Unreconciled: Forgiveness not the duty of mere mortals
“I know I have to forgive him, because otherwise I won’t get into heaven.”
A friend said this to me recently about someone who had treated her horribly. Casting forgiveness as a duty is one take-away message from the New Testament. But how did that particular bumper sticker receive such tenaciously sticky backing in mainline, evangelical circles? Harboring a spirit of revenge is exhausting, even toxic. But carrying around the burden to forgive can also warp a soul. A song I sang as a kid goes: “So high, you can’t get over it. So low, you can’t get under it. So wide, you can’t get around it. You gotta go in through the door.” I remember being told that door was Jesus Christ. How did my own will to forgive become the door to heaven?
A few years ago David Crabtree interviewed me about John Edwards. My answers reflect my crushed hopes that John and Elizabeth Edwards were going to facilitate change in the South. I answered David’s question about forgiveness from the gut, and accidentally got it right. The idea that anyone in the Edwards family had a responsibility to forgive John Edwards seemed off. I had heard people in evangelical circles ask a similar question about the Mark Sanford and John Ensign debacles. Don’t family members have a responsibility to reconcile? When asked about one of my own fallen heroes, I said something controversial, but consistent. No.
I believe no one wronged by another human being has a responsibility to reconcile, for two reasons. First, forgiveness is God’s work. To ask a mere mortal to make forgiveness their duty is to mistake a person for Jesus. Second, I have heard the term “reconciliation” used to elide the ramifications of injustice. The word is often used more for opacity than truth. Camera operators apply a thin layer of petroleum jelly to the lens before an actor’s close-up -- to make the image more “forgiving.” “Reconciliation” has been used like petroleum jelly in some circles -- to blur the truth. Spokesmen have told people who have suffered injustice to focus their spiritual energy right back onto their former relationship to an individual or a group that has wronged them, and then used the blurring power of “reconciliation” to smooth over the fractures of that wrong.
This constitutes religious gaslighting. In case that term is unfamiliar, here is a definition from Wikipedia: “Gaslighting or gas-lighting is a form of mental abuse in which false information is presented with the intent of making victims doubt their own memory, perception and sanity.” Take, for example, a commonly used Biblical passage from 2 Corinthians: “And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation.” Whatever this means to a Christian surviving or recovering from injustice, such passages should not be used to conjure an alternative world where wounds are healed because a third party has described them as healed. I have seen “reconciliation” used like a Jedi mind trick. A Christian leader with sufficient training can almost convince a human being that she didn’t see what she saw and did not suffer what she knows she suffered.
A Christian leader whose name became synonymous with “Reconciliation” is Desmond Tutu, for his work with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. His name has come up again recently, with an emphasis on “truth” and the invasion of Iraq. In July 2012, at a forum on faith and public life, Tony Blair again denied praying with George W. Bush about invading Iraq. Several weeks after the event, Archbishop Tutu publicly refused to appear at a conference on “leadership” with Tony Blair. “If leaders may lie, then who should tell the truth?” Tutu asks in his September 1, 2012, essay for The Observer. Tutu suggests Bush and Blair “should be made to answer for their actions in the Hague,” and reminds readers: “Good leaders are the custodians of morality.”
I want in closing to ask about the glue that has made a bumper-sticker version of forgiveness so tenaciously sticky. The Fellowship Foundation facilitates the colossal, week-long, spectacle of faith and leadership that is the National Prayer Breakfast. The word “reconciliation” appears repeatedly on their official website, and I heard “reconciliation” used as often as “Jesus” when I attended the Prayer Breakfast two years ago. I think the concept is being used to dupe perpetrators as well as survivors, encouraging obliviousness or cynicism. (Blair and Bush have displayed both.) Reading Tutu’s words, and thinking about what truthful reconciliation must mean – whether in matters of war, or domestic violence, or racism, or geopolitics – another “R” word comes to mind. That word is “Reparations.” I’d like some glue on that bumper sticker.
Amy Laura Hall is an associate professor of Christian ethics at Duke University.