How Not to Talk About Forgiveness

How Not to Talk About Forgiveness August 5, 2018

 

My friend was abused.

Yes, in that way.

I won’t go into detail because thinking about it makes me sick, but it was horrific, and the perpetrator was not only a respected pillar of the Catholic community but also her pediatrician. She’s gone public with it so you can read about it yourself.

Marie found out this week that her abuser had abused many other people, and had been arrested; he’s facing more than 70 charges. There was a hotline open for other victims of this person’s abuse to report him. She mentioned to her friends on Facebook that she had just called that number and given her testimony.

There’s really no good response at times like these, but we all chimed in with “I’m sorry” and the like. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I can’t believe this. I hope they throw the book at him.” Some of us called the perpetrator comical swear word-laced epithets. Some of us offered “support” while knowing there wasn’t much support we could give. Everyone did their best.

Except for one friend.

There’s always that one “friend,” at least in Catholic circles. Many of you have a “friend” like this as well. While Marie was still reeling, he commented “Although what he did is wrong and horrible we are still called to pray for him that he may find Christ and change his ways. Because of Maria Gorretti’s [sic] act of forgiveness Allesandro converted. Our prayers for him are powerful. They may help save his soul.”

Now, there aren’t a ton of hard and fast rules on what to say to someone who is in the agonizing throes of a flashback to sexual abuse. Everyone’s suffering is different and everyone takes comfort in different things. But there’s a short list of things you must never say, and “Maria Goretti” is on it. She was a beautiful soul, as I’ve already written, but sexual abuse victims in Catholic settings have heard her name brought up to shame us far more often than we’d like to recount. Even once is too much. Of course you may invoke her intercession silently, but don’t say her name. She will understand. She’s a saint, after all. She’s not petty or delicate. Which brings me back to the comment at hand.

The “friend” doubled down over our objections, saying there didn’t seem to be a display of forgiveness here. He wanted to make sure Marie was forgiving and praying for her abuser for the sake of her soul.

I clicked on the commentator’s name, to see what kind of man would say such a thing to a woman in this kind of distress. Turns out he’d been a theology major, of course. He had public posts on his wall all about forgiveness and how forgiving your attacker is necessary to “avoid bitterness.”

I always thought that was a funny thing to say, “avoid bitterness.” As if anything you did could help you avoid an emotion. Bitterness isn’t optional, as Naomi in the Book of Ruth found out–she hadn’t done anything wrong, she just suffered a horrible misfortune and felt bitter. God helped her through it. Christ certainly didn’t avoid the bitterness of His passion, even though He forgave His torturers completely. Bitter is just one of those ways that life feels when you’ve suffered a horrible misfortune. I have not found that forgiveness makes it go away.

I’ve also always thought some people had an odd idea about what forgiveness and praying for enemies entailed– not only that forgiveness and praying for enemies could make an emotion go away, but that forgiveness and praying for enemies are themselves a state of mind that we can induce by practicing the correct behaviors.

As if forgiveness meant not feeling horrible about a horrible thing was wrong.

As if prayer was, primarily, looking up at the ceiling and thinking and saying the right things.

As if anyone could tell whether you were forgiving and praying by watching how you reacted to an extremely triggering situation like finding out your abuser had done it again 70 times and having to call a hotline to report that you were sexually abused.

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