Suffice to say that, at least in American society, we have a pretty muddled notion of forgiveness. It’s often used in the sense of a pardon: to let someone off the hook; to pretend as if a wrong never took place.
The OED provides several useful definitions:
- To remit (a debt); to give up resentment or claim to requital for, pardon (an offence).
- To give up resentment against, pardon (an offender).
- To make excuse or apology for, regard indulgently.
The concept of forgiveness is a strange one for me. For one, it was a bedrock of my community’s theology growing up, through Bible verses such as:
- This is my blood, which ratifies the New Covenant, my blood shed on behalf of many, so that they may have their sins forgiven. (Matthew 26:28, CJB)
- If you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. (Matthew 6:14, ESV)
We were supposed to be “kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32, NIV). If we’d been properly taught the theory of forgiveness as children, we might have had the tools to process hurt and loss, to work towards reconciliation and/or healing.
How different my life might’ve been.
For many evangelicals, what forgiveness meant in practice was that we were supposed to be doormats for each other, meekly turning the other cheek (no matter how egregious the offense) and forgetting about it, as if nothing had happened. Growing up, if one brought up a past wrong that had supposedly been forgiven, that would be met with an exclamation of, “See, you didn’t really forgive me!”
Is it any surprise that, in some churches, crimes like rape go unreported and unpunished?
We also learned some profoundly confusing lessons about forgiveness. On the one hand, you have New Testament Jesus who teaches us to roll over and let people do whatever they want to him.
Then there’s the Jesus of the Book of Revelation who makes the Bride from Kill Bill look like My Little Pony.
There’s also the god of the Tanakh (which Christians call their “Old Testament”) who Richard Dawkins describes in The God Delusion as “arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction,” who wipes out virtually the entire human race in the flood, kills people for all manner of reasons, etc.
Some disturbingly mixed signals.
There were also certain sins that were seemingly unforgivable, such as sex outside of marriage—well, women who had sex outside of marriage, that is, who were forever branded as sluts, unclean, polluted, unmarriageable. “Unrepentant” homosexuality, too. These were sins God could never forgive, and conveniently, neither could his followers.
So we were supposed to forgive, but only under certain circumstances; and if we truly forgave someone, we were never supposed to bring up the offense again, even if they continued to hurt us (Matthew 18:21-22)?
Needless to say, I came into adulthood with convoluted ideas about forgiveness.
Among the lessons I’ve since learned since then is that, to quote Lewis Smedes, “to forgive is to set a prisoner free and realize that prisoner was you.”
It’s not about forgetting. It’s not about the other person. It doesn’t even require reconciliation.
Forgiveness is ultimately about freeing yourself from bitterness, grieving a loss from hurt or suffering, accepting that the past won’t ever be different from what we want, and intentionally moving forward into a healthier future.
A couple of months ago, my current therapist asked if I’d forgiven my parents. I told her that I didn’t know, that I don’t know what forgiveness feels like. I explained what I’d been taught about forgiveness, and she responded with some of the above views and current teachings on the subject… that it’s not about the other person, it’s about you, etc.
Frankly, I don’t think I’m still angry at my parents. Rather, those feelings have morphed into sadness—sadness for a relationship that will probably never be there. My friend Tom has reiterated his hope that somehow we’ll find a way to reconcile, to reconnect. To which I usually respond that maybe we will, but it’s unlikely.
I’ve probably written about this before, but quite a lot has changed in the years since I came out (2008) and since I became an atheist (2011). In the nearly six years that have followed, my parents and I have gone on increasingly divergent paths. They have clung more staunchly to their evangelical Christian faith and their conservative values, whereas I am heading further to the left with every passing day. It’s not that there isn’t room for common ground.
There isn’t much commonality left, period.
Sure, there are shared memories, inside jokes—but these feel more like when you awkwardly run into an old work colleague and realize the spark of friendship is gone. Jokes that were once hilarious now seem a desperate attempt to make something relevant that long ago lost its currency.
Prior to my becoming an atheist in 2011, what my parents and I shared—despite our differences—was our faith. Even though I drank and swore, and (when I became sexually active) had sex with men, we could still agree on the basic tenets of our Christian faith.
So it wasn’t out of resentment that I disowned my parents. Rather, it’s merely that we don’t have anything in common beyond genetics. I don’t expect them to renounce their faith and join PFLAG any more than they (as much as I’m sure they pray daily for my soul) expect me to revert to the person they used to know.
It sucks to not have parents who accept me for who I am (as other LGBT friends do, whose parents eventually did a 180-degree turn), but it’s healthier than closing my eyes, pretending nothing is wrong.
Yet things are not all bad. While I don’t have a native home to go for the holidays, I do have chosen homes and families now. That’s not Pollyannaish gratitude.
That’s moving on.