The Problem of Forgiveness and “Women Talking”

The Problem of Forgiveness and “Women Talking” March 21, 2023

I finally saw the film Women Talking. I highly recommend it to anyone believing forgiveness is easy.  While the film is fiction, it is based on actual events. The women involved in the discussion are part of a religious community based in pacifism and simple living. The commands to love one’s neighbor and forgive one’s enemies have become pious platitudes in the community. After a series of sexual assaults are committed, one man of the community is caught. He then identifies other men in the community who are involved in the crimes. Are the platitudes actually principles?

The Historical Background

Women Talking would be a great dialogue by itself. When we consider it is based on actual events, it illustrates why the command to forgive is hard to follow. The actual events occurred within the Manitoba community in Bolivia. It is a conservative Mennonite commune. 130 women were assaulted after being drugged with cattle tranquilizer. Eight men were convicted of the crime. Local authorities believe more women were victimized. But the stigma associated with rape kept them silent.

Forgiveness As Violation

The plot of the film has the other men of the community deciding to bail the accused out of jail while ordering their victims to forgive them. The women have a choice to make. They see three possibilities – forgive and do nothing, fight, or flee. Claire Foy portrays feminine divine rage over what she has been told to do. Frances McDormand portrays the fear of losing salvation if she refuses to forgive.

Ordering the women to forgive their attackers is revictimization. This second violation produces a variety of responses from fear, to rage, and to despair. Will the women be safe? Why is it their burden to sacrifice for the crime against them?

Ready For Forgiveness

Declaring a victim of sexual violence should forgive because Jesus forgave those who crucified him, is another form of religious gaslighting that has allowed churches to cover up crimes of the leaders. And yet, Jesus’ suffering is over and over again used by church leaders to guilt others into doing something they are not ready to do. One can hear the scolding about not having faith, lacking loving hearts, or being stubborn and resentful.

I wish I possessed the ability to readily forgive any crime against me and bear no ill feelings. Then again, I may no longer be human if I could do that. When women tell me about their own victimization, I sit still and listen. The conversation is not about my comfort. The truth should be spoken if forgiveness is ever to happen.

Telling someone to forgive when they are not ready to do so is ordering the person to lie. It only frees authorities from dealing with the problem of forgiveness.

The Third Violation

Frances McDormand’s character illustrates the fear of losing one’s community. The consequence of not meeting the impossible demand is a third violation. Community is based in trust and mutual support. Remove both values and the community becomes a prison. The threat is real for the women. The choice is to be in the kingdom or the world.

Here is where I hope I am strong enough to choose the world. If I did not do that, I would also be strong enough to fight. But it is hard to know which path would be better. The question is which principles would I choose to follow?

Restoration or Remaking?

I am guilty of thinking forgiveness is about restoring a relationship. It is not. Asking for forgiveness is not seeking to make everything like it was. Forgiveness should be remaking a relationship. “Behold, all things are new,” St. Paul says. He is not talking about restoring a stolen item. A friend of mine once bought the frame of a classic 1950’s era Chevrolet. Looking at the finished vehicle, one could ask if the original was a different color. If one actually used original parts to rebuild, one would have rebuilt a car fit only for a junk yard. Paul is talking about remade lives in God.

Forgiveness requires readiness to make an entirely new relationship. Married couples choosing forgiveness do not want the same relationship that ended in adultery. People in recovery initially want relationships restored to what they were before addiction destroyed them. They learn, in their own healing, that they must make new relationships. The recovering addict is no longer the same person and cannot have the same relationship.

Forgiveness As The Beginning

Women Talking first appears to present forgiveness as a possible end to the ordeal. The plot is clever because it makes the audience say that makes no sense. The real question is what will come into being next? Since forgiveness is about remaking relationships, it is really the beginning of a new quality of relationship. This is the problem we have with forgiveness. Can the relationship become anything else than what it is now? The choice(s) made and the end of the film are interesting.

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