claiming “Jesus said you have to forgive me.” That is demanding reconciliation.
Institutional failure for churches and families is at this point. We are often harmed while being told “Jesus forgave his enemies while on the Cross.” The words “Father forgive them for they know not what they do” are found in Luke 23:34. But for some reason he does not offer the assurance of Paradise to the thief that berates him.
Empowering the victim happens before reconciliation. The person in the wrong admits and names what was done to the victim. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa required full disclosure from the perpetrators. They admitted their evil acts. They empowered the victims and their families by doing this.
I don’t make a great effort to be in touch with friends or family who became bystanders in my life. It was not until recently that I understood what want is my power back. I want wrongdoing acknowledged. I may never get it. They are not missing me anyway.