“Now that I’m big enough to defend myself,” the preacher quoted Charlie Brown, “they tell me about forgiveness.”
Forty years later, I still recall these words. I can’t say I’ve retained much else about the sermons I heard as a teenager. Perhaps they weren’t too memorable or, more likely, I wasn’t paying attention. But maybe because I liked Peanuts as a kid, or actually heard this quote recycled more than once, it’s stuck with me all this time. Looking back, I’m glad that at least Charlie Brown was told something about forgiveness while growing up. Because I certainly wasn’t.
Although my family was Episcopalian, I spent four grade school years at an evangelical school in the Bible Belt’s buckle, memorizing names of Old Testament books in sequence like other kids learned state capitals. I still remember enough to make it to Ezra, after which I invariably get fouled up. Yet I don’t recall being taught about forgiveness. The same was true of my Episcopalian high school, where my most vivid memory of the obligatory religion classes was a lively debate about whether dogs are really capable of love. Nobody budged from their original position.
Three years at a Church of England seminary taught me nothing formal about forgiveness either. Our instruction was oriented towards Oxford’s marathon finals, each of which involved three questions, three hours, a stack of bluebooks, and a fistful of pens. To prepare, we compared and contrasted eminent theologians, debated fine points of philosophy and ethics, and dove into the weeds of modern Scripture study: who wrote what, when, and why, and how editors fiddled with it all. Essential and fascinating, but not always immediately practical.
To address the gaps in our pastoral formation, a psychologist was brought in for a series of lectures. He was a decent teacher, providing us with a primer on the classical Freudian lexicon: ids and super-ids, egos and superegos. I think a few Jungian archetypes were thrown in for good measure. About forgiveness, however, he was absolutely silent. Then again, he didn’t have much material to work with. Because the first scientific article about people forgiving each other wasn’t published until 1989- just three years earlier.
Before that time, psychology shied away from the topic of forgiveness, concluding it was better suited for clergy than clinicians, and more applicable to persons in pews, as opposed to those on couches. Thanks to Freud, psychology had focused largely on our guilty feelings over the hurtful things we’ve done to others. But it didn’t explore forgiveness as a response to the hurtful things done to us. That’s why, as late as the 1980s, there were no references to “forgiveness” in the American Psychological Association’s Psychological Abstracts, which had been published for over sixty years.
At the same time, Christian tradition hadn’t said much about forgiveness either, in spite of psychologists presuming that it did. I became aware of this maybe fifteen years ago, while mining the Internet for forgiveness quotes from ancient saints. To my surprise, my efforts yielded next to nothing. Even one of the few treasures I unearthed turned out to be fool’s gold: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace; where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon,” the words of a popular prayer attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi. But there’s no evidence that Francis wrote these words at all. They first surfaced in 1912, in a French magazine published nearly seven hundred years after his death.
Granted, surfing the web isn’t exactly a rigorous academic pursuit. But my later perusal of more authoritative sources yielded a similar lack of content. Given what Jesus said about forgiveness, I had hoped that early Christian writers would have unpacked the topic at great length. Yet the index of the nine-volume, 6,000-page Ante-Nicene Fathers, an anthology of the first four centuries of Christian writing, has but a single reference for “forgiveness, of injuries, duty of,” from the Constitutions of the Holy Apostles.
During Christianity’s first centuries, rivers of ink were spilled over the great doctrinal debates, which not only hammered out dogmas but also gave rise to much that begged for forgiveness: the exiles imposed, anathemas hurled, excommunications pronounced and sometimes, in the marketplace of public opinion, punches thrown and blood spilled. But the topic of forgiveness went largely unaddressed. Or, to be more precise, the topic of our forgiving each other. Because quite a lot was said about our need for forgiveness from God. Just like early psychology dealt almost exclusively with guilt, it seems that early Christian writers were guilty- pun intended- of precisely the same thing.
Now a Roman Catholic, I wondered if forgiveness had been explored during the modernizing period following the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), given its encouragement to embrace psychology and sociology “so that the faithful might be brought to a more adequate and mature life of faith.” To test my hypothesis, I referenced 1987’s The New Dictionary of Theology, weighing in at 1,120 double-columned pages and whose 165 authors, the publisher modestly noted, were “the elite of the theological and biblical worlds.” But the entry for “Forgiveness” was blank, save for a direction to “See Conversion, Grace, Reconciliation.”
It occurred to me that in searching for writing about forgiveness, perhaps I’d been looking in the wrong places. Maybe I’d have more success in exploring the world of spirituality, as opposed to theology. And so I turned to Saint John of the Cross, the sixteenth century Spaniard known as the “Mystical Doctor” for his prominent place within the Catholic spiritual tradition, and whose collected works I had slowly digested during my first year of seminary. Knowing a bit of his personal story, I thought that if ever there was someone who might have written about forgiveness, it was him.
John was an artist, poet, and priest. He was also a reformer, and that got him into trouble. Convinced that his Carmelite religious order had become lax and worldly, he attempted to introduce new austerities, such as wearing only rough garments and no shoes, and fasting for about half the year. These efforts were, to put it mildly, not well received. His brethren kidnapped him, confined him to a tiny airless cell, allowed no change of clothes, fed him only bread, water, and scraps of salt fish, and publicly flogged him each week.
We would label today what John experienced as severe physical and psychological trauma. If I had found myself being whipped as my co-religionists chanted psalms, what would likely go through my mind is what John’s friend and mentor, St. Theresa of Avila, once said when thrown from a horse: “If this is how you treat your friends, Lord, it’s no wonder you have so few of them!” But if John nursed bitter thoughts toward his abusers, they’re not evident in his writing, which reflects no ill will toward them. Yet, he doesn’t expound on forgiving them either.
In spite of his significance, however, Saint John of the Cross is but one figure within a wide-ranging and ancient spiritual heritage. To expand my search, I consulted a comprehensive reference work, the magisterial Study of Spirituality from 1986, touted as “an enormous editorial effort to coordinate the privileged spiritual knowledge of some sixty experts from various traditions.” Nearly 600 topics – from abandonment to hesychasm to worldliness- are included in its index. But while its listings under “F” includes “forgiveness of sins,” there isn’t one for “forgiveness of others.”
None of this is to suggest that the Christian tradition was absolutely silent about forgiveness for most of its history. Jesus, of course, had most certainly spoken about it. He forgave his executioners from the cross, taught us to forgive trespassers when praying, told a parable about a merciful king and a merciless servant, and insisted that we love our enemies. This wasn’t ignored by Jesus’ followers, in practice or in writing. At the same time, forgiveness wasn’t a topic of focused inquiry, either.
The mid-Twentieth Century, and especially the horrors of World War 2, did give rise to some forgiveness commentary, both inside and outside the Christian world. C.S. Lewis included a brief essay on forgiveness in The Weight of Glory; Bishop Fulton Sheen touched upon it in his popular writings; Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. described it as a “weapon of social redemption” in his preaching. In Tramp for the Lord, Dutch protestant Corrie Ten Boom shared how and why she forgave a repentant Nazi; in The Sunflower, Simon Wiesenthal and his collaborators debated if repentant Nazis should be forgiven at all. Later, a scattering of slim, popular paperbacks on forgiveness appeared in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s.
In the 1990’s, however, the study of forgiveness took off, pioneered by academic psychologists like Wisconsin’s Bob Enright, Stanford’s Fred Luskin, and Everett Worthington at Virginia Commonwealth University. Not everyone embraced this novel development: Enright recalls how graduate students were discouraged from working with him, having been warned that digging into forgiveness was a waste of time that would sink their budding careers. He jokes that he’s had to forgive those who tried to undermine his early work on forgiveness! Nevertheless, his detractors’ efforts at sabotage were too little, too late. Because the modern forgiveness movement was already underway.
The Catholic world soon caught on. Retreats were held, homilies were preached, and more popular paperbacks were published, including (full disclosure) one by me. Pope John Paul II publicly forgave his would-be assassin in his jail cell, generating much attention. “No Peace without Justice, No Justice without Forgiveness” was the subject of his 2002 message for the World Day of Peace. The new Catechism of the Catholic Church was punctuated with forgiveness references. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops published Forgiveness in International Politics: An Alternative Road to Peace. The impact of this groundswell was such that noted Catholic journalist John Allen conjectured that forgiveness just might popularize Catholicism like yoga popularized Hinduism.
The new appreciation of the physical, psychological, and relational benefits of forgiveness had a tremendous positive effect. Proponents now had a “how” and a “why” to forgive, grounded in science and data. Psychologists, pastors, and social workers could all operate from a common playbook. Hurting people were offered tools to address old wounds in new ways, get unstuck from deep-seated anger, and replace resentment and revenge with healing and peacemaking. As Wisconsin’s Enright would say: “We are really on a roll.”
Forgiveness had become popular. And then it became popularized, as the self-help and pop psych worlds jumped on board. John Gray, the Mars/Venus guy, touted forgiveness, as did Oprah, who broadcast a “life class” on it. Celebrities weighed in. Online articles, blog posts, and supermarket checkout line magazines sported titles and headlines celebrating the newfound benefits of forgiveness, often illustrated with stock images of fit people with outstretched arms on a mountaintop or facing a seaside sunset, captioned with some variation of: “Forgiveness will set you free!”
On the one hand, this popularization was positive, as it introduced forgiveness to a wide audience. On the other hand, it could be cheapening and trivializing. Pundits made glib appeals to “just let it go” and enumerated “simple steps to forgiveness,” implying that forgiveness was easy, like a recipe for weeknight meatloaf. And sometimes forgiveness was propounded with outright nonsense, like this from Deepak Chopra: “Forgiveness is a recognition that actions that are perceived as hurtful or wrong are the perspective of the small ego mind, not the higher self. Love, Deepak.” Which, when practically applied, means that there’s no reason for assault victims, for instance, to consider forgiving their assailants. They just need enlightenment to see that they weren’t really harmed in the first place!
Sentiments like these would plant seeds for a revolt; the popularization of forgiveness, and the culture that came to surround it, would be met with protest and pushback. Critics wrote scathing dismissals with titles such as “Why I reject forgiveness culture” and “Today’s forgiveness culture is for suckers.” Decades earlier, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian executed for his role in a Hitler assassination plot, famously warned against the preaching of “cheap grace.” Looking back, maybe someone should have warned against the promotion of “cheap forgiveness.” Because it bred confusion. And it turned people off.
Some of the pushback was rooted in misunderstanding: equating forgiveness with reconciliation; insisting that forgiving requires forgetting; concluding that it enables bad behavior; fearing that it lets people off the hook; or mistaking it for a one-time decision as opposed to an often difficult and lengthy process – especially when an offender keeps offending. Like Neitchze a century before, there were those who scorned forgiveness as a sign of weakness. But a principal reason for forgiveness resistance was it was increasingly demanded as an entitlement, and even weaponized to force people into forgiving, or shame them if they didn’t.
People choked on forgiveness when they felt it was being forced down their throats. Three things in particular exemplified this for me: Pulitzer Prize winner Isabel Wilkinson’s assessment of forgiveness in the Black community as described in her bestselling Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents; the advent of the #MeToo movement and the misuse of forgiveness with survivors of sexual assault, both by perpetrators and by clergy; and my introduction to a curious cartoon creation, the Forgiveness Troll, and its occasional accomplice, the Jesus Cheater.
The Forgiveness Troll sprang from the mind and pen of Tracy Scorn: blogger, cartoonist, author of Leave a Cheater, Gain a Life, and known to her readers as “Chump Lady.” With wit, wisdom, righteous indignation, a heavy dose of snark, and (fair warning) a light sprinkling of profanity, she writes for those whose ex-partners cheated on them – something she’s lived through herself. She has sympathy for fellow “chumps” and all they experience: depression, rage, traumatic stress, shattered dreams, broken hearts, family implosion, annihilation of trust, alienation of affection, lies and deception, gaslighting, exposure to STDs, theft of marital property, character-assassinating calumny, and ghosting by former mutual friends.
The Forgiveness Troll is a comically grotesque, treacly-colored furry gremlin with a cheap heart applique on its chest. With its hands placed accusatively on its hips, and a scowl on its cocked head, it demands: “Why you not forgive?” Forgiveness Troll is the collective avatar of all those who “troll” Chump Lady’s blog, trying to guilt her readers into forgiving, and dispensing dime-store wisdom on the suffering without having suffered in that way themselves. “Why don’t you just move on?” they ask. “You’re only hurting yourself, you know.” Sentiments that, given the circumstances, are about as inappropriate, and are as poorly received, as funeral parlor cliches foisted on the grieving about God needing one more angel.
Chump Lady isn’t opposed to forgiveness; she approvingly quotes Nobel Peace Prize laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu on the subject. What she rejects- and encourages others to reject- is what she calls “fairy dust forgiveness”: the magical thinking that “letting go” will transform a cheater’s character and banish one’s anger with a quick wave of a wand. This is the sort of “forgiveness” pushed by the Forgiveness Troll. But it doesn’t live up to its promise. Forgiveness can’t guarantee to impart character transplants, and the old adage “once a cheater, always a cheater” is sadly validated by data. Furthermore, experience shows that over-hasty forgiveness doesn’t dispel anger. Instead, it keeps one stuck in it, because it short-circuits it. Because when it’s not allowed to be expressed or processed, anger denied becomes anger extended.
Fairy-dust forgiveness isn’t pushed by just the Forgiveness Troll. It’s also demanded as an entitlement by a very special subset of marital infidel: the Jesus Cheater. Seeking to dodge the consequences for being unfaithful, and cloaked in a smokescreen of what Chump Lady calls “genuine naugahyde remorse,” Jesus Cheaters co-opt religion to manipulate their chumped partners into forgiving: “God has already forgiven me, I’ve forgiven myself, and I’ve even forgiven you for everything you did that compelled me to cheat! Shouldn’t you forgive me? Right now? Aren’t you a Christian? What would Jesus do?” In so doing they flip the narrative, claim the moral high ground, and frame the person they’ve wronged as the “bad guy” and a hypocrite.
Jesus Cheaters may collude with clergy who, with misguided good intentions, try to engineer a premature and ultimately unsuccessful make-up. Afraid that they have no other options, some wronged partners concede and “wreckconcile,” to use Chump Lady’s term. But not all. Iris DeMent’s wickedly cynical Country song, “God May Forgive You (But I Won’t),” comes to mind. With “You’ve done too much to me,” she rebuffs her cheater’s expectation that she’ll “forgive and forget.” So too does Billy Graham’s daughter Ruth, who rejected her father’s insistence that she return to her chronically unfaithful husband to preserve the family’s name and, as it would have been phrased if they were Catholic, “avoid scandal.” Ruth Graham’s intransigence and Iris Dement’s lyrics make clear that when forgiveness is demanded or imposed, some people will push back.
This became clear to me when the #MeToo movement went viral in 2017. With distress I watched as Facebook flooded with friends and acquaintances publicly claiming that they had been sexually assaulted. No context was given; perpetrators weren’t named. There was only the hashtag, over and over again. I assumed that many of the offenses had occurred during the ‘80’s, when we were students and young adults, and “date rape” had just entered our vocabulary. And I remembered the culture that fostered it: the casual acceptance of “locker room talk,” the dismissive assumption that “boys will be boys,” the blockbuster films that celebrated it like Porky’s, Revenge of the Nerds, Animal House, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and Sixteen Candles (“I could violate her ten different ways if I wanted to,” sneered Jake Ryan about his wasted girlfriend).
Back then, it was sometimes argued that women invited assault by how they acted or what they wore. But even these now widely-rejected slanders couldn’t have been levelled at my peers in what was, by every measure, a privileged white, preppy bubble. Although there was a movie called Dirty Dancing, nobody danced dirtily. There were only variations of the white man overbite and, being in the South, clumsy attempts at the Carolina Shag. And the clothes? It’s a big stretch for turtlenecks, fair isle sweaters, high waisted jeans, baggy t-shirts, scrunched white socks, khaki skirts, and floral print dresses to be considered provocative or inappropriate in any way.
Yet sexual assault still happened. And if my social media feed is to be believed, it happened a lot. But until recently, many survivors had failed to speak up. They feared retaliation, their stories being dismissed, the emotional pain of revisiting a traumatic event, and what today is crassly referred to as “slut-shaming.” According to author Megan Feldman Bettancourt, there was another reason as well: forgiveness had been equated with keeping silent. As she explained in “How Forgiveness Has Been Weaponized Against Women,” her article in Harper’s Bazaar, many women thought they had to choose between forgiving and pressing charges. It wasn’t a both/and proposition. It was either/or.
Male perpetrators were happy to exploit this confusion, as their careers and reputations could be kept safe if women kept silent; the misconstrued forgiveness they sought to impose was a tool for power and control. This was facilitated by a culture that tended to have more sympathy for men who were accused, as opposed to the women who accused them, a mindset now labelled by some as “himpathy.” Together, these pressures and this climate convinced assault victims that they either had to keep quiet and stew in their anger, or forgive and continue in relationship with their abuser. Bennancourt bluntly concludes: “What a toxic brew of nonsense.”
Religious leaders have reinforced these dynamics, and re-traumatized survivors, by imposing forgiveness on them and insisting that they reconcile with perpetrators. These hurtful practices can reflect a rigid interpretation of marriage’s permanency or a misunderstanding of forgiveness itself. And sometimes they’re rooted in an effort to protect religious institutions at the expense of those who were harmed. This was the experience of Rachel Denhollander, an attorney and former gymnast who blew the whistle on Larry Nasser, the notorious predator physician who abused over 200 girls and young women athletes, including Denhollander and several Olympians. Based on her experience with the clergy she consulted, she arrived at this sobering conclusion: “It is with deep regret that I say the church is one of the worst places to go for help.”
Denhollander had been confronted with a weaponized forgiveness that firmly closed the door to her speaking out and pursuing justice. Instead, as with Chump Lady’s “fairy dust” variety, it was assumed that this forgiveness would magically release her from pain, and bring the matter of her abuse to a quiet conclusion. Looking back, she laments her faith community’s “abhorrent lack of knowledge for the damage and devastation that sexual assault brings” and its corresponding inability to effectively counsel with compassion. Sadly, these inadequacies are by no means unique to Denhollander’s evangelical circles. Merianna Harrelson, a mainline Protestant minister, painfully recalls multiple stories of how sexual assault victims were “forced to sit in the same room as the person who abused them and forgive them in front of a third party.” She calls this “spiritual abuse.” Because it is.
Similar practices have been evident in the Catholic world. Forgiveness has been forced upon victims of sexual assault by clergy. Survivors of domestic violence speak of clergy demanding that they forgive their abusive spouses, imposing religious guilt and unwittingly extending the abuse cycle of harm followed by forgiveness, over and over again. At a conference on domestic violence I once attended, I recall how stunned I was to hear an advocate for survivors openly lament how, in her experience, Muslim clerics understood better than their Catholic counterparts that forgiveness and reconciliation should not be demanded of those who live in real threat of physical, and possibly mortal, danger.
That same advocate, however, took pains to praise When I Cry for Help: A Pastoral Response to Domestic Violence Against Women from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. It’s addressed not only to survivors, but also to the clergy and other first responders survivors might turn to when seeking help. It warns that “men who batter” can misuse Scripture to weaponize forgiveness and control the women they harm. It concedes that, for survivors, “religion can be more of a roadblock” than strength and consolation, especially when they feel guilty for being unable to forgive. And, to those who insist that marriages are to be preserved at all costs, even when faced with repeated violence, the text states quite clearly: “(N)o person is expected to stay in an abusive marriage.”
That the title speaks of crying for help is significant, because so many subjected to domestic violence do not. They remain silent, in fear, and sometimes trapped by the thought that they must choose between breaking free or reconciling through extending a divinely-mandated forgiveness. Ironically, crying for help is precisely what can prepare the way for authentic forgiveness. Keeping silent inhibits healing and forgiving, a point Megan Feldman Bettancourt drove home in her Harper’s Bazaar essay. Instead, it’s by advocating for one’s self that pent-up bitterness is released and a dangerous climate can be replaced with one of safety. She says: “ …the very act of speaking up, being heard, and getting some degree of justice – without pressure to reconcile- eases the way for forgiveness.” Without that, what masquerades as forgiveness may be nothing more than a stay of execution.
In Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, Isabel Wilkerson draws a similar conclusion about forgiveness in the Black community, lamenting that it’s frequently an expression of self-preservation for those at the social ladder’s bottom rung. I was introduced to her sobering text through a book club at work as we processed the racial unrest after George Floyd’s murder. During one session I recalled my college’s basketball games against our crosstown rival. Its student body was far more diverse, and less economically advantaged, than ours. Whenever they took the lead, some students would chant, “That’s alright, that’s okay, you’ll all work for us one day!” One Black colleague visibly recoiled as I described this egregious expression of white privilege. Our moderator asked: “How do you feel about this?” “Ashamed,” I said, admitting what was obvious to everyone. Yet one more confession of white guilt.
White guilt is addressed in Wilkerson’s book, which I expected in a work chronicling systemic white oppression. What I did not expect was her insistence that Blacks can feel compelled to forgive on account of that guilt. Forgiveness is a survival mechanism, she explains, driven by the needs of whites to receive Blacks’ compassion as a salve for their shame. And it’s given with the knowledge that it won’t be reciprocated. For “people at the margins,” Wilkerson explains, thriving requires “forgiving any trespass without expectation of atonement from their trespassers.”
To illustrate, Wilkinson describes a 2019 Dallas courtroom scene during the trial of a white former police officer who killed a black man as he watched TV in an apartment she mistook for her own. After she was convicted, the slain man’s brother forgave her with a hug, a Black bailiff consoled her while she sobbed, and the Black judge left the bench to present her with a Bible. All this was caught on camera and broadcast around the country to widespread acclaim, especially from white audiences. Wilkerson is quick to point out that it’s hard to imagine such compassion being extended to a white victim of a Black shooter. It was their culture, she concludes, that had conditioned them to make such submissive acts to stay safe, and maybe even stay alive, in a dangerous white world.
Wilkerson isn’t hostile to forgiveness in principle, and she doesn’t second guess the sincerity of Blacks who forgive whites. When mentioning the forgiveness extended to the remorseless white killer of nine Black persons at a Charleston church Bible study in 2015, she described it as an “abiding act of faith.” But she is suspicious of the societal dynamics she fears pressure Blacks to forgive as an act of resignation to the “dominant caste.” Her concern is not misplaced. Forced or coerced forgiveness isn’t a healing gift. It’s a ransom payment. Wilkerson is absolutely correct when describing forgiveness as “a privilege that should not be extracted but granted freely.” But that is a lesson many in our society have yet to absorb.
There’s still much more we have to learn about forgiveness; it’s a good thing that over 1,000 forgiveness researchers are active in the US today. Nevertheless, during the past thirty years we’ve quickly made up for the neglect of earlier generations. We understand far better now what forgiveness is, what it is not, how to do it, and what some of its benefits are. We’ve also witnessed that it can be misused and misconstrued, including by people of faith and their leaders, and can conclude that it should not be forced, coerced, imposed, or demanded as an entitlement. Like love, forgiveness should always be given as a free gift. And, it is possible – even essential – to speak out against injustice while we struggle to forgive, and keep ourselves safe from abuse. Looking back, good ol’ Charlie Brown had hinted at something profoundly true: we do need to teach people about forgiveness. And to defend themselves, too.
Scott Hurd has authored five books, including Forgiveness: A Catholic Approach, first published in 2011, with a revised and expanded edition issued in 2019. His works have been translated into German, Korean, and Polish, and have received awards from the Catholic Press Association and the Association of Catholic Publishers. His essay, “My Swastika, His Horse,” will be published by Pembroke Magazine in 2022.