Some Thoughts on Forgiveness

Lately I have been faced with the opportunity to extend forgiveness to someone responsible for harming me, some of my loved ones, and many other people–some I know–most I do not. One thing I have concluded is I can offer  private, personal forgiveness for someone who directly harmed me (particularly if I wish to continue in relationship with that person.) But sometimes, as a community, we are confronted with the issue of public forgiveness for someone who has injured many in very public ways.

In the case of the personal offense, I can, if I choose, extend forgiveness. It will likely serve as an essential step in rebuilding a broken relationship. It is most effective if the offender communicates regret over their actions, can articulate what they have done, and actually requests forgiveness. My forgiveness does not mean I can (or should) trust the person again immediately or ever. Forgiveness does not give me permission to overlook reality. Also, personal forgiveness is often a private matter.

The public forgiveness is complicated mainly because I cannot forgive someone on the behalf of others. I can personally let go of my resentment towards an individual or a group, but it is not my place to forgive them for all that they have done. Nor do I think it does anyone any good when we immediately offer forgiveness in reaction to an announcement by someone who has begun to consider his previous harmful actions.

Restorative justice requires more than a quickie public exchange–

“I am sorry.”

“You are forgiven.”

Immediate forgiveness and absolution distracts from the necessary cathartic process for both the offender and those harmed. This is not a matter about being too hard on someone like John Smid, who has publicly apologized for his work promoting and providing ex-gay treatment and has begun to unpack his former beliefs. Rather it is a validation of the harm people suffered and the need for an honest and often painful process. While many of us rejoice in happy endings and prefer to skip over the conflict to the resolution, usually its the complicated, messy process that results in a satisfying ending.

When someone, like John Smid, announces a change of heart and seeks to make amends, (after overseeing a residential program that brought misery and confusion to hundreds if not thousands,) I believe that reconciliation with the community he harmed is a process that needs to be conducted thoughtfully and sensitively. If a family member has abused others and then repents, it is complex and difficult work to bring that person back into family life and gatherings. Not impossible, but I believe we must not overlook history or the gravity of offenses committed.

Also, when someone, who regrets their harmful and abusive behaviors, requests entry into groups inhabited by former victims or wishes to be a spokesperson on behalf of those harmed, he has work to do–much to learn and unlearn. In the case of John Smid, it makes much more sense that he speak to his former ex-gay peers still working to undermine the health, well-being, and rights of LGBTQ people, than to present at gay Christian events.

Perhaps as the dust settles from his recent announcements, he is beginning to see what his role can be in the public discourse and in bringing about justice. Yesterday he appeared on MSNBC’s Hard Ball with Chris Matthew and advocated extending equal rights to LGBTQ people. I find that more valuable to me than a written apology. In insisting on rights for the people he formerly oppressed, John Smid pursues restorative justice.

As Sally, a Facebook friend, concluded:

Seems to me that forgiveness is a process of the heart. Reconciliation is a commitment to a relational process.

Finally, I do not believe anyone should ever feel obligated to forgive. If an ex-gay leader approaches me directly and says, “I am sorry,” I am free to respond, “Yes, and you have good reason to be. Now do something about it.” This may sound harsh, but in pursuing restorative justice, peace does not come about by overlooking wrongs. It requires action–amends–a necessary step that not only acknowledges those who have been oppressed, but may also lead to the liberation of oppressors weighed down by their cruel and misguided beliefs and actions.


This post has 7 Comments

  1. disciplegideon on October 19, 2011 at 7:38 pm

    I enjoyed your post very much! You would really enjoy my post “The Evolution of Finger-Pointing: Part One: Forgiveness” at
    Forgiveness is absolutely crucial for personal growth. There is no way around it. Forgiveness is one of the only true powers that we as humans possess. I wish more people would discover the magnificence in a heart that forgives.

  2. Brenda Lunger on October 19, 2011 at 9:17 pm

    When the Bible addresses repentant community offenders, restitution involved giving more back to the injured community than you took from it. In the case of Zacchaeus, he pledged half of all he owned, AND fourfold restitution to anyone he wronged by false accusation. If Mr. Smid takes the Gospels seriously, he has a lot of restitution ahead of him.

    As for forgiveness, I’ve always felt that it has more benefits for the forgiver than it does for the forgiven one.

  3. Paul Valentine on October 20, 2011 at 6:08 am

    I dunno. For me forgiveness and the need for apology are a natural part of the process of living for everyone. My experience has been that most evil is inadvertent. That’s a very concise statement (I have to get up soon and get ready for school and don’t have time to unpack it). But perceiving the inadvertency in an evil really helps me with the forgiveness part. Sure, I am just as shot by the person who does it on purpose as I am by the person who was playing with a gun and inadvertently shot me, but there is something about intent that adds to or takes away from the event. With an apology, it’s not the quantity that effects me so much as the reality of it. I don’t think restitution necessarily makes for reality. I can forgive a person pretty quickly if I perceive that their apology is genuine, that it’s real, not just a plea for absolution without a recognition for harm done. And I think that can be the tricky part, conveying understanding of the wrong done (on the part of the apologizer) and the offended seeing that the apologizer really understands what they did and it’s affects on the offended.

  4. Stasa on October 20, 2011 at 7:36 am

    Thank you.

    I think this might prompt some writing for me.


  5. Basil on October 20, 2011 at 11:46 pm

    Your division between forgiveness and reconciliation makes me think about an incident I had a few months back, on Facebook. I got “friend request” from someone from my childhood who had really bullied and tormented me, and really had done a lot of damage to me — left me in a closet scared of myself for many, many years. I was surprised, maybe he did not remember the taunting, or one particularly scarring incident. I actually discussed what to do with some other straight friends from my childhood — many of them thought I should answer the request with an emailed note, confronting this person and demanding an apology.

    I thought about it a lot. This person had been really awful, a complete s**t … when we were 13. But somehow, I can’t imagine that he is the same person now, in his mid-40’s. I forgave him, not because he asked for, or deserved, my forgiveness, or because I even wanted an apology. I forgave him because it was enough for me to know the truth, and to be released by it. I don’t want the bitterness of the past to ruin the potential good in my future.

    But I did not reconcile — I don’t want a relationship with this person. He might be an decent fellow, but I just don’t want to be reminded of the scared, beaten-down 13 year old that I worked for so long to transcend. It is enough to know the past, without having to be prisoner to it. I don’t want to relive those emotions of the past anymore. So I clicked the “ignore’ button on the friend request and sent the past back to the closet where it now belongs.

    I offer this in humility, because my circumstances are very different from yours. We all have a different journey. From what I gather, the abuse you suffered happened later in your life, in your later teen years, or as a young adult. And your tormentor made his livelihood from inflicting abuse on you, and other LGBT persons. My revelation was this: forgiveness isn’t just a gift you bestow on others. You are also releasing yourself from the past. On some level, you are transcending, and no longer allowing yourself to be the victim.

    I don’t know if any of this is useful or applicable to you. But as you move forward, at least forgive yourself for having spent so long trying to be “ex-gay”, for having been abused. It was not your fault. You don’t have forgive John Smid, or any of his evil “pray away the gay” ilk, and you certainly don’t have to reconcile with them, or have any contact at all. But you are no longer a prisoner of the past and you do not need to let that sadness weigh down upon your beautiful heart.

    Yours in the light,

    A fellow gay Quaker

  6. Jeff on October 21, 2011 at 10:43 am

    I was thinking pretty much along the same lines as Brenda Lunger’s post. The only additional bit I would add is that we are in the forgiveness business (70x etc.) but not in the business of absolving anyone of their sins. We can overlook our hurts, and be open to a future relationship but, the absolution of sins is God’s place of employment. It’s interesting that Jesus shows that he has the authority to forgive sins by healing (“which is easier…) and while he’s playing off of the then popular notion that people were disabled due to their sins, it still holds true that healing is needed. And while, sometimes there are miracles in this world, healing usually takes time.

  7. Yvonne Aburrow (@vogelbeere) on May 14, 2012 at 9:11 am

    I agree that forgiveness is a process and that it is hard work. I also think that one may forgive someone who has harmed one, but that does not necessarily mean that the relationship with them can be restored. It may be that one needs to say, I forgive you, and then remove oneself from their ambit (as Basil suggested).

    It’s worth having a look at the amazing Forgiveness Project, which explores true stories of forgiveness and reconciliation, and also stories of people who have not forgiven the harm done to them.

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