We seem to be confused about forgiveness. At least, that’s the impression I get after meeting the founder of the Mars Hill Refuge blog this weekend. Pam agreed to grab some Starbucks with me while I was in her SoCal neighborhood this weekend. The blog became flesh, and drank a carmel macchiato among us.
During our 90 minute conversation, Pam casually mentioned that every day she gets four or five emails that suggests she is “bitter” (or, for those fluent in Christianese, she is “holding onto bitterness in her heart”), and she should “forgive” her spiritual abusers at Mars Hill and other churches from her past.
Ahhh, telling other people to forgive: The Christian version of victim-blaming.
If that term is new, it means just what it sounds like. Victim blaming is insinuating that the person who was harmed is responsible for both the damage and rectifying it, not the person who did harm. Victim Blaming can be obvious, like, “She was asking for it wearing a short skirt so late at night,” or subtle, like… Well, like “You’re holding onto bitterness in your heart.”
This call to forgive is especially crazy-making because it implies that the victim is not even allowed to be mad about his or her abuse. As Pam put it, “Anger is equated with sin in every church I’ve been to.” As if the problem with an angry person is her anger, not the thing she is angry about.
Some churches distinguish between “anger” and “bitterness.” Anger is normal and natural, they say, but if you “let the sun go down on your anger” (Ephesians chapter something, verse who-cares) then it turns to “bitterness” and is apparently no longer okay.
Here’s the reality: If you’re angry for a longer than a day or a week or a decade or whenever this metaphorical sunset is supposed to be, it’s probably because no one has bothered to listen to your anger. You might also be “bitter” if the system that harmed you remains unchanged, as is the case with Pam. I hear Paul’s admonishment about not letting the sun set on your anger as a call to change the system, not to change, stifle, or ignore your anger. (Worth noting that the previous verse insists we tell each other the truth about our own experiences.)
In order to forgive the harm done to you, you must know it and name it. You must be free to tell all the details of your wounding, both in private and in public. And these details are very likely to make you angry, even angry for a long time. Forgiveness has never meant forgetting, or the counterpart, never mentioning in the first place.
Pam described for me where she is in her forgiveness process. After many months of being furious, of blogging and giving interviews, of engaging in debates about women in leadership, of trying different churches and deciding to spend Sunday mornings in Disneyland, Pam now feels like the heroine at the end of the ’80′s movie Labyrinth, who finally tells the evil goblin king, “You have no power over me!” Those are Pam’s words to Mark Driscoll and other so-called leaders from her past. Pam re-gained her power through her anger, and her power is propelling her closer and closer towards forgiveness (but not forgetfulness).
So, if you have a Pam or a Christine or another bitter, angry woman in your life that you’d like to help move out of “bitterness” and into forgiveness, here’s how:
1. Believe her story (even if it puts you or the people you admire into a bad light).
2. Trust her anger. If you are the one she’s angry at, help her (and, most likely, you) realize that you have no power over her.
3. Help her grieve the fact that she gave her power away for so long.
But if you really want to help someone move towards forgiveness, be careful. Forgiveness is a dangerous business. It is, as they say, a “slippery slope.” If you want to walk that road with someone else, you may find some anger, or even bitterness, of your own. You might find that you are not so much helping, but careening alongside, slipping from compliance into anger, from anger into power, and from power into a muddy, scary, and totally invigorating free-fall. Forgiveness is what catches you at the bottom of the slope. You can pretty much ignore whatever the pristine, stain-free folks at the top are telling you to do.