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.