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Thoughts on Forgiveness

I’ve come to wonder why there is such a powerful emphasis on forgiving those who hurt us in modern society?

The answer, naturally, is religion – specifically Christianity, which places a disproportionate burden on the individual to forgive all transgressions committed against them, no matter what they were, or how much they were hurt by them.

These are my thoughts on the subject.

People are categorically shamed – or taught to feel shame (as Christians) for a failure or reluctance to demonstrate a willingness to forgive those who wronged them. Critical to this issue is the detail that the nature of the wrong – and the severity of the insult or injury done to the victim are often ignored, downplayed, or even made light of. In general, people seem to be indoctrinated to think that forgiveness is a sign of strength rather than weakness. It is also taken as a sign of “how good a Christian you are”.

Often, the caveat is provided to those hesitant to forgive: “you want Jesus/God to forgive you for your sins too, don’t you?” thus adding the emotive of guilt to the scenario.

I have often wondered why, considering the typical chicken-soup-for-the-soul explanations and pop-psychology justifications provided by Christian clergy and parents, teachers and other figures with some form of social standing, which all suggest that it’s supposedly good for the aggrieved individual to let these things go… and then it suddenly came to me:

Christianity (in the organizational sense) pushes a notion that we MUST forgive anyone who “sins” against us – no matter how grievous the harm – and “forgive and forget” – because it is this exact sort of behavior that keeps people attached to and subservient to this abusive system, trapped in circles and layers of abuse – and the Christian church is all about abuse after all… be it pedophilia, be it rape, be it persecution – or whatever other abuses its clergy or other leader-figures commit, justify or excuse.

For centuries – I would even say millennia – the Christian church in all its forms and guises, has closed ranks and protected abusers in the form of rapists, child molesters and the like, and covered up for them. Be it for the sake of “protecting the good name of the church”, or “defending the faith”, or whatever the prevailing excuse was.

Instead of addressing and confronting the abuse, the abusers and the problem, there is little to show that anything was ever really done from within church organizations to procure justice for the victims of institutionalized church abuse. Rather, the only real efforts to expose these abuses appear to have come from external sources – secular authorities, investigative journalists, activists, or through victims reaching out to external entities for help. Victims were also historically encouraged by the church and its minions to keep quiet about the abuses they’d suffered, with the prospect of being shamed and even bullied for daring to speak out (and not forgive), the only recourse presented to them, was to “forgive and forget”.

This presents a damning image of churches, as having a horrific potential for being abusive, toxic environments – fomenting a culture of sustained abuse, silence, fear, denial and secrecy, where the welfare of the individual participant is dismissed in favor of the welfare of the organization.

I don’t think I need to actually present a list of examples via url’s in this case – there are literally hundreds of thousands of news and media mentions and references to, and even documentaries about the sort of abuses I’m talking about here, spanning more than half a century, and you should feel free to research them yourself.

One needs only to examine the stories of survivors of childhood abuse at the hands of pedophile priests and pastors and youth camp leaders etc. to notice how an institutionalized culture of disbelief turned them into victims of bullying and outrage aimed at shaming, silencing and discrediting them.

But it’s not limited to that. The scale of this sort of behavior gets magnified in proportion to how far away we focus our perspective. With crimes committed by the churches against larger groups, their silence and failure to take ownership of their guilt becomes nothing if not magnified.

The survivors of various genocides committed in the name of the Christian religion, such as against pagans in Europe and the Near-East during the rise of the Catholic Church, and of indigenous peoples, for example in South and North America, were too indoctrinated and forcibly schooled in Christianity by so-called “missionaries”, who also expounded the notion of “forgiveness” of those who had wronged them, namely themselves and the institutions which they represented. So too, the abhorrent and cruel treatment of aboriginal adults and children at missionary schools and settlements in various places around the world, such as in Australia, Canada, the USA, South Africa, New Zealand and others, were simply swept under the rug.

Crimes committed then in the name of religion – in the name of “God” as it were – are supposedly not to be regarded as crimes at all.

One can see clear examples of this in history – for example, the willingness of the Church during the Crusades to absolve anyone who went to war to kill Muslims occupying the Holy Land. While not the topic of this piece, the exact same justification was evident in their Muslim counterparts, and even today. To kill an infidel is not murder, nor a sin. You could take it further by examining the power and license given to the missionaries sent out to numerous European colonies around the world, to convert native peoples to Christianity, and blind eyes were turned to what we today would decry as human rights violations, eugenics and other cruelties. In South Africa, the racist system of Apartheid was excused and defended by the Dutch Reformed Church (NGK) while they benefited for decades as being the “top church” in South Africa under Afrikaner Nationalist rule and set the tone for broader South African society, culture, media and education. It’s truly amazing and also absolutely horrifying what some people – under the influence of this very mindset – can justify or excuse.

“Forgive those who trespass against us,” – so says the Lord’s Prayer. In other words, forgive the priest who abused you, forgive the nun who abused you, forgive the church employee, the deacon or the missionary who abused you. Forgive the people who treated you like a second-class human being. Forgive the church that victimized you for being gay. Forgive the bigoted branch manager who officiated over your disciplinary hearing with a bible tucked under his arm and fired you for being transgender. And once you forgive, forget – and hence, take no action against them, and do not speak to others about it. And even if you do, nobody will believe you.

This whole institutionally enforced Christian notion of ‘forgiveness’ then, is essentially gaslighting.

Forgiveness lets these transgressors off the hook – and hands them a license to go ahead and do it again – and that is just so unacceptable on so many levels.

There is a deep-seated thing in the human soul, a thing coiled up with rage and pain and anger that cries out for justice, that rebels at the notion of “forgive and forget”, claws at the sides of its cage and howls in the night at the very thought that the need for justice will not be satisfied – because as bad as the injuries or injustices received at the hands of the monsters that hurt us – the idea of letting them off the hook invalidates and discredits the harm done to us, and only makes the suffering from it that much worse.

It will take some time, and a collective, eventual human departure from toxic religions, for people to outgrow this horrific and inexcusable vicious circle of abuse and being brainwashed into tolerating abuse and making excuses for our abusers.

Not forgiving those who wronged us doesn’t mean we’re bad people – and forgiving them doesn’t make the pain go away. We might not always find the release from these burdens through avenues like seeking justice through the courts (or revenge) but even without finding resolution and the luxury of finding real-world closure, why is there still this lingering expectation of forgiveness?

Imposing the expectation of forgiveness on the victims of abuse compounds the suffering and indignity inflicted by their abusers.

Whether we choose to forgive others, or not, has to remain our choice – and our choice alone.

That’s all for this time. Thanks a lot for all your friendship and support, I hope you know it is all deeply appreciated – and remember, keep reading!


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All material copyright © Christina Engela, 2023.

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