The politics of forgiveness.

The politics of forgiveness. August 24, 2012

When Jesus was walking around on earth, in between turning water into wine and chillin’ with sex workers and other folks that society didn’t look on too fondly, he talked a lot about forgiveness. And when Jesus talked about forgiveness, it was always radical. It always gave power to the people in society that had none. It always humbled those who were in positions of power while asserting the humanity of those who had been affected by the abuse of power.

I mean, take the woman caught in the act of adultery. Those in power wanted to condemn her, kill her, deflect their own guilt onto her. But Jesus stood up, shamed her accusers, and forgave a woman that those in power didn’t see worthy of forgiveness. With his words, he dismantled the structure of the powerful judging and punishing the powerless. With his words, stones fell to the ground, and the powerful walked away, embarrassed, while the woman stood up and went home with a second chance. It was awesome.

Zacchaeus by Niels Larsen Stevns (via Wikipedia)

What about Zacchaeus? A man who had been given a huge amount of power by the Empire. He was a tax collector, and he abused his power and took more taxes than the person owed, pocketing the extra money for himself. He wasn’t dragged to Jesus by an angry mob. Jesus didn’t scold his accusers, tell them to drop their stones, and lovingly lift Zacchaeus out of the dust, telling him to “go and sin no more.” Nah, because Jesus knew that simply doing that wouldn’t change anything. The tax collectors would still be in power. They would still use their power to abuse those who had none. Jesus forgave Zacchaeus, but Zacchaeus had to make amends. Zacchaeus gave back the money he stole times four. He gave back half of his possessions to the poor.

Two different people, both hated by society for different reasons. Two different requirements for forgiveness. The powerless woman was simply told to go and sin no more.  Jesus used the occasion, not to shame her, but to shame her accusers. The powerful man was forgiven too. Jesus forgave him, and ate at his house, but Jesus’s forgiveness led him to give up his power.

Jesus used the concept of forgiveness to change society.

So why, today, do we use it to keep oppressive hierarchies in place?

Today, forgiveness looks like this:

The powerless person comes to the front of the church. The church leaders forgive, all while declaring to the world to “take note,” of how gracious they are to be dropping their stones. These terrible “sinners” deserve death, an eternity in hell. But the leaders forgive anyway because of how holy the leaders are. Now comes the punishment. The powerless person must leave the church, or must be continuously accountable to someone else. They’ve lost the privilege of freedom and privacy. They are more powerless now than they were before they asked forgiveness for their “sin.”

The powerful person comes to the front of the church. He has sinned, and has been called out for his sin. He stands in front of the church to apologize, but his apology comes with a condition for his accusers.

“You must now apologize to ME,” he said. “When you told me I was wrong, when you called me abusive and hateful, you hurt my feelings. I demand an apology for that.”

His accusers look desperately to their leaders for help, but the leaders only nod in agreement with what the powerful man is saying. Some of the accusers are too hurt. They aren’t ready to forgive. The church leaders shame them with, “How dare you not forgive one who has hurt you so little when your sins hurt Jesus so much?”

Later, when those who accused the powerful man ask for that man to be kept accountable so he doesn’t hurt anyone else, the church leaders remind them, “His past is in the past. If you keep bringing it up, you’re not really forgiving him. Neither will your heavenly father forgive you.”

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.

There are so many words and concepts in Christianity that were beautiful things. Powerful people have stolen those liberating concepts from us. Let’s take them back.


Edits: 12/12/13–edited this because it included stigmatizing language about sex workers. I was unaware when I wrote this that “prostitute” has a stigma attached to it that many sex workers want to move away from. I apologize for my ignorance and will use better language in the future.

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  • Yes, so much taken or outright stolen away. I remember the moment I decided to reclaim (well, honestly, b/c has only been couple-three years!). It is not “theirs.” It truly is for the world, it is not just for any one or any group alone, special. Wish I could stop with the angry squinty eyes in my soul when I say or write that. Maybe further down the road. In the meantime, I’ll say again–I appreciate your writing so much.

  • there is a definite privilege and power dynamic at play in how we handle grace and forgiveness. i was thinking recently of mark driscoll’s “effeminate worship pastor” dig and RHE’s critique. he largely got a free pass from his peers while she was accused of everything from libel to dissension and doing “violence to love”. forgiveness should not be about protecting power, but again and again, it is in the absence of accountability.

  • Great post, Sarah. Forgiveness is often used these days as a club over the head for those who have been abused or as a reason to excuse people doing the abusing. Scary :/

  • Yes! Now I see it! Thank you for shining light on these connections, Sarah.

    The ways of Empire and of the Pharisees (those self-appointed gatekeepers of orthodoxy/praxy) have twisted their way into our religion and claimed it as their own.

    But they won’t be able to mess with our relationship with Truth, the person. And somehow, through that relationship, we will be able to reclaim and redeem the words, concepts, beauty and awe of our faith.

    Your wisdom and clarity of vision fills me with hope.

  • hilary922


    Every time I come across a reference to this gospel story, there is always something missing. Where is the man she committed adultery with? Why did she do it – what were her circumstances?

    Unless mastorbation counts as adultery (and it might for the Catholic church) she didn’t commit this sin alone. Where is the man? Was he already punished? Was he in the croud ready to throw stones at her? Was he being protected, covered over, given a slap on the wrist with a nudge and a wink? Why is this another story about a woman being punished for acting out sexually with no mention of male responsibility?

    What were her circumstances? Even if this wasn’t a violent assult, how much social room did she have to say no? By definition, adultery was a man having sex with another man’s wife. So she’s married, where is her husband? Was she 16 years old, married at 14 to a 40 yr old man her father picked out, and just once wanted to have sex with someone close to her own age and of her own choosing? Odds are pretty good she did not have much choice in her marriage. Did she have sex with someone she would have wanted to marry, a man who in a more equal society she would have chosen for herself? According to Jesus, even if she was forced into an arrainged marriage at 13, and found a man she truly loved at 17, she had no recourse to divorce and remarry – without committing adultery.

    Was this an encounter with an older man in a position of power over her husband, so to refuse him would leave her husband vulnerable to his employer’s whims? Did she have children? Highly likely. Had she been sexually abused as a child, and thus saw no boundaries to her body from men’s desires? Was she older, maybe in her 30’s and fed up with her husband running around with younger, unmarried women – something that was not considered adultery – and wanted some attention herself, seeing no reason to be faithful to her husband when he ran around on her.

    Just wondering. This is always given as such an incredable example of Jesus’s love and compassion, but there is so much unsaid about what brought her to that point that simply letting her go and telling her to sin no more isn’t enough for me.

    Has anybody here ever had these issues brought up at church? I’m Jewish and we obviously don’t study the Gospel at my synagogue so I don’t know if any Christian church out there has ever adressed this.


    • Yes! I agree. I’ve thought so much about this story and when I was writing this it was hard to stay on topic because I wanted to bring up all of the things you mentioned. There’s no man being punished, we don’t know how much choice she had,etc.

      I used to see this as “oh, wow, Jesus is so loving that he’d forgive a woman who should be stoned!” Now I see it more as, “you all with the stones are the ones with the problem. you’re just deflecting your guilt onto this woman. get out of here.”

      • hilary922

        Thanks, that works better, to turn it around to the men so quick to condem in a woman what gets a nudge and a wink amongst themselves.

        Love your work here, btw. Followed you over from Rachel’s blog.


    • Kennyd23

      The Man whom the woman was with is who Jesus was speaking to, him and all of us who sin then judge others. The Law was written to show us we need a savior.
      read psalm 32 Jesus was our sin offering

    • Sarah, most of the most reliable copies of the Gospel of John to not record this story, which would be the opening of the eighth chapter. So, it it likely that it never occurred. However, I don’t think the point of the story is the woman. It is the lack of forgiveness of the men who brought her to Jesus. It is the lack of ability to admit that they are as sinful as she is, and that they also need forgiveness.

      It is very dangerous to ruminate on why she may have sinned. This is called rationalizing. This is the very thing that Sarah is bugged about. For some people, we rationalize their sins under the carpet, if it’s inconvenient to hold them accountable. Sin is sin. But God is bigger than all sin. “For as by the one man (Adam) death came to all people, so by the death of the one man (Jesus) all have been declared righteous…Where then is boasting? It is excluded… For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith, and this is not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, so that no one can boast.”

      So, on the one hand, we are all guilty, because we sin. There is no degree of sinfulness. You either are a sinner (as we all are) or you aren’t (as Jesus was not). The sinful state is all-inclusive. Even the good things we do are tainted with less than perfect motivations.

      The danger in any body politic is losing sight of the true nature of things and becoming puffed up with the notion that we are better than someone else. Also, of course, money is the root of all kinds of evil. It’s actually not amazing that churches struggle with pharisee complex. What is truly amazing is that there is anyone who doesn’t. As much as I try not to, I have detected it in myself from time to time..

  • Baeraad

    Very well said. This is my main problem with Christianity (I have a lot of problems with religion in general, but this one is specifically with Christianity). The whole “forgiveness” thing always seems to be thrown at the powerless to make sure they don’t think about trying to become less powerless.

    Forgiveness between peers is a good thing. Certainly there are a lot of conflicts in the world that runs on inertia, that have no purpose beyond itself and where someone has to be the first to forgive if they’re ever going to stop. But the oppressed being told to forgive their oppressors, *while the oppression is still going on and shows no signs of ending,* is obscene. Anger isn’t a pretty thing and can get badly out of control, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have its place.

    • Matt

      That’s true, particularly if the one commanding the forgiving is in a position of power over the oppressed. As a caveat, sometimes being told to forgive by another in your own position can be immensely healing and freeing.

      I’m thinking here of the members of the Civil Rights movement who refused to hate their enemies and even sang songs that specifically mentioned the most oppressive politicians and policemen by name–as in “We all love George Wallace.” That kind of moral authority is pretty powerful (understatement). Obviously that was a specific event and its success was conditioned by a whole host of other factors–it was within a movement, and thus a choice made out of a position of strength–but by putting the approaches of the two sides into such stark relief, it showed which one was truly obscene.

  • the gal on the phone

    Every time that parable was told to me as a girl, the “go” was a whisper, the “sin no more” was a shout.

  • “Forgiveness means that God gives the powerful a second chance to humble themselves, give up their power, and join in solidarity with the oppressed.”

    I love this post. Have you read Donna Hicks’s book, Dignity: The Essential Role It Plays in Resolving Conflict? She talks more about reconciliation than forgiveness, but the two have a lot in common. Basically, your post reminded me of her discussion of the power of vulnerability: how we are disarmed when those we’ve been in conflict with drop their defenses, understand and acknowledge our grievances, meet us as equals. It’s been a hard process (will always be) of implementing, but is deeply attractive to me.

  • This is right on point… and super sad. Knowing that even forgiveness can be weaponized should cause all of us to revisit this stuff, constantly.