The last few months have been rough. Reports of sexual abuses in myriad contexts have started a movement, #MeToo, that is exposing the extent to which (mostly) women are sexually exploited globally. For victims, the movement has presented an opportunity to address painful memories; for perpetrators, a moment of shame, condemnation, humiliation, or the fear thereof; and, for women, generally, a vehicle through which they can address the culture behind a problem they face in one form or another at different points in their lives. Revelations of similar abuses within the church have elicited concerns that Christian teaching on forgiveness tends to cover rather than address the problem, shielding perpetrators and revictimizing victims in the process. Given the centrality of forgiveness in Christianity and its indispensability in human relations, it is important to address three essential, but often misunderstood, features of forgiveness in Christian doctrine.
First, forgiveness is not cheap. In Christian doctrine, God is understood as supremely loving and deeply offended by actions that injure people. These actions, which are often “sinful” (the biblical word for conduct that does not conform to God’s standards), offend Him not only because He is perfectly good (or holy), but also because they are destructive. They destroy the moral fabric of society, relationships, trust, lives, and so on. Knowing, however, that imperfect human beings would continue sinning, both against Him and others, He provided a path to receiving His forgiveness that would illustrate both the grievousness of sin and its costly consequences. That path was the bloody and sacrificial death of His son, Jesus, on a cross between two criminals. The cross then stands in the middle of Christianity as a reminder of the awfulness of sin and the enormous price God paid to make forgiveness available to all.
Second, forgiveness does not preclude punishment. God, in Judeo-Christian teaching, may be merciful, but He is also just. His mercy is implicit in His justice and vice versa. That means while forgiveness might free its recipient from the guilt of the offense, it does not necessarily free him or her from its consequences. When beings capable of choosing right from wrong choose wrong and that wrong injures others, justice, as a biblical principle, requires that something be done to not only hold the wrongdoer accountable, but to also restore the victim or bring them as close to wholeness as possible. When what has been taken from the victim cannot be replaced, as happened in the story of King David and Uriah (2 Sam. 11-12), justice still requires some kind of accountability for the wrongful conduct. David repented for having Uriah killed and although God forgave him, He still punished David severely for his conduct (2 Sam. 12:10-14). The punishment was necessary because God’s moral standard had to remain clear: no matter who you are (or think you are), you shall not take advantage of the weak; if you do, there will be consequences.
Third, forgiveness is meant to benefit both victim and victimizer. When people are victimized, much anger is understandably directed at the victimizer and the idea of forgiving seems an injustice, especially when it is understood as precluding punishment and requiring reconciliation. Forgiveness, however, even when the perpetrator does not seek it, benefits the victim by providing a reliable way to release the mental and emotional pain of the injury. When that pain is not released, it can become a source of myriad destructive physical, emotional, and psychological challenges. Left unattended, it often becomes a pocket of latent hostility that will at some point be unleashed on someone else as the victim becomes a victimizer. When Jesus told his disciples to forgive “not just seven, but seventy times seven times” (Matt. 18:22) and to pray “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those that trespass against us” (Matt. 6:12), he recognized both the difficulty and necessity of forgiveness.
Victimizers also need forgiveness because it enables them to release the debilitating feelings of guilt (that admittedly not all victimizers feel) and lets them know their wrongdoing was an event, not evidence of their devolution into a sub-human species. It tells them they continue to belong in the community of humans with all its attendant expectations and responsibilities. Jesus’ response to Peter’s denial of him illustrates this point—he forgave the guilt-ridden Peter and after forcing him to reflect on the source of his wrongdoing through repeated questioning, Jesus affirmed that Peter still belonged, then told him to dust himself off and get back to the work of helping others (Lk. 22:31-34, 54-62; Jn. 21).