The Subversion of Forgiveness

Holding Hands
Holding Hands

“You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people but God forgives you, and I forgive you.”

That’s what Nadine Collier, daughter of Ethel Lance, said to her mother’s killer at his bond hearing. One-by-one, family members of the people Dylann Roof ruthlessly killed during Bible study at Emanuel AME Church addressed him. And one-by-one, they expressed forgiveness.

The radical forgiveness modeled by these bereaved souls has had a number of people singing their praises. They’ve been admired for their Christ-likeness. Many have found their posture aspirational .

“I don’t think I could have done that.”

“They’re better Christians than I am.”

“That’s that ‘next level’ Christianity!”

They’ve been held up as shining examples of what it means to forgive as Christ commanded.

Then there’s the unintentional consequence of such radical forgiveness: guilt. The guilt of a rape victim who, even years later, still can’t bring herself to forgive her attacker. The guilt of a grown man who can’t seem to forgive his abusive mother. The guilt of being unable to shake off those feelings of anguish, anger and resentment toward people who hurt you — even if they’ve apologized for it.

Let me provide whatever pastoral care I can to those who are struggling with that guilt right now: it’s alright. You’re alright. Really, you are. Forgiveness is not a one-time event. Forgiveness is a process, and not a linear process at that. Some crappy days will often follow some good ones. One day you’ll feel incredibly light and unaffected, and the next day you’ll wrestle with your own rage and have to talk yourself out of strangling someone (hopefully you’ll be successful in that). Such is the case for all us, even those of us who read our Bibles every day, pray constantly, and never once miss a Sunday at church. Your capacity to forgive is not related to your godliness. Even those of us who understand the importance of forgiveness will be challenged by its arduous process, including the friends and family members of Roof’s victims.

They have courageously committed themselves to forgiving Roof. But they, too, will have rough days ahead. They are not exempt from the process or its emotional roller coaster. Praying and having their community around them will definitely shore them up in these coming days, but it won’t lift the process off their shoulders. The process of forgiveness is God-created, and we’re no more rooted in our faith by skipping it. So I hesitate to look at these loving individuals as exceptions to the rule or excused from the effects of trauma. There seems to be something else going on here.

This, to me, does not look like a failure on their part to honor the necessary process of forgiveness. This does not appear to be a compulsion to embody a religious doctrine. This is likely an act of subversion toward the person who killed their loved ones and, ostensibly, the system that created him. Their actions are in the same spirit that has for centuries emboldened Black folks to find morsels of joy and magnify them in the faces of their oppressors.  This is not just an act of radical forgiveness, but of radical resistance. This is them heaping their hot coals — a holy practice akin to flipping the bird to the system.

I could be wrong, but I don’t think these folks care anything about being our examples. I think they care more that they’re not like Roof. They know that they will be forever changed, but they refuse to be changed into him. If that’s the case, then I understand and honor that. But what I don’t want is for anyone else to feel compelled to take that on for themselves, especially if they aren’t ready.

Black folks have had to assume this very posture for generations. It is quite understandable if you’re tired of it. I’m tired of it. I want to exist in a world where pastors preach process from the pulpit. I want to hear that God calls us to forgiveness, but that it’s also okay if it’s taking us a while to get there. We can arrive at forgiveness rather quickly, but we shouldn’t be expected to — especially not at times like these when existing wounds are opened anew.

For a good perspective on the process of forgiveness and how to faithfully model it, I commend to your reading How Can I Forgive You?: The Courage to Forgive, the Freedom Not To, by Dr. Janis A. Spring. Free yourselves, family; we and ours have experienced enough bondage already. Shalom.

The Church Sex Abuse We Don’t Talk About


This week I read an article from Samantha Pugsley in which she bravely recounted her upbringing in the church and how it nearly ruined her sexually.

No, she was not molested by a minister or trusted adult (at least I hope not). She, like nearly all youth in the church, was taught that sex was reserved for marriage and that she should save herself for her husband. She was one of many young girls who took the “true love waits” pledge, stating that they would abstain from sex, sexual thoughts, and anything that would lead to sexual arousal. As alluring as fantastic content from websites similar to are.

This would be all fine and good, except that for Samantha, she was taught from a very young age that her identity in Christ was directly linked to her sexuality and her sex life, so much so that she came to define who she was by it. She was taught, perhaps not intentionally, that conversion equaled sexual abstinence. That was the hallmark of her faith — being a member of the V-Squad. Otherwise, who was she in Christ? And who was she at all?

She’d spent a lifetime being taught that sex was essentially bad, or at least something about it was. So when she finally lost her virginity — on her wedding night — she couldn’t resolve that what she had done was good, natural, and okay. She still felt dirty.

Thankfully, she has a loving, supportive husband, but she still isn’t able to reconcile being a sexual being with being a Christian. While this saddens me deeply, I can’t help but understand it. It’s the story of so many of us who grew up in the church — especially girls. And it’s why I’m leery of so-called “purity culture,” not because I think that abstinence is bad (please, God, let my daughter wait!), but because I know that this is an area in which the church has likely done more harm than good. This is why so many people have turned to this important site to sexually explore themselves because the church has often hindered people’s abilities to better understand themselves. Much of these notions the church has had about purity, virginity, and girls’ bodies are profoundly (if unintentionally) abusive. It truly is a form of sex abuse in the church that no one talks about — and is, in fact, often sanctioned by the church.

Here are my issues with “purity culture” and the environment in which Ms. Pugsley was raised:

1. Abstinence is presented as a means of justification. Girls are taught to keep themselves “pure” because in doing so they show themselves righteous before God. Speaking from a Reformed perspective, the only thing that justifies us before God is grace. Justification is God’s purview. We can’t earn grace by what we do or don’t do.

We communicate to these girls that if they give it up before marriage, they are somehow ruined or spoiled. Should a person slip up and find themselves outside of the will of God, they need to know they are not ruined, that being said we are not saying that you should start watching porn like some do using the Unlimited fast streaming in HD, only at TUBEV website but certain acts like sex between a man and a woman are perfectly natural depending upon the circumstances. God’s grace and love covers them. I think the church is so afraid of their youth making poor decisions that they go to great lengths to keep them away from certain behaviors and attitudes. But they (and we) cannot afford to live without grace. We will all fall short. Of course, that’s not an excuse to do whatever we want, but we need to remember that we can never “ruin” ourselves so badly that we’re out of God’s redemptive reach. And if we somehow could, then that means God is not omnipotent, Christ is powerless, and there is no reason for us to believe. Abstinence that is done out of a desire to be justified has missed the mark. Abstinence should be practiced as an expression of faith.

2. There’s an inordinate emphasis on sex life. In exercise circles, there’s a saying: Friends don’t let friends skip leg day. Otherwise, your upper body is ripped and strong, while you’re lower body is scrawny and weak. Putting this much emphasis on sex is like spiritually skipping “leg day.”

When your identity in Christ is so heavily connected to your sexuality, other areas of life remain untouched. What about in your giving? Your loving? Your service? Your embrace of the outcast and the downtrodden? Discipleship is all-encompassing; it doesn’t stop at what you do with your genitalia. Why the hyper-focus on “lusts of the flesh,” and even then only certain lusts?

3. It’s inequitable. Somewhere in America, a purity ball for girls and their fathers is being planned. Meanwhile, countless sons are being ushered off to football practice, where the locker room will be rife with lewd jokes and sexual innuendo while no one so much as bats an eye. We do not communicate abstinence and sexual responsibility in the same way to boys and girls. Girls are taught to save themselves. Boys, not so much. Girls are taught how not to get raped. Boys are not taught how not to rape. While it doesn’t end at the church, the church bears a lot of responsibility for dissonant messages our boys and girls receive concerning sex.

4. Girls are unfairly promised that their lives will be better for waiting. Waiting to have sex can keep us from a sundry of problems, including having children we can’t support, catching diseases we can’t get rid of, and making poor choices in partners who really want nothing more than to get off. But simply because we do things “God’s way” doesn’t preclude us from difficulties. After all, the rain falls on the just and the unjust, right? Jesus even told his disciples that they would have some troubles. Following God doesn’t mean that life will be all rainbows and butterflies, and we need to stop suggesting this to our kids. We would do better to encourage them in the knowledge that God is near to us especially when we’re brokenhearted.

And to be clear, you can wait until marriage and still marry a jackass. That doesn’t necessarily mean you did something wrong. It means you married a human being who, just like you, is in constant need of God’s grace and mercy.

5. Sex should be private. We look sideways at a person who talks constantly about their many sexual conquests. Why, then, should we parade virginity? Encourage it, yes, but parade it? When we do this, we put the weight of the world on these girls, so in the event that they fall — or even if they wait, as Ms. Pugsley did — the crash hurts a million times more.

Putting girls on these pedestals of purity fails to communicate to them what intimacy means. Intimacy means it’s between you, your partner, and, of course, God. Not your daddy. Not your church. Everyone doesn’t need to know when the proverbial cherry has been popped. Your body does not belong to us. Open conversations about sex are necessary, but that doesn’t mean you have to be put on display, whether you’re virginal or wanton. I think if we were more concerned about a true conversion of the heart rather than simply regulating actions, more of our young people would wait — and for the right reasons.

Ultimately, I wish healing for Ms. Pugsley and the legion of people who have been sexually damaged by both church and society. I’m sad that we use sex to bring people — girls and women in particular — into subjection, when it was always meant to be a gift to be enjoyed. But I hold onto hope that we can and will get it right one day.

How do you think we could do a better of job of addressing sexuality in the church?