What Christians Get Wrong About Forgiveness

Pope Francis and the Duggars have been in hot water for expecting victims to forgive. They are not alone.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Pope Francis’s tour to the U.S. a week ago was a resounding success. He was received by rapturous crowds; he wooed Congress and schoolchildren alike; and he captivated millions in his humble and joyful embrace of all.

One slight misstep in Pope Francis’s U.S. visit was the order in which he consulted various groups affected by sexual abuse in the church. In St. Patrick’s in D.C., in a statement made prior to his meeting with survivors, he commended bishops for their “courage” in weathering the “painful” years of the scandals. He may be right that the entirety of the clergy paid for the sins of a few, but the optics of turning to bishops first bothered some media commentators.

On the plane ride back to Rome, Francis was asked to qualify his words and actions. When asked about a woman who cannot forgive her daughter’s attacker he said, “I understand that woman.” “And God who is even better than me understands her. And I’m sure that that woman has been received by God… I don’t judge someone who can’t forgive.” These remarks clarify the broad and tougher statement he made in a homily earlier in September, when he said, “If you can’t forgive, you are not a Christian.”

The Christian version of forgiveness is one of the most demanding of the major world religions’, asking its followers for unilateral forgiveness, regardless of whether the offender repents. Some, as in the case of the mother of the abused daughter, are unable to do so despite repeated efforts. As a result, it will come to the relief of many that Francis asserted that failing to forgive does not prevent (nor arguably grant?) salvation.

Certainly forgiveness is axiomatic for anyone who says the Lord’s Prayer. But the exhortation toward forgiveness can quickly turn into pressure. Victims of serious crimes are often encouraged to forgive their attackers in a public way and on an accelerated timeline. And this pressure frequently originates with religious leaders or in the victim’s own faith community.

One particularly troubling example of this pressure comes from the published guidelines of the Advanced Training Institute (a Christian curriculum TLC’s Duggar family used to homeschool their children) for addressing sexual abuse in the home. It explicitly requires child victims to forgive their abusers in a 10-step process that includes first looking for guilt in oneself (“Why did God let it happen? Result of defrauding by: immodest dress, indecent exposure, being out from protection of our parents, being with evil friends?”).

The problem isn’t just that these manuals explicitly invite victims to blame themselves, the problem is that it creates a cavalier expectation of forgiveness. It is easy to see how a family reared on these manuals would urge its young women to publicly forgive their abuser. In a culture that values forgiveness, condemnation awaits those who refrain. Our language mirrors the subtle religious rhetoric: to be “unforgiving” is to be harsh, judgmental, and lacking in compassion. The common understanding of forgiveness fails to recognize how much work and time is involved in genuine forgiveness.

We can contrast our disdain for the unforgiving with the manner in which society commends public and near-immediate acts of forgiveness. Members of the Emanuel AME church forgave Dylann Roof in court two days after he opened fire on their parishioners. The most famous cases from the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which dealt with the violence that took place under apartheid, were ones where the families of victims forgave the perpetrators on the stand. Eva Kor, a Holocaust survivor, forgave the Nazis in a public ceremony and called for a halt in the prosecution of former officers. If these acts are not understood as anomalous gestures of generosity, we are left with the mistaken impression that forgiveness is easy to inspire in oneself and acceptable to require of others.

On the level of international relations or corporate violence there are even broader implications related to imposing a Christian model of forgiveness on non-Christians without catering for social differences in dealing with trauma. Expecting non-Christians to pattern their behavior on the Lord’s Prayer is, at best, unreasonable.

Forgiveness’ political usefulness and interpersonal benefits make it highly desirable. But attempts to require it of others often go awry. It can make victims feel like they are being asked to help their oppressors feel less guilty about the crimes they committed. Studies even suggest that rushing forgiveness undermines the healing process. Studies on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission found that while observing the TRC in the media had a positive effect overall, many of the people who actually participated in it felt “increased distress [and] anger” afterward. Popular therapeutic guides on forgiveness stress neither forgiving quickly nor publicly. On the contrary, they often recommend taking one’s time and carefully deliberating over whether to make their forgiveness public.

What Francis’s most recent statements add to our cultural conversation is the recognition that forgiveness is both difficult and takes time. Fetishizing swift public confessions marginalizes victims unready (not unwilling) to forgive. This is something Francis himself sometimes forgets when he talks about the church scandals as if they belong to “recent history.” To those involved the wounds are open and real. While it is more comfortable to society at large, closing the book on the past can serve to silence the most vulnerable. When that happens Christian forgiveness is twisted into its own, perverse kind of weapon.