Christians are supposed to forgive every enemy. But does that still apply when forgiveness could cause more harm than good?
By Monica Busch
Like most fundamentalist Christian kids raised during the golden years of Focus on the Family, I grew up watching VeggieTales on VHS any chance I got. Videos were often borrowed from my church’s lending library, where I would drag my grandmother after church services ended on Sundays. She would hover over me as I selected two tapes that I hadn’t seen yet, or at least not recently enough to remember.
Most of the show’s episodes and movies are musicals, and they all feature a segment called “Silly Songs With Larry,” a goofy sing-along featuring one of the show’s main characters, who is a cucumber. I can still recite the lyrics to “Everybody Has a Water Buffalo” (“yours is fast and mine is slow”) without tripping up too much. And somewhere on the internet, there is a video of me singing “God is Bigger than the Boogie Man” into a flashlight.
The show is fun, goofy, brightly colored, and riddled with Christian parables as catchy as the music. I remember the words to the song “The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything” with the same clarity that I remember the moral lessons imparted by the series week after week.
My favorite episode was called “God Wants Me to Forgive Them?!” In it, Junior Asparagus deals with some nasty bullies who call themselves The Grapes of Wrath. They are a family of grapes who ride around in a rickety car and bully those they encounter. Predictably, while Junior Asparagus is playing in his front yard, donning a yellow baseball cap, the family stops by to berate the unsuspecting young vegetable.
“Is that cheese on your head?!” one yells from the car. The whole family laughs and dubs the young asparagus a Cheese Head.
As these types of stories go, Junior learns — after considerable anguish — the difficult lesson that God wants him to forgive his enemies, and He wants him to do it every single time. The good little Christian vegetable that he is, Junior eventually gives in to his father’s guidance about making amends with his bullies, and the Grapes are so moved by this forgiveness that they promise to change their ways.
The episode references the well-quoted Bible verse in Matthew 18 in which the apostle Paul asks Jesus how many times he is required to forgive people who wrong him. “Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:22).
Doing the math, it’s unlikely that one single person is going to wrong another person more than 490 times, as Jesus hyperbolically implies to his follower. So the point is, of course, that every Christian needs to forgive every enemy 100% of the time.
This need to forgive everyone, and to do it relentlessly, is a lesson frequently taught and re-taught to fundamentalist Christian children.
When my brothers and I fought, growing up, we were immediately halted and told to apologize.
“Say you’re sorry,” my dad would command, towering over us, brows furrowed.
I’d purse my lips and ball my fists before hissing a “sorry” between clenched teeth.
“Now, hug. Say ‘I forgive you,’ and tell each other ‘I love you,’” my dad would say next.
We did — and then stormed off to other rooms to avoid getting ourselves grounded in a moment of untempered rage.
The same scenario played out in my religious teachings for years. After all, my family and my preachers told me, Christianity itself exists because Jesus forgave our sin-riddled selves, so much that he died for us.
The sacrificial lamb metaphor was never one I completely grasped growing up, though. It never quite made sense to me that some oppressive leaders slaughtered the human embodiment of my religion’s deity because I was going to someday be born, bully my little brother, and go to hell for it. And every time I asked how that sacrifice worked logistically, I was given dismissive answers or elusive explanations with too many contemporary Christian buzzwords like “covenant” and “unconditional.” An English degree later, and I still don’t quite get it.
It’s with this same convoluted understanding that, as an adult atheist who must respect her family’s religious views in order to maintain healthy relationships with them, I’ve been forced to ask a question that Junior Asparagus never posed: If Christians are supposed to forgive every enemy, every single time, does that still apply when forgiveness could cause more harm than good?
My dad molested me throughout most of my childhood, and it tore my extended family apart the second I tearily confessed the abuse to my grandparents during my freshman year of college. What followed after my admission was a harrowing saga of police reports, family members asking for details they probably had no right to ask for but that I offered anyway so that they would believe me, and, eventually, a two-day trial that found my dad guilty on three varied counts of sexual misconduct.
He was sentenced to two and a half years in prison and handed a slew of stipulations once he was released, including but not limited to registering as a sex offender and wearing an ankle bracelet for a length of time.
Before the sentencing, my grandmother hugged me, crying outside the courtroom, and asked me to see if the lawyers would go easy on him in their recommendations for penalties. I don’t remember responding. I just remember looking at her and wondering why she would ask me to do something like that for a man who basically tortured me for 15 years. I did not think he deserved my mercy.
Moments later, after I failed through heaving sobs to deliver a victim’s impact statement to the courtroom, the judge punished my dad to the fullest extent of the law. Justice was served, and my mother hasn’t spoken to me since, choosing to disbelieve my allegations and continue living with my dad instead.
Now, years later and as an atheist, I have to reckon with my family’s pervasive religious views. This complicates our conversations, which seem to endlessly focus on what my grandmother calls “healing.”
“Healing is important,” she said to me on the phone this past winter.
It’s a record that plays on repeat between the two of us now, and a major reason for my gradual recession from a relationship I once counted as paramount to my emotional health.
“Where does God play into all this?” she asked me in the same conversation. I choked back a haughty laugh and pretended I hadn’t heard her.
More and more, haughtiness has become my immediate response to these otherwise reasonable, albeit tense, interjections.
Now, to be clear, I’m not opposed to forgiving enemies — even the worst kind. If a victim of a sexual assault can honestly say that they forgive their assailant, then I envy that person. But to contend that it is required in order to get right with God seems at best absurd, and at worse, intensely damaging. This is particularly true within the fundamentalist Christian community, which touts metaphors about being made clean as snow about as often as they plan potluck dinners. Which is to say, pretty damn often.
As a victim, to be told that I should focus on healing or forgiveness, effective synonyms in the fundamentalist community, instead of having a family that rallies around me in a show of support, is invalidating. It’s saying that I can never be whole, never be totally free of my abuse, until I forgive my dad for what he did to me, or more specifically, unless I let go of my anger and resentment. It’s assuming that what he did will latch on to me and hold me back and says that this will be the case until I recompense his actions.As a victim, to be told that I should focus on healing or forgiveness, instead of having a family that rallies around me in a show of support, is invalidating. Click To Tweet
What’s worse, my dad touts this same self-righteous tone of forgiveness and directs it at me, using other family members to relay the message since we no longer speak. So relentless is this message of forgiveness that just months after the end of his sentence, he forced one of my brothers to send me nonstop text message for nearly two days, explaining and reiterating how changed his heart is.
More times than I can count, I have been offered anecdotal evidence, via secondhand texts and side-comments from family members, that my dad has taken steps toward “healing.” I’ve been told he would accept me back into the family, reminded that he still loves me, and asked to speak to him on the phone. All the while, he maintains that he didn’t sexually exploit me and that I fabricated abuse charges in some deranged attempt at revenge for strict parenting. But in a fundamentalist community like the one my family subscribes to, my unwillingness to engage my abuser in this sort of forgiveness horserace actually manages to make me look worse than my assailant in the grand scheme of eternity.
Frequently I am told in some variation on a theme that he’s better — “fixed” — because he’s going to church more often and that it’s time to let bygones be bygones, get a therapist, and move on. My sister didn’t exhibit signs of molestation when she was evaluated by the Department of Social Services, I’m told in what feels like a thinly veiled attempt at victim blaming. It was just me, I hear. It was just something that happened. “Healing is important.”
Meanwhile, I’m barely able to sleep at night because of murderous nightmares that exclusively feature my dad as the villain. I haven’t the faintest desire to forgive my dad, or to ever have anything to do with him again. And I think that expecting me to do anything else is unreasonable and insulting to my trauma.
I suspect that my experience is not singular. One needn’t look further than Megyn Kelly’s interview with two of the Duggar sisters to find an example of two molestation victims taught to forgive their abuser under the guise of fundamentalist Christianity. And while the family and their religious practices are a commodified spectacle, I have met hundreds of families over the course of my childhood who profess interpretations of their own faith that are precisely as devout and literal.I haven’t the faintest desire to forgive my dad, or to ever have anything to do with him again. Click To Tweet
The message often told is that you need to forgive your perpetrator in order to liberate yourself from resentment and other negative feelings that are also considered sinful. Focus on the Family specifically addressed this in a broadcast last year, in which a guest speaker recounts how she forgave her abusive father because she felt God told her to. She goes so far as to express shame over her initial unwillingness to do so.
Christian writers, speakers, and clergy will sometimes delineate what they say is a difference between forgiving and excusing, or forgiving and trusting, but I don’t buy it. Forgiveness, by definition, is to let go of anger and resentment. But a secondary definition is to pardon. One could argue that advising a victim to forgive an abuser is twofold: It means telling a victim to stop being angry about what happened to them, and also means telling a victim to pardon their abuser’s actions. When my family asks me to forgive my dad for molesting me, they’re asking me to pardon the fact that in moments of self-centered sexual desire, he repeatedly violated me, all the while warning me that he would be murdered in prison if I told anyone.
They’re asking me to forgive his irreparable debts — the sleepless nights, the panic attacks, the sexual dysfunction. They’re asking me to make him clean as snow because, after all, if Jesus can forgive me, who am I to judge? They neglect the fact that I am better suited to judge than anyone else because I am the one who was dehumanized.Forgiveness, by definition, is to let go of anger and resentment. But a secondary definition is to pardon. Click To Tweet
There are things about my abuse that I can forgive, but the list is short and circumstantial. I can forgive my dad’s untreated mental illness; I can forgive my dad’s alcoholism and drug abuse; I can forgive my mother for feeling too stuck in an emotionally abusive relationship to risk standing up for me. But I cannot forgive the act and I will not forgive him.
I don’t feel guilty about this. And that’s the best healing I’ve experienced so far.