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Then Peter came and said to Him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven. For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. . .”

Matthew 18:22-24

Today I saw an impassioned post by Jonathan Merritt advising why he was forgiving Mark Driscoll for yet more offensive stuff he said a while ago, and since I had just written about the guy lately, I took a look at it and was reminded anew of why I’m glad to be out of Christianity: because on the whole I don’t think the religion really understands what forgiveness is or how to address it in its community.

The tree of forgiveness
The tree of forgiveness (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I can see why Mr. Merritt would be very interested in whether or not Mark Driscoll is forgiven, given his own history. For those not wanting to clickie, Mr. Merritt was outed by a gay man who got busy with him on the down-low a few years back. I deplore that he felt that he had to be closeted like he did and I absolutely do not think that being gay is anything that requires explanation much less apology, but quite a few Christians sure got upset about his outing. Mr. Merritt has apparently gotten enough forgiveness from his community (and good to hear it!) to continue to be a reputable and interesting voice in Christian journalism on a decent site like Religion News Service.

I’m not totally perfect either in my history, especially in my wilder and woolier days in online gaming and during that brief time I spent as a Usenet performance artist. I never would pretend otherwise. I don’t think there are many folks out there who have never gone through a phase where they maybe said stuff they regret on social media somewhere. I’m just grateful that I came of age long before Facebook ever existed, because I was already an obnoxious little git as a teenager and I cringe to imagine what I’d have said on such sites if they’d been around. And I can’t possibly be alone there. I’m just not sure our lizard brains have evolved enough to deal with that level of personal disclosure and permanence.

But here’s a fundamental difference between my wild phase and Mark Driscoll’s: He’s still in his. Most of us who have similarly weird pasts have learned and grown past those days. He totally has not. We’re talking about a guy who is in his 40s (oh my gosh! he’s a smidgen younger than me, I just realized) who still acts like a junior-high-school bully. And he continues to hurt, offend, and victimize people with his bizarrely misogynistic, sexist, macho, homophobic, xenophobic, judgmental, transphobic worldview. His apologies are not accompanied by the slightest real gesture toward reformation or accountability. He demands to be forgiven by the Christian community, but I don’t know many people who seriously think this was the first, only, or last time he’s ever going to spew similarly abusive things from that hate-clogged blowhole of his.

The problem is this: when someone forgives transgressions, that person doing the forgiving is putting away the need for revenge. The person who was wronged tries to treat the offender kindly and even lovingly again and put the offense behind them both. As lovely as these urges are, they can also translate into no longer being vigilant against future wrongdoing. I realize that’s not exactly what Mr. Merritt is suggesting his tribemates do, but it’s hard for me to ignore that this is exactly what happened in my own personal life when I forgave people. Christian predators are extremely good at acting contrite. They can put on an incredibly convincing act when they sense their prey is squirming loose. I lacked the discernment to tell when a Christian really meant that he was sorry–and moreover, I was unable to tell if that Christian was really going to change at all. I don’t think Mr. Merritt is able to make that distinction from the remove he is at, any more than I could. We have to go by what Mark Driscoll’s done in the past–and given that these offenses have been occurring regularly for many years, it seems hugely unlikely that any significant changes will be occurring anytime soon.

There’s a second, even more insidious problem with forgiveness: it can also lead to putting the offense out of mind. That course of action may well end up meaning that–in the case of someone like Mr. Driscoll, who absolutely will not be changing his behavior–a predator is now totally free to victimize people again. It may well end up meaning that an unjust or unfair situation will not be fixed, that an old and simmering conflict may not be resolved.

Basically, forgiveness seems to function as a relief valve for the offender, not as a healing gesture meant for the sake of the offended. If you ever saw Third Rock from the Sun, there’s a scene in the first season where Dick Solomon is apologizing to someone for the very first time. He says “I’m sorry,” but he says it flippantly at first. His victim admonishes him to say it like he means it, which he does, and the resulting huge emotional lift he gets from doing so gives him a full-body thrill of ecstasy that he immediately repeats a few times (until his victim gets annoyed and yanks her hand out of his–and if you’ve never seen this show, what are you waiting for?!? It’s got John Lithgow and Jane Curtin in it! Go! Go!). It’s interesting to note that nothing’s changed at all, though. Dick isn’t actually going to learn to stop doing idiotic, offensive things; that he and his “family” are aliens who are completely incapable of feeling empathy is one of the main conceits of the sitcom itself. All that happened was that he said he was sorry and did so in a very convincing manner. That’s it. And his victim accepted his apology rather than rejecting it as being nothing but empty words.

You know how to tell if someone really is sorry for doing something offensive or hurtful? That person will ask how to stop it from happening again–either of the victim, or of him- or herself. That person will have an action plan in mind for making things different (“I won’t drink at John’s house anymore so there won’t be any more of those embarrassing outbursts” or “I won’t log onto the MUD when I only have a few minutes to spare, so I won’t ever risk getting caught again in long roleplay scenes” or “I’ll make sure I check the bank balance every morning so I don’t overspend our money” or even “I’ll go into therapy to address my anger problem”). And that person will follow through with that plan. There’ll be an objective way to measure the situation to tell if real change is happening. And I’m not seeing a single element of this game plan present in anything Mark Driscoll is saying.

I don’t think it’s even really up to Jonathan Merritt to decide if forgiveness is warranted here or not or to push other people to forgive this particular person.

Forgiveness cannot be commanded or demanded by anybody, though Christianity has made both actions into an art form. I realize that the Bible says that Christians are supposed to forgive and turn the other cheek, but there’s always been this really skeevy side to such demands. People in dominant positions make these sorts of demands, and they make it of those who are marginalized, of those who have been victimized, of those who have been hurt. Their version of forgiveness seems like it takes the place of real personal development, maybe even of genuine reconciliation. It feels like a way to keep the marginalized in their places and to keep them from wanting fair treatment and justice. It keeps the status quo firmly in place. It enforces privilege. Such policing should have no place in a religion whose ostensible founder identified most with the downtrodden and have-nots–and policing is exactly what it is, make no mistake. Policing forgiveness works under the same mechanism as race or gender policing: it’s something that people with privilege do to make sure everybody else is behaving according to the script.

(I’ll just add here that all that being said, it can be kinda funny to call a Christian out for being unforgiving–very few of them actually manage to forgive the non-Christians they think are “persecuting” them, much less turn the other cheek against any wrongdoing they imagine they suffer. Calling attention to this very human failing can shine a spotlight on the religion’s total lack of a supernatural element: there is very obviously no god making Christians more capable of forgiveness than non-Christians can be. I don’t think Mr. Merritt makes such a claim, but I’ve heard Christians make it often over the years.)

When I was Christian, often this forgiveness was demanded of me. If I didn’t give it, then I felt like a very bad Christian, like I was the one who was in the wrong. I was the one who got blamed for not being able to forgive my transgressors, like I didn’t have enough Jesus Juice in me to manage this one simple little thing. Somehow I became the problem–not the people who’d hurt me.

I’ll also mention briefly that quite a few Christians told me–after finding out that I had fled my then-husband Biff under the threat of physical violence–that I should forgive him and return to the marriage. And why would they make such a sickening, grotesque suggestion? Because Biff had apologized profusely and seemed contrite now and said Jesus had forgiven him. Ta-da! It was like he’d recited a magic spell! All those threats shouldn’t matter anymore. I felt negated by these Christians’ suggestions, like my physical safety no longer mattered, like they didn’t even care that he’d threatened to cut me up with a butcher knife. As well-intentioned as they might have felt they were being at the time, they were suggesting something that, if I did it, might have put me into considerable personal danger–all to satisfy their own hazy, syrupy notions of forgiveness.

So you’ll pardon me, I hope, if I regard talk about “you should forgive him” to be rather abusive, especially when the person who committed the offense is as egregiously toxic as Mark Driscoll is.

Something else about Mr. Merritt’s magnanimous calls for forgiveness bothers me as well.

Jonathan Merritt, you see, is a man who despite his recent outing explicitly maintains that he does not identify as gay (and I’d rather not speculate, so if that’s how he wants to play this thing, then okay, he’s not gay). That means that Mr. Merritt is not among the chiefest groups that Mark Driscoll has savaged the most. The groups that Mark Driscoll has hurt the most are LGBTQ people and women, and Mr. Merritt is neither of those things by his own insistence. Nor is he a member of Mars Hill. It’s mighty white of him to say that everybody should forgive Mark Driscoll and take him at his word that his apology is genuine, but, uh, that’s not really his right or his call. That call belongs to those who have been hurt by this asshole’s testosterone-dripping venom. It does not belong to people who aren’t even in any of the groups who were hurt by him.

Jonathan Merritt isn’t one of the married women that Mark Driscoll interrogated about their favorite sex positions. He isn’t a shocked parishioner seeing his pastor’s words on a forum and realizing just how hateful and hurtful his leader is. I could go on, but you get the idea, I hope: he has no dog in this fight, so it’s not fair or loving of King Him to decide when or if forgiveness is called-for here. It smacks of victim-blaming of him to make such a decision on behalf of those who were actually Mr. Driscoll’s victims. He can certainly write about his own decisions to forgive the man and share his reasoning for arriving at the decision he did (though again, no offenses have been committed against him personally, so exactly what he’s forgiving might be a little unclear), but to say that others “should” do the same is overstepping his boundaries–something I’ve noticed Christians doing often over the years. It’s surprising to see someone I regard as fairly benign and goodhearted going there.

And I don’t think it’s safe for Mark Driscoll’s victims to forgive someone like him until it has become hugely and abundantly clear that forgiveness is safe to give him. The sin here would be Mark Driscoll’s own and not those who maybe need more time–and assurances of safety–to forgive him. We need to keep that focus on what he did, and not attempt to control and regulate the reactions of those he did those things to. We need to remember that he’s 100% the person who deserves every single smidge of blame here.

I’m glad to be out of this religion. Forgiveness is a good and fine thing, and I think that it’s good for us to forgive others when we can. That said, my forgiveness is mine to give and nobody else’s. I’m free to decide for myself when and if I will forgive someone. I’m free to work out for myself if someone is safe to forgive. I’m able to work at my own pace through my own feelings of pain and anger when someone hurts or offends me. There’s no divine entity staring at me and tapping his watch in a meaningful way, ready to hold against me that I’m not forgiving fast enough. I’m under no threats of eternal torture for not being able to forgive at the drop of an “I’m sorry.”

And if someone tries to tell me I should forgive someone before I’m ready, I’m perfectly free to tell that person where to stuff their policing.

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...